Salisbury, MD. Once upon a time, long, long ago, young Englishmen with a penchant for gardening and exotic plants used to dream of traveling to faraway lands and bringing back exotic plants which would become the envy of the horticultural world. And, indeed, that is exactly what happened. Young men traveled to the Himalayas and Nepal and returned with incredible species. Among them were rhododendrons and their sub-species azaleas.
They were, and still are, marvelous plants. There are over 1,000 species of woody plants in the heath family with some 28,000 cultivars of rhododendrons and 10,000 cultivars of azaleas. For a bit of history, the name rhododendron comes to us from Ancient Greece: "rhodon" means rose, and "dendron" means tree. It's not difficult to see how these plants got their name. The origination of the name for azaleas is not quite so clear. It is derived from the Greek word "azaleos", meaning dry. The Gardening Grannies haven't a clue as to the connection between the origination and the modern day plant. If you do, please share it with us.
An easy way to tell which is a "rhodie" and which is an azalea is to remember the general rule that "rhodies" are evergreen and azaleas are deciduous (lose their leaves in the winter). While both varieties usually bloom in the spring, "rhodies" also are generally larger than azaleas and produce one large bloom on the ends of the branches. When Grannies Griffith and Johnson went to England a few years ago, they were stunned to see some rhododendrons a full two stories in height on some of the historic estates. Here in the United States, it is progressively more difficult to locate the large old varieties as most are bred down in size for today's smaller gardens. Both azaleas and rhodies are toxic to equines, sheep and goats but seem to cause no problems in cats or dogs.
Different cultivars thrive in different environments. Some prefer full sun, others full shade and still others do well in high, dappled shade. As with most other species, plants mature in size from small to medium to large, to humongous. Careful attention should be paid to the instructions on the plant label to be sure to put the right plant in the right place for maximum performance with a minimum of care. Two key points of similarity is that both "rhodies" and azaleas prefer acidic soil and are shallow rooted so newer plants may require additional watering during prolonged dry spells. One established, they should be relatively carefree, requiring only modest pruning after the blossoms have faded.
As might be expected, the Gardening Grannies have two theories related to practical cultivation they wish to share. First and foremost, buy your plants while they are still in bloom so that there are no color surprises next spring. While plants may be cheaper in mid- to late summer when the blossoms are long gone, it has also been several months for them to be in less than optimum conditions and small children would have had multiple opportunities to rearrange the labels on the plants reducing selection to "luck of the draw". The second theory has to do with colors. If the planting area is out in the open say, for example, along a driveway or open yard, select bright colors for maximum impact. If you are planting in a shaded area, nothing "pops" quite like pure white.
There you've got it. Off your rockers, Grannies, and into those garden centers! It's time to stalk the perfect "rhodie".
Gardening Grannies are a group of avid and Master Gardeners who live, love and garden on the Delmarva Peninsula. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.