psychedelic garden: my first adventure with deciduous azaleas

mandarin and lemon lightsI’M BLAMING MARCO. (As you’ve perhaps noticed, I’m always blaming someone.) I’ve just planted what promises to be a psychedelic garden—a garden that started with a simple question, seeking to solve a problem nature created, as it does to test us gardeners over and again. A dozen or so deciduous azaleas later, it may have ended up being something best viewed by blacklight when in bloom. We shall see.

My “simple question”—really the same question, asked in two phases—was to Marco Polo Stufano, a far more expert and fearless garden-maker. I’d lost one trunk of a very large, wide-reaching old apple tree last fall, exposing a large circle of shade perennials to the sun.

Do I have to move all the hellebores, the gold Hakonechloa grass and other things that once enjoyed the apple’s shade, I’d asked then? After some discussion and some plant-shopping, I’d begun the remediation with a female fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus (a native with fragrant white June flowers, good fall color and dark blue fruits).

This spring I called for help again, still fretting about the same spot:

Because the fringe “tree,” more of a large shrub, will never really fill the entire role the apple once did, are there some shrubs I could combine with it? (Read: me, still trying to avoid digging up all those shade perennials.)

He didn’t miss a beat.

“Deciduous azaleas,” he said, “with yellow and orange flowers.”

klondyke azalea flowers

my chronic case of azalea-itis

‘HAVE YOU GONE MAD?’ I thought for a moment, and then: “Why not?” The first reaction was a scar from childhood: a severe case of chronic azalea-itis. The garden I grew up in in Queens was packed with a nasty mess of one of every shade of azalea, from hottest to palest pink, reddish to lavender and even white, with yellow and red tulips garishly blooming alongside them each spring.

I hate azaleas—or so I thought.

But now, 25-plus years into my garden career, I’m having my first azalea adventure (including with the hybrid called ‘Klondyke,’ above).

mandarin lights azalea

what’s an azalea, versus a rhododendron?

WHAT WE CALL “azaleas” are actually shrubs in the genus Rhododendron, so why the distinction when referring to them? It’s one of those Narcissus-jonquil things: All azaleas are rhododendrons but not all rhododendrons are azaleas, says the New York Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, citing experts such as Michael Dirr.

The basic difference is that most azalea flowers have five pollen-bearing stamens (one per lobe of the flower), while rhododendrons have 10 or more (two per flower lobe). There are always exceptions, and the native azalea species R. canadense and R. vaseyi  have from 7 to 10 stamens.

The flower shape is somewhat different, too, supposedly, though I’m not sure I always see it with the hybrids. Azaleas are said to be more tubular or funnel-shaped; rhodies more bell-like, generally speaking. (Is that ‘Mandarin Lights’ flower, above, a funnel or a bell or…?)

And then there are the leaves. Most of what we refer to as azaleas are deciduous (especially the ones used up North, where I garden), though there are evergreen azaleas, too, for gentler climates than mine. True rhodies (again, with a couple of species as exceptions) are evergreen.

klondyke azalea buds

what I planted

AS PER MY marching orders, I chose some hot-colored deciduous azaleas, all but one of them hybrids. They range in mature size from maybe 5 by 4 to 10 by 8 feet, and I expect most (all?) to have good fall foliage color before their leaves drop, and at least light flower fragrance. When not in bloom, they are informal, small-leaved shrubs that can grow in full sun up North here, where my soil is generally moist, but are more typically sited in light shade. Members of the heath family, or Ericaceae, they like an acidic soil.

  • ‘Klondyke’ (an Exbury hybrid with tangerine-yellow flowers, exceptional buds, above photo)
  • Mandarin Lights’ (one of the extra-hardy Northern Lights series from the University of Minnesota, rich orange)
  • ‘Lemon Lights’ (another Minnesota hybrid, strong yellow)
  • ‘Lemon Drop’ (more properly ‘Weston’s Lemon Drop’), a paler yellow hybrid of the American native R. viscosum from Weston Nurseries in Massachusetts, longtime rhodie experts
  • Rhododendron calendulaceum, a species (non-hybrid) American native called the flame azalea, which when grown from seed can vary in flower color; generally orange.

For more detail: This page on longtime rhodie enthusiast Steve Henning’s Rhodyman.net website gives a quick survey of the world of deciduous azaleas, including all the native American species that figured into breeding some of the hybrids.

orange out window

early feedback: ‘it actually works’

ANOTHER EXPERIENCED GARDEN-MAKER FRIEND, Bob Hyland, visited this week, just as the azaleas were blooming (or should I say screaming?).

“Want to see my new psychedelic garden?” I asked, with a bravado meant to mask defensiveness, and out to the spot we walked.

