Random Notes on Azaleas
By Helen Janeck, Tacoma, Wash.
If you would have a garden, unusual, and of never ending interest, plant azaleas. If you would have a garden requiring a minimum of labor and upkeep, plant azaleas. Combine with them a few taller evergreens for background, small flowering trees for compliment, dwarf rhododendrons for added interest, and some of the precious wildlings of our own magnificent forests for ground cover and you will have a garden of surpassing beauty. I'm not intimating that our own garden has arrived at this stage of perfection, but it is a goal toward which to strive.
There are about five hundred species and named hybrids of azaleas today. F. Kingdon Ward says of these that they are easier than most rhododendrons and that for sheer brilliance they excel most rhododendrons. To choose from such a wealth of material imposes quite a problem. Some azaleas are tall, growing to twenty feet, while others are flat as pancakes, making low mounds of beauty. On the average they are smaller than rhododendrons and lighter in texture, with a pleasing airiness. Some are deciduous, some evergreen, and some must have shade to produce their flowers in greatest perfection, but most of them will stand full sun if given an adequate mulch and plenty of water during the hot, dry months.
The color range of azaleas is extraordinary, passing from pure snow white through palest pink to rose, to red, to deepest crimson, and from soft primrose to yellow, apricot and orange, and on into glowing, brilliant scarlet. All are beautiful - even the much maligned magenta 'Amoena' is lovely given a green background and primrose azaleas nearby.
Interest in azaleas for us started with an inheritance of eight, fairly large bushes of Mollis hybrids. Rhododendron 'Altaclarense' and R. occidentale. Today these are about thirty years old and are a source of much delight. The Mollis are typical molle x japonicum crosses. In hue they are salmon, red, yellow and orange along with the various intermediate intensities and combinations of these. These are the azaleas most commonly known to the gardening public. Perfectly hardy, they will grow and bloom with much mistreatment, but respond magnificently to proper care, which for an azalea is practically the same as that required by a rhododendron.
In addition to these older forms there are strikingly beautiful new ones. To mention a few there are R. 'Adrian Koster' (Daffodil yellow), R. 'Koster's Brilliant Red'; R. 'Annie Laurie' (creamy pink and salmon): R. 'Goldfinch', a recent British import from Knaphill, compact growing, with lovely bronzy leave: and rich yellow flowers and R. 'Frans Von der Bom' from Holland. The last has large ruffled flowers of the most delectable shade of soft rosy apricot. No one can go wrong in choosing from among these.
Closely related to the mollis hybrids are the Ghents. The first of these were developed by a baker of Ghent, Belgium in 1525, using R. luteum of Europe with some of the American natives. In later years other species were bred into these Ghents, especially R. occidentale of the west coast of America. There is a wide range of colors among these hybrids and many have the lovely perfume of some of the American species. R. 'Bouquet de Flore' and R. 'Altaclarense' are two of the older ones which we grow and love. R. 'Altaclarense' is one of the plants we "inherited". It is now about thirty-two feet in circumference and is five and one-half feet tall. Each spring it covers itself with coral tinted golden buds, opening over a long period of time into soft orange yellow flowers. It excites much comment from those who see it. Both this one and R. 'Bouquet de Flore' are doubly valuable for the glorious color of the foliage in the fall, rivaling that of the vine maple (Acer circinatum). The beautiful evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum is a fine companion plant to use among these deciduous azaleas. It's rich, shining green leaves and bright coppery new growth furnishes a perfect and pleasing harmony all the year thru. Beneath these and in complete accord is the little Gaultheria ovatifolium of the western forests. That sweet charmer Linnaea americana (Twin flower), with its glossy leaves and spicy scent give; the perfect finishing touch.
