Stillwater News Press

March 24, 2012

In the Garden 03-25-12

By LeeAnn Barton Special to the NewsPress
Stillwater NewsPress

— If you remember from last week, I mentioned all azaleas are rhododendrons, though not all rhododendrons are azaleas.

For me, having lived where true rhododendrons were a mainstay in gardens, there is a distinct difference. Yet for the last several years Encore azaleas have taken the south by storm. Is there a difference? You betcha.

In the 1980s, Louisiana breeder Buddy Lee began crossing traditional azaleas with Rhododendron oldhamii; years later he protected his work with patents and came to market with the Encore line. Lee noted the benefits — heat tolerance and a repeat bloom — and with a little promotion and lots of color, Encore became as common as Knock Out roses.

Today, 25 varieties of Encore azaleas are on the market with names that begin with “Autumn,” pointing out the fact that it blooms again in late summer or fall. Autumn Starlite, Autumn Cheer and Autumn Monarch are just three of the many varieties whose colors range from white into shades of pink, coral and purple.

Be aware when shopping though that not all varieties are fully hardy in this part of Oklahoma. Some claim hardiness to include zone 6, but frost damage may still make the shrub unsightly. The Encore website recommends covering the plants if temperatures drop suddenly below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

In addition, understand when the label calls for full sun, that excludes middle-of-the-day hot sun. A rhododendron or azalea is still happiest in a partial or morning sun environment.

Fall is the preferred time to transplant. As I detailed last week, avoid tearing into the root ball. Loosen the outer edges only and slip the plant into