Quarterly Bulletin of the ARS - Vol 29 No 4, McKay, The Second Season

The Second Season
Jane McKay, Kings Park, NY

To choose azaleas for ones garden can often be a difficult task, there are so many lovely varieties. One point to consider when making your selections is what the plants will look like when not in bloom. Though azaleas cannot offer the felty indumentum of R. yakushimanum or the deep, green, large, leathery leaves of many of our rhododendron hybrids, they do have one attribute most rhododendrons do not have, colorful fall and/or winter foliage.
Let's consider them in the sequence of fall 'bloom'. Our native azalea, R. vaseyi , starts the show late in September when all the leaves turn a sparkling cranberry red. The early morning sun shining thru the trees and lighting on the bright red leaves glistening with dew is a sight one long remembers. R. calendulaceum joins R. vaseyi a week or so later as its leaves turn yellow, orange and red. Now I wonder why R. calendulaceum is known as the 'flame' azalea - is it for its spring or fall bloom?
The Ghent azalea, 'Nancy Waterer', a lovely compact deciduous azalea with golden yellow flowers in spring, never shows any sign of mildew and takes on brilliant hues in fall. Recently I grew a batch of Exbury seedlings and one I have retained for further observation has a white flower with a gold blotch. Though it is similar in flower to many others, my reason for observing it further has to do with its second season. The leaves are large and crinkled all summer, never mildewing and its fall display of color is truly magnificent. This certainly should be a criterion in selecting a superior plant.
The evergreen azaleas have their second season also. In mid October Joseph Gable's 'Mildred Mae' takes on the hues of the Painted Desert, the coloration even more intense after a dry season. By late October 'Herbert', 'Fedora' and 'Johann Strauss' have joined the color parade turning varying shades of pink, lavender, purple, red, yellow and orange. Gable's 'Carol' is an exceptional azalea, retaining its flowers longer in spring than most and the crimson color of its fall foliage rivals its spring bloom.
'Delaware Valley White' and 'Glacier', with attractive white flowers in spring, give a lovely contrasting performance in late October and early November. Their summer leaves remain deep green while the spring leaves turn bright golden yellow.
There are two major groups of azaleas (all classified botanically as rhododendrons) the deciduous azaleas, the leaves of which are completely shed over the winter, and the evergreen azaleas. The evergreen or persistent-leaved azaleas have two different sets of leaves (dimorphic leaves). The first set, which appears at blooming time or just after, and are known as spring leaves are thin in texture, large in size and are scattered up and down the branches. The second set of leaves, the summer leaves, unfold early in summer and are heavy textured, small and leathery and are clustered at the branch tips. These summer leaves persist over the winter. The spring leaves are the ones that turn color in the fall and are shed early in winter.
In general, though there are exceptions, the taller growing evergreen varieties will appear more naked in winter and the low growing types will look fully clothed. The foliage of 'Vuyk's Rosyred', 'Stewartstonian', 'Hino Crimson' and 'Glamour' turns the color of sparkling burgundy wine come November. By January these azaleas have gradually returned to deep green, pleasing to look at in the landscape at all times, and never curling their leaves tightly come freezing weather!
So when deciding upon plants for your garden, don't settle for beauty only in spring, think ahead to the colorful second season.