I’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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
“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’ 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.