COLUMN: Some azaleas thrive in full sun

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Did you know that azaleas and rhododendrons are essentially the same thing? They are both members of the rhododendron genus; they have similar blooms and similar cultural requirements. Some say the primary difference between the two is the number of pollen-bearing stamens: rhododendron have 10 or more per flower and azaleas have only five.
The rhododendron genus is divided into 5 main groups: large-leaf rhods; small-leaf rhods; Vireya rhods; deciduous azaleas; and, evergreen azaleas. The latter two are our primary concern here. While most azaleas like protection from winter winds and the afternoon summer sun, several thrive out in the open, in full-sun and a western exposure. Not the dainty bush you thought you knew.
For areas with full-sun you can plant the deciduous native azalea, rhododendron calendulaceum, also known as the flame azalea because of the orange blossoms. There is a yellow variant but it is a little more difficult to find. Several Exbury azalea hybrids hardy to zone 5 (we are in zone 6) thrive in full-sun, including r. “Gibraltar” and r. “Klondyke”. Both are deciduous and reach about 5 feet in spread and height. “Gibraltar” has crimson-orange buds that open to orange flowers and “Klondyke” has red buds that open to orange-gold blossoms.
Evergreen azaleas are often used as foundation plants around homes. When evergreen types are planted in full-sun they maintain better fall and winter foliage color, therefore they are desirable for front landscapes. Some evergreen azaleas that tolerate or prefer full-sun include the pink flowering r. “Coral Bells” which reaches about 5 feet in spread and height; and the semi-dwarf, pink-tinge, yellow flowering r. “Mary Fleming” that only reaches about 30 inches in height. If you have an eastern exposure most azaleas will perform very well in your front landscapes, just watch the soil pH because concrete foundations leech lime which will lower the acidity of the soil.
Azaleas are acid-loving plants that prefer a soil pH between 5 and 6. Rich, well-drained soil is ideal, of course, with adequate moisture. Azaleas are shallow rooted so avoid cultivating around the plant and keep the soil moist. A 1 to 2 inch layer of pine straw mulch will help keep weeds down and moderate the soil moisture and temperature.
The attractive, natural shape of azaleas means that very little pruning is needed. If you need to prune to contain the size or to thin the shrub, do so right after the shrub finishes blooming. Next year’s blooms will develop throughout the summer. Dead-heading is another good practice to help maintain azaleas. Remove spent blossoms so that the plant’s energy is not expended producing seeds. You can also pinch out the tips of new growth to encourage bushier growth. Feed your azaleas right after they finish blooming with a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.
If you choose the right azalea for your environment and provide proper care it should be long-lived. Typically, azaleas are reliable bloomers but if you see signs of decline check on the pH of your soil first because this will determine the overall health of your azalea.