Azaleas, America’s Favorite Shrub

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Azaleas, America’s Favorite Shrub

Categories: Blog, Garden Guru

It’s Azalea season again at Powell Gardens and they are currently in peak bloom. Azaleas are America’s favorite shrub (because most consider roses “flowers”). This scene is from the Rock & Waterfall Garden with the native wildflower Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus) in the foreground, a sprinkle of budding blue Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) then masses of pink and white Glenn Dale Azaleas.

Our masses of azaleas in the Rock & Waterfall Garden owe their existence to the generosity of Andy Klapis. Andy was a long-time Kansas City nurseryman and educator who now resides in Valparaiso, Indiana, to live near his son. He donated the original plants to the garden; many of the varieties are no longer commercially available but in many cases are far superior to what’s on the market today. I called him on Tuesday to tell him how beautiful and inspiring his azaleas were in the garden. They are like a symphony of flowers to the eyes and nose. In his late eighties, Andy still knows more about azaleas than anyone in our region.

White Lights Azalea is one of those in bloom with exquisitely fragrant flowers that open soft pink and age to pure white. The “Lights” azaleas are Minnesota hybridized and are some of our toughest azaleas as most are at least half native azaleas. They are deciduous and have bloomed reliably every spring except last spring’s Easter Freeze at Powell Gardens. They bloom the first week of May most years, a bit later like everything this year.

Rosy Lights Azalea is a deep rose pink and also has a very rich, sweet aroma. Missouri’s only native azalea (which defies captivity) the Roseshell Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) is half the parent of this hybrid.

Mandarin Lights Azalea has vivacious orange flowers without a scent. Most red azaleas are hummingbird pollinated so they attract pollinators by sight not smell. The American native Flame Azalea (R. calendulaceum) is part of this parent. Mandarin Lights is a good nectar plant for butterflies like the Giant Swallowtail.

Golden Lights Azalea is well named variety with a great scent too. Here it is growing in almost full sun on the north edge of the Rock & Waterfall Garden.

Golden Lights Azalea in the shade of the interior of the garden is less floriferous but just as beautiful and fragrant!

Lemon Lights Azalea on the north edge of the Rock & Waterfall Garden is a blaze in lemon yellow.

Candy Lights Azalea is one of the newer cultivars and is more compact and floriferous.

My Mary Azalea is a purely American hybrid azalea and found on the south edge of the Rock & Waterfall Garden. This variety is a Plant of Merit and a star performer in our heat and humidity. It has very fragrant flowers it gets from the Florida Flame Azalea (R. austrinum).

Nacoochee Princess Azalea is our most fragrant azalea at Powell Gardens. This American hybrid from Georgia has heat and humidity tolerance. I lured some grateful visitors over to smell it! It is next to My Mary south of the Rock & Waterfall Garden.

The Girard hybrid azaleas from northern Ohio are hybrids of evergreen Oriental azaleas and have good hardiness for our climate. They are the most readily available group of azaleas at local Garden Centers. This is Girard Crimson Azalea with velvety rose-crimson flowers.
Snow Azalea is aptly named and an older evergreen azalea hybrid. It is still occasionally available at local Garden Centers. Look for ours along the upper walkway of the Rock & Waterfall Garden.
This is one of the unknown Glenn Dale hybrid azaleas that Andy donated to us and the most beautiful of the pink-flowering, evergreen azaleas in our displays. We should propagate it for our plant sales!
This is our white unknown cultivar of Glenn Dale Azalea donated by Andy Klapis. It is by far the best of our white blooming, evergreen azaleas. Andy grew azaleas for many decades so knew what performed the best in Kansas City’s rock’n and roll’n climate!
The Stewartstonian Azalea is still in bloom and I couldn’t resist taking this photograph of a spring illuminated by a shaft of sunshine. It is a vivacious red azalea that is the most reliable red, evergreen cultivar for our region. These were donated by Andy but are still readily available at local Garden Centers.
Herbert Azalea is Andy’s favorite and probably the hardiest of all the evergreen hybrid azaleas. It rarely (never?) fails to bloom (it even survived last Easter’s freeze) with a pretty wild purplish flower color. Our big masses were donated by Andy and this cultivar is also still readily available at local Garden Centers.
I would hope this inspires you to consider planting some azaleas in your personal landscape. They require moist, well-drained soil in a woodland setting. Enrich your soil with peat moss or compost and use an acid based fertilizer for your plants. Water azaleas well to get them established but they can be quite drought tolerant once established. Unfortunately deer love azaleas as a salad bar so use Liquid Fence or Bobbex on azaleas if you have deer problems in your landscape. Azaleas simply are our most beautiful blooming shrubs of spring!