R. occidentale, mentioned above as one of the forebears of the Ghent and newer Mollis hybrids, is one of our own west coast natives and should be known to all westerners in its native habitat. If we could have but one azalea this would be our choice. It is such a lovely shrub, with its glossy dark green leaves and rather waxy white to pink flowers marked with yellow on the upper lobe. One form has an almost coral pink tube. Our bush is a strong grower and is now about ten feet across and seven feet tall. It is lovely not only in the spring when it scents the garden with its heavenly honey-suckle-like fragrance, but also in the fall with autumn color. It provides wonderful cut flowers, too. Try a branch in a low silver bowl. Incidentally, Clement G. Bowers says that rhododendron flowers may be prevented from falling by dropping thin gum arabic into the very center of the throat of each flower with a dropper, thus sealing the corolla to the calyx so that the water connection is not broken. He says this treatment insures that the flowers will not wilt for a long time when taken as cut bloom.
In addition to R. occidentale, there are about twenty native American azaleas. They deserve to he much better known. There is a great variation in the forms of these and only the best should be chosen. Mr. Leonard F. Frisbie, President of The Tacoma Rhododendron Society, is assembling a collection of the finest of these. One of the most desirable qualities of the summer flowering types, according to him, is that both the foliage and the blossoms will stand full sun without wilting or scorching. All American azaleas are deciduous and many have fine fall color as well as spring or summer flowers. R. calendulaceum in its best form is considered by many to be the finest native American shrub. R. cumberlandense, according to H. Harold Hume, was first described as a new species in 1941, though known earlier. Dr. W. H. Camp speaking of it says it is a "deep red-a warm, living, flaming red - and just as red in the forest shade as on the open meadow at the top of the mountains." No wonder the nurseries are sold out of it.
Many of the American azaleas are fragrant. R. atlanticum has a sweet, rose like scent. R. arborescens is said to smell faintly of heliotrope, and others have characteristic odors. Bowers says that one of these, R. roseum, with rose pink flowers and spicy clove perfume, used to be carried by old soldiers on Decoration Day and was known as "Mayflowers".
Turning to the evergreen azaleas, a number of the best known are: R. indicum, R. mucronatum and R. obtusum, all species. R. indicum (Az. macrantha) was introduced into England in 1833. It is native to the Japanese island of Yakii-Shima. There are a number of forms of R. indicum. In our garden we have much loved prostrate one, densely branched, with small narrow leaves. It blooms in late June and July when it completely covers itself with large, single salmon pink flowers. It is the perfect edger, always tidy. It has grown in seven or eight years from a tiny sprig to a low mound about three feet wide and six inches high. It might have been wider if the rabbits hadn't given it a severe pruning one winter! Similar is the clone, R. 'Balsminaeflorum', well known to the florist trade where it is often called Azalea 'Rosaeflora'. It also forms low mounds and blooms profusely, covering itself with what appear to be perfect little, double salmon pink rose;. Both of these are best grown in the shade as the flowers fade quickly in the sun, though they are long lasting otherwise. We have another clone, 'R. J. T. Lovett', of slightly larger leaf and taller growing habit, which is smothered in large watermelon pink blossoms each July and even into August, a joy of a plant. All of these are perfectly hardy, not having lost a bud or a leaf under the trying conditions of the past winter. There is also a double, orange flowered form of R. indicum, a white form and other forms which are not common here.
A race of R. indicum hybrids is being introduced from Japan, known as the Chugai hybrids. We have one which is proving most satisfactory. It has bright green leaves and large, long lasting ruffled white blossoms with a few rose pink stripes. It has stood in the hottest part of the garden without wilt or scorch. The new Wadai hybrids, also having R. indicum blood, are said to be the aristocrats of the evergreen azaleas. These are to come from England, though they originated in Japan.
A species equally as valuable as R. indicum is R. mucronatum, known also as Azalea indicable and as Azalea ledifolia alba. It is one of those easily pleased and charming plants, a delight to the gardener's heart, blooming profusely year after year. We have it in shade, in the open in full sun and in a hot western exposure. In each case, it does exceedingly well. The leaves are dimorphic, a rather dull green and hairy. The blossoms are rather large, sticky on the outside and white, pale pinky amethyst, or white with a few tan or rose freckles in the throat. It makes quite rapid growth. Ours, eight or ten years old, has grown from slip size to a six foot spread by two feet tall. The most beautiful form of all is probably the variety 'Sekidera' with very large flowers spotted and splashed with rose. Ours, standing in the open, exposed to the full sweep of the litter northeast wind, lost its flower buds last winter, but was otherwise unharmed. Bowers speaks of R. mucronatum as one of the most valuable garden azaleas where it can be grown.