Bob was polite, but I could tell: He was alarmed at how un-Margaret it was. As we walked back toward the house, though, he turned to look again.

lemon lights azalea“You know, it actually works,” he said, noting how the eye bounces across the garden from one big, sunny-colored moment to another—the psychedelic bed being just the latest connected dot in a chain including giant bowls of orange pansies on the patio; golden sumac a bit farther on, and now the azaleas. (Two photos above, from the upstairs window, through a screen: The new bed is in the middle of the photo on the right, toward the picket fence. Just above: sunny-colored ‘Lemon Lights.’)

I have to say I like them so much, I want to find a spot for another such “dot.” Is my azalea-itis cured? Maybe so.

heuchera caramel

heuchera ‘caramel’ as glue

ONE LAST THOUGHT: Odd as it may sound, the strangely colored Heuchera ‘Caramel’ (above), a few groupings of which happened to be among the remnants of the former apple bed, is proving to be some great design “glue” for this new planting. In fact, more is needed on the ground level. I don’t know why plants like ‘Caramel’ do what they do (since it’s not exactly orange or even yellow at all), but it does. Noted, and ordered in bulk.

  1. Carol Shannon says:

    Love it! I’m normally a more subdued gardener (in terms of color), but this year, I crave brightness–everywhere seems to need more. I love Gibraltar (another nice orange) that I discovered in a local arboretum, right next to Klondyke.

  2. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I love it. You reminded me I had a small Mandarin Orange planted – all alone – in the jungle. I have to search for her (now fearing for her life). I am becoming a Heuchera addict – then there are the Heucherellas – all of them so colorful in subtle ways that work so well with just about everything – perfect glue as you put it.

  3. Jenny says:

    I love it, the more color the better! I’ve had a Piedmont azalea for years, it’s a very pretty pink and has a nice fragrance. I just planted Southern Living’s “Solar Flare” this year. I have high hopes it will be happy and obnoxiously loud in the landscape.

  4. kate says:

    Very timely Margaret, as I was just contemplating if I should add some azalea bushes to my side yard in front of some pine trees (which create acidic soil that the azalea should love, I’ve read). I love the orange azaleas you planted, and also the hot pink varieties. Thanks for also suggesting heuchera as a companion plant — do you have any other recommendations for plants that like acidic soil near pine trees and do well with a shade/sun mix (mostly sun). :)

  5. Steve Auerbach says:

    Your column is always so much fun to read. It combines knowledge with humility which helps the rest of us feel like we know what we’re doing sometimes.
    What’s wrong with a bit of psychedelia? I’ve had a Gilbralter deciduous Azalea for some years. It’s blooming like mad right now, only 2 1/2 feet tall but ablaze with orange.
    Ordinarily I’m a little embarrassed because it blooms at the same time as the larger pink tree Peony just behind it and that juxtaposition is a bit much, but this year the Peonies have been delayed and it will be more a succession of gaudiness rather than an impossible combination. But what the heck, beautiful is beautiful.
    Steve Auerbach
    Oak Bluffs, MA

    1. margaret says:

      I love the “a little embarrassed” part — my sentiments, exactly. I think I’m entering the “let it all hang out” stage of my gardening life, Steve. :)

  6. Vanessa D. says:

    When I think of Azalea I’m thinking of those fickle houseplants the company I used to work for sells. I’m familiar with Rhododendrons but I’ve never had the urge to own one because the pastel colors of them don’t excite me.

    These Azaleas with those vivid yellows and oranges do excite me, so I’m off to find out if they are hardy in Zone 7.

  7. Candace says:

    Psychedelic? My garden pals have often said the gardens here look like Martha on crack-cocaine. Occasionally they just refer that some nuclear waste site must be underground. Nothing is as colorful as yours, but everything grows and grows big here in beautiful secret Rhode Island! Hope you will be coming to Newport next month for the flower show and the Master Gardeners of URI secret garden house tour! Hope to see you there!
    – Candace

  8. Tibs says:

    Funny what attracts the eye. The photo from the upstairs window: Is that pea gravel the table and chairs is on? With a sandstone edge? If so, how do you keep it weed free? Is that your toolshed trimmed in orange peeking out of the center bed?
    I have 2 deciduous azaleas. An ancient orange that came with the house and a white I planted a few years ago. It has been pouting ever since planted. I am going to give it to daughter and s-i-l for their wood edge property. Hopefully it will come out of the sulks. I love these type of azaleas but don’t have a good spot for them. Unless I remove something. Hmmm

  9. Terry Jenkins says:

    I have 4 deciduous azaleas and really must have more. Three of mine are California natives (R. occidentale), one of which is a glorious pink variety. All are so fragrant I go weak in the knees when I step out my door. I picked some for our local flower show (they were really past their prime already) and I now have them disintegrating on my kitchen window sill, but still perfuming the house. The fourth plant is a bright golden Northern Lights hybrid, and not nearly as happy as our local natives are here (also fragrant).

  10. Bill Plummer says:

    Margaret, I am trying to grow all the eastern natives. Vaseyi is in bloom now. I have had it for some 40 years and it is stunning. I have the white form that has yet to bloom.Mmy prunifolium (plum-leaf) has brought late (August) color to my woods. It’s had a lot of winter kill this past brutal winter. Pinxterbloom is native in our woods and should be in bloom for Pentacost.

