A Plug for Deciduous Azaleas from Seed
Marjorie W. Baird, Bellevue, Washington
I have been growing rhododendrons from seed for 19 years and deciduous azaleas are the most rewarding of them all. The species seed germinates readily; the seedlings grow well enough so that you can snip the tips of them to make cuttings to increase your 'yield'; breaking dormancy in the spring has not been a problem; garden plants do not seem to require any special attention or coddling; they are hardy; a remarkable bloom sequence is represented, from March-flowering R. reticulatum and canadense to midsummer R. prunifolium.
Here are some Asians and a few of the Americans I have grown: R. reticulatum and R. albrechtii are two of the earliest to bloom. They both have bright, rich magenta flowers. The formers rhombic leaves turn a dark mahogany red in the autumn, while albrechtii's change to gold. R. schlippenbachii has similarly shaped leaves to albrechtii. There the similarity ceases. The flowers open later and vary from near-white to luscious shell-pink. Fall foliage is yellow to bright red, varying according to plant and season. The young plants are so attractive that one doesn't mind waiting seven years or so for the bloom. The most appealing, as a small plant, is R. quinquefolium. Its leaves, in whorls of five, are often edged with dark red. Some individuals turn a lovely bright red in the fall, others are yellow. Most of the plants I have seen bear white bells hanging shyly under the branchlets. R. pentaphyllum, which is very similar, has true shell-pink flowers.
R. sanctum, weyrichii, and amagianum are closely related. I have none of flowering size, but I understand that blooms of sanctum are rose-colored, while those of the other two are orange-red. New growth is attractively pubescent; mature leaves are shiny, well-shaped, and vary in fall color. Leaves of the soft-orange-flowered R. japonicum turn a bright clear red.
R. nipponicum, alone in its subseries, has leaves reminiscent of R. schlippenbachii and is equally hardy. The blooms are small and creamy white, hanging almost unnoticed beneath the leaves; the cinnamon-colored bark is papery and peels off, leaving shiny brown branches. The blooms and branches somewhat resemble those of Menziesia.
The mid-eastern R. luteum has been for years, and is still, one of the mainstays of landscape gardening. Its form, its soft-yellow, fragrant flowers, bronze-tinted new foliage, and brilliant red fall color are more than enough to make one wonder why it is not more generally available.
One of my favorite azaleas is a R. vaseyi, an Eastern United States native, which I bought as an open pollinated seedling at a Seattle study group plant sale. After several years of neglect, it was finally settled in a good spot. I took a spray of its first bloom to our May show and won the silver trophy for Best Azalea Spray! In the fall its foliage is an eye-catching coral-red.
R. canadense, the most northerly growing East Coast azalea, is not exactly flamboyant. The foliage changes to a quiet yellow; the plant never grows to a large size, and the flowers are small. But the sight of one, with its dark branchlets decked with pert white or mauve blooms on a cold, rainy March day, is heart-warming.
R. occidentale, our lone western representative, is extremely variable, as Dr. Frank Mossman and Britt Smith have shown us, but its fragrance and foliage are an asset to any garden. From observing its habitat one would think it fussy as to location but here, they seem not to mind drought or my obnoxious clay.
Let us see more of the beauty of deciduous azaleas in our Northwest gardens. Order from the many species and hybrids offered in our ARS Seed Exchange list - and enjoy yourself! (P.S.-If you collect seed to grow, trade, or send to the Exchange, please don't crush the capsules. When dry, the seed will fall out, especially if shaken in a covered box. If stubborn, it may have to be picked out with forceps or a dental pick.)