Perhaps the most commonly grown of the evergreen azaleas is R. obtusum in its various forms and hybrids. From the variety japonicum come the Kurume azaleas. These are compact, twiggy shrubs with shiny very dark, green leaves. Selected and superior garden forms produced at Kurume, Japan, were introduced into this country by Wilson of the Arnold Arboretum, and these are the original source of the Kurumes we grow today. These are plants of great stamina. Some plants, known to be a hundred years old, are still in good condition in Japan. If you would buy heirlooms for your grandchildren and great grandchildren, buy Kurume azaleas.
The two most admired Kurumes in our garden are old timers, 'Coral Bells', a hose in hose, shell pink with a deep pink throat. very free flowering, and Seraphim, a very dainty hose in hose with flesh colored flowers with faint pink markings. These lost perhaps a third of their flower buds this past winter, standing as they do in a windy spot. Most of the Kurumes will bear full sun, but some of those of delicate line, such as 'Seraphim', will burn. The old standby Kurume Hinodegiri of brilliant scarlet is one of the best known and is very hardy.
A new race of azalea hybrids is being introduced from Holland. These are the Vukianas. They are the result of crosses between Kurumes and mollis hybrids, an interesting combination to begin with. They arc charming pastels and have the most astonishing names, 'Beethoven' (orchid), 'Schubert' (rose), 'Sibelius' (orange red). 'Johan Strauss' (deep rose), and 'Palestrina' (pure white with a green eye). This last I should especially like to see.
R. kaempferi is a variety of R. obtusum and it is native to Japan. It makes a fine plant, loosely branched, taller growing and more graceful than the Kurumes. It is known as the Torch Azalea. It is one of the hardiest as well as one of the most beautiful azaleas. In the northwest, it is usually evergreen. The large flowers are on the salmon or scarlet order. It has one drawback for the owner of a sunny garden--the flowers must have shade to keep them from fading. In woodland masses, they are truly gorgeous while two or three in a shady corner of a town garden have a beauty long to be remembered. Many hybrids of these have been developed, especially 'Malvatica' x kaempferi crosses. We have a batch of seedlings of Hatfield's selections coming on whose blossoms we are most anxiously waiting to see. R. 'Orange Beauty' is a nice hybrid from the cross 'R. Hinodegiri' x R. obtusum var. kaempferi. The various crosses of R. 'Malvatica' x R. obtusum var. kaempferi have produced many nice hybrids of great beauty and hardiness. They are free flowering and vigorous. R. 'Atlanta' is soft lilac; 'R. Willy' is clear pink; R. 'John Cains' is Indian red, and R. 'Cleopatra' has large, bright rose colored flowers and exquisite autumn foliage. R. 'Malvatica', referred to above, is a mauve colored hybrid of unknown origin.
Mr. B. Y. Morrison of the U. S. Department of Agriculture has done a great deal in developing varieties of evergreen azaleas, outstanding for their hardiness as well as beauty. These are known as the Glenn Dale Azaleas, and are becoming increasingly well known and popular. Nothing could be lovelier than his azalea, 'Dayspring', a white, shaded pale pink and an early bloomer. Azalea Joya is another of these, rose pink, large flowered, late blooming and indeed, a joy.
Many others are doing much work with azaleas that might be mentioned. It is hard not to let one's enthusiasm run away when considering these fine shrubs. There is a very fine collection of azaleas at the University of Washington Arboretum at Seattle and a day spent there in spring enjoying them is one long to be remembered.
In preparing these notes, much use has been made of the following books:
"Rhododendrons and Azaleas," by Clement G. Bowers
"Azaleas, Kinds and Culture," by H. Harold Hume
"Rhododendrons," by F. Kingdon Ward
"University of Washington Handbook of Rhododendrons"