With all the evergreen azaleas and rhododendrons available why would you want to plant one that loses its leaves every autumn? Take a deep breath and inhale the heady fragrance. Walk down the street and your nose will tell you who has one of these gems blooming in their back yard. Combine the sweet smell with colorful blossoms in shades of orange, pink, or yellow and you’ve got a real winner on your hands.
North America is home to several species, but there are also hybrids of garden origin. In the foothills of the Appalachian mountains where I grew up my dad planted the orange Rhododendron calendulaceum in front of our house. The common name, Flame Azalea, is fitting as the flowers are as brilliant as a campfire. It’s a plant that requires little care, doesn’t get too big, is happy in zone 5, and provides reliable blooms year after year. As I recall, my dad planted them in the early 1960s. They were still going strong in 2001 (when this photo was made), the year my mother died and we sold the house soon after.
Another eastern species, Rhododendron periclymenoides (formerly known as R. nudiflorum) has pink blossoms and is known simply as Pink Azalea or Pinxterbloom Azalea.
In the northwest, Western Azaleas (Rhododendron occidentale) are native to southern Oregon and northern California. You’ll find them growing at the edges of wetlands and streams in moist forest environments where they get plenty of both moisture and sunlight. The flowers can range from almost pure white to shades of gold and pink. In cultivation they’ll grow with somewhat less water, but won’t be happy if they get too dry. I doubt I’d try to grow one east of the Cascades where it just gets too hot and dry.
There are many Asian and garden-origin hybrids also available. One I see frequently in northwest gardens is from China, Rhododendron molle. It looks similar to the Flame Azalea but may not be as hardy.