Variegated Evergreen Azaleas

Until recently, there were very few variegated evergreen azaleas available in the United States. These include the Satsuki varieties:

• ‘Keigetsu’. One of the earliest blooming Satsukis with light pink flowers and a red margin. The green leaves are flecked with white on a low spreading plant.

• ‘Uki-nishiki’. White flowers with many variegations of stripes, flecks, etc. of a dark purple. The leaves are flecked with yellow.

• ‘Shira-fuji’. The flowers are variable, generally white with purple variations. The leaves have an attractive distinct white margin on a dwarf plant.

• ‘Shinyo-no-tsuki’ sport. Very large white flowers with crimson blotches that bloom in June. The leaves sport cream stripes longitudinally throughout.

• ‘Fuji-no-mine’. A dwarf cultivar admired for its unusual foliage, the leaves are variegated with many flecks of yellow. Pink flowers with a darker circle that bloom in June.

American growers began introducing variegated azaleas in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the most popular and now widely available is ‘Silver Sword’, a sport of ‘Girard’s Rose’ with a distinct white margin bordering a dark green leaf. Other Girard plants with white margined foliage included ‘Girard’s Variegated Gem’*, a sport of pink-flowered ‘Girard’s Border Gem’*, and ‘Hot Shot Variegated’* with bright orange-red flowers. These varieties tend to have a lighter green color in their leaves.

Two southern varieties of the white-margined types discovered in the 1980s are ‘Southern Belle’, a sport of ‘Pink Ruffles’, and ‘Red Ruffles Variegated’. Another lovely choice is ‘Silver Streak’, a Greenwood hybrid with white-margined foliage and purple flowers; it is a sport of ‘Deep Purple’.

Native Azalea Species

Native azaleas that you might consider for your own garden:

  • R. canescens, also known as Sweet, Piedmont, or Florida Pinxter Azalea, blooms early in the spring. It is a large shrub, with fragrant, white to dark pink flowers. Hardy in zones 6b to 10a.

  • R. austrinum, the Flordia Azalea, is the first to flower in the spring and is indigenous to northern Florida and the coastal plains to Mississippi. Hardy in zones 6b to 10a.

  • R. canadense, or known as Rhodora, is a very hardy deciduous species native to Maine and eastern Canada. Flowers are rose-purple and have deeply cut petals in delicate trusses. An upright, compact plant with bluish-green leaves. 'Alba' is a white form. Hardy to -25F.

  • R. atlanticum or Coast Azalea forms a multi-stemmed upright plant with very fragrant flowers, white flushed pink or purple. It has bright, bluish-green leaves, hardy to -15F.

  • R. calendulaceum or Flame Azalea, flowers in brilliant shades of orange to red and, sometimes yellow, on an upright vigorous plant. Native to Pennsylvania and Ohio. This is a tetraploid with large-sized flowers, hardy to 25F.

  • R. flammeum called the Oconee Azalea is native to the lower Piedmont region across Georgia to South Carolina. Flowers are yellowish-orange to red. Hardy in zones 6b to 9a.

  • R. periclymenoides, formerly R. nudiflorium, is known as the Honeysuckle or Pinxterbloom Azalea. It is deciduous with unusual pink and white flowers that curve backwards exposing the style and stamens. Native from Massachusetts south to North Carolina. Very hardy to -15F.

  • R. vaseyi is one of the loveliest native azaleas. It is an upright plant with smooth tapering leaves. Also known as Pinkshell Azalea. The flowers range from white to pink, spotted red and bright yellow. The foliage in Fall becomes a great red color. 'White Find' is a choice white-flowered form. Hardy to -15F.

  • R. prinophyllum, formerly R. roseum, also known as Roseshell Azalea, has spicy fragrant flowers. Native from Quebec south through New England, and west to Tennessee, central Arkansas, and eastern Oklahoma. Flowers are pink to purplish pink. Very hardy in zones 4b to 9a.

  • R. viscosum or Swamp Azalea with a spicy fragrance to the flowers, can be pink or white. The flowers are long, slender, tubular, and sticky. This azalea tolerates wet and dry conditions, sun or shade, and offers good fall color. Hardy to -25F.

  • R. prunifolium or the Plumleaf Azalea, is a freely flowering plant with wide tubular-shaped blooms in apricot to orange-red. It like some shade and a moist environment, hardy to -15F.

Award of Garden Merit for Deciduous Azaleas

In 2016 the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Award of Garden Merit (AGM), the Society's highest plant accolade, was given to the following deciduous azaleas:

R. 'Chelsea Reach': large, double blooms, pale yellowish white, flushed purplish pink on an upright growing plant.

R. 'Crosswater Red': deep true red flowers, upright plant habit, good fall foliage color.

R. 'Gena Mae' long-lasting, double light greenish yellow flowers with orange edges and center.

R. 'Golden Oriole': flowers brilliant yellow with a deep orange blotch.

R. 'Jock Brydon': scented, large blooms, white with speckled reddish orange blotch, upright plant habit.

R. 'Parkfeuer': large blooms, vivid reddish orange, shaded vivid red.

R. schlippenbachii: broad, pale to deep pink blooms, rarely white, on a tall, upright plant.

The RHS reconfirmed AGM's for the following deciduous azaleas:

'Arneson Gem', 'Coccineum Speciosum', 'Daviesii', 'Fireball', 'Gibraltar', 'Golden Eagle', 'Homebush', 'Irene Koster', 'Jolie Madame', 'Klondyke', 'Narcissiflorum', 'Persil', 'Satan', 'Silver Slipper', 'Soir de Paris', 'Sunte Nectarine', 'Whitethroat', R. arborescence and R. vaseyi

All of the azaleas awarded AGM's are hardy to -4° to -5°F (-15° to -20°C).

Give Deciduous Azaleas A Try

A couple of years ago on one of our bus tours to visit local Rhododendron gardens, I got talking to the man sitting next to me, about, guess what - Rhododendrons.  He was considered one of our local "rhodie" gurus and was quite a character.   As our conversation progressed, I told him how much I liked deciduous azaleas, and tongue in cheek, he said that nice Rhododendron people didn't do azaleas.   Well, I guess I'm not a nice Rhododendron person, because I just love them.  This spring, my azaleas were late because blooming didn't start until the very end of May, but they put on a wonderful show throughout June.  This fall, I'll get a second show from them when their leaves turn red before dropping.

deciduous azalea

With deciduous azaleas, there are flower colors to meet everyone's tastes, from intense, "in-your face" oranges to soft pastels.  As an added bonus, most varieties are fragrant.  Among my plants, I've got pure white 'Oxydol'; a gorgeous strawberry pink of unknown variety, as it was here when I moved in; 'Western Lights' which has pink flowers; a few yellows, including 'Northern Hi-Lights', 'Old Gold' and 'Apricot Surprise', and deep orange 'Mandarin Lights'.  And then, there's gorgeous 'Irene Koster', which is a fragrant R. occidentale hybrid whose flowers open soft pink then fade to white, and 'Daviesi' which has fragrant, cream colored flowers.  These last two plants are in a semi-shaded location and while happy enough, would benefit from having a bit more sun.

My plants are scattered throughout my garden, with most growing in sites that get full sun, and in the summer, these sites are hot and dry.  One of the reasons I'm so fond of deciduous azaleas is that they are tough, low maintenance plants.  I water them about once a week, but that's all the care they get.  They also seem to tolerate heavy soils better than many plants.  Deciduous azaleas are winter hardy, and for anyone living in cold areas, look for varieties that were developed by the University of Minnesota, as some of their hybrids are hardy to -40 degrees (and that's -40 in both the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales) - look for names that include the word "Lights", as in 'Northern Hi-Lights', 'UMinn's Lilac Lights', 'Lemon Lights', 'Golden Lights', etc.  Most of these will be from the U. of Minnesota breeding program.

So, if you don't have any yet, consider adding some deciduous azaleas to your garden: they're adaptable, hardy, have fall color and gorgeous, fragrant flowers.  Not a bad choice even for those of us who aren't nice.