  11. Andrea says:

    We’ve lovingly named our property Four Cedars Farm after the four stands of Cedars that grace the corners of our humble home. I’ve worked hard at the shade gardens beneath them – one mostly hosta and solomon’s seal and the other mostly ferns – and more solomon’s seal. The other two are in the front of the property – and are very deer accessible. Would azalea do well under the cedars, thriving on the acidic soil? The deer, as always worry me. ..

    1. margaret says:

      I think they’d have to be planted in areas that get some bright if filtered light, not in the densest shade, nor in the driest spots that can occur under dense evergreens, either. So assuming the trees have no low-handing limbs, and you plant the azaleas near the perimeter (not in the thick of things). Again: watch out for super-dry soil and very dense shade, which will really limit bloom and cause the plants to grow stringy, if not immediately kill the plants.

      I’d research some of the species types that come from a native woodland environment and see which are rated toughest this way.

  12. Oh I was so excited! Here was a shrub I could add to my shrub privacy hedge. BUT even though I live in MN, my soil is alkaline, any suggestions for interesting shrubs, that like alkaline soil, on the dry side and are zone 3 tolerant? I have 300 feet of a gravel road butting up to my yard, with a power line overhead. I would like some kind of mixed privacy hedge.

    1. Deborah Banks says:

      Jennifer, you didn’t mention shade as a factor. If it’s not, what about an unusual lilac like Syringa x laciniata (cut-leaf lilac)? All lilacs adore alkaline soil and like it well-drained. I just got this cut-leaf one from Broken Arrow Nursery this spring; it’s a beauty.

      1. Shade is a factor, as the gravel road runs north and south, and the side opposite where I want to plant the privacy hedge is wooded. I do have a couple lilacs, but lilacs are slow growing, and I need more! I also already have a “Sutherland gold Elderberry” which is doing well, so I think I will get more. But 300 feet (actually it’s 300 yards) is a LOT of space to plant.

        I am just tired of the neighbors driving past and watching us as we enjoy our yard!

  13. Brigitte Frank says:

    I purchased an orange azalea this year and planted blue delphinium next to it. Once the dark pink azalea blooms drop, I’m moving it to this garden too. It will be a kaleidoscope of color. I’ve noticed that my gardens were missing blue. I mean ‘real’ blue not the violet blue. I added Blue Mist shrub and a few others that perennials. I love gardening.

  14. Melanie says:


    I purchased a “Flame” azale/rhodedendron a a couple of years ago, loving it for its weird tropical flavor, and planted it amongst some other small rhodies in a semi-sunny location on the east side of the house next to the house wall. I noticed it puts on its buds in the Fall but the last 2 years I have gotten no blooms! Are the buds getting burned by the 2 horrible winters we’ve had? or is something else wrong? The plant looks like its thriving in every other way…

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Melanie. I don’t know where you are located zone-wise, but yes, severe weather (cold, winds, ice…) can damage buds, and so can fungal diseases that cause bud blast (buds form but do not open, blackening afterward), or bud and twig blights.

      I am wondering if your location “nest to the house wall” is adding to the problem, and weather that spot gets enough sun in winter to warm the buds up on fair days, before the temp plunges at night. That is more common on a southern exposure, where tender buds can get destroyed on plants with all the heating/freezing up and down, but you say semi-sunny…and sometimes proximity to a wall can increase the warming effect.

  15. ljfq says:

    Nothing is too garish for springtime!
    I have loved the Northern Lights series for decades. Sadly, just in the last couple of years, little green inchworms are defoliating mine at bloom time. Not sure how long the bushes can bounce back from that kind of an insult. I might try bT control next year.

  16. When my shade garden lost its big tree I planted a silver bell but it is tiny. So I added some shrubs, but I discovered all but one of my Epimediums and Hellebores did not seem to mind suddenly being in full sun. Eventually they will be in shade again and the sunny plants I’ve filled in with will be unhappy. But I will be too old to care!

  17. Lindsay says:

    Ha! I still have azalea-itis. Longstanding on my to-do list is to replace the pink and purple evergreen azaleas that came with my house as foundation plantings. Every spring they bloom like crazy and I just close my eyes and wait for them to stop :).

    I’ve been tempted by some of the deciduous ones though, especially for the fragrance — how are they on that front? I try to load up on good garden smells wherever I can.

  18. Nancy says:

    Funny about how we think we “hate” something and then learn to love them. I had the same feeling about heuchera. Then in designing a neighborhood entrance garden with a neighbor who suggested we use ‘Caramel’ as glue as you are doing, I did a 180 and am now in love with so many of them.

  19. Susan L'Hommedieu says:

    Margaret, have you noticed that toward the end of its loveliness, the Klondyke blossom slides down the stamen and dangles upside down in a most adorable fashion. I end up photographing that every single year. They are like dangling earrings you might wear to carnival in Rio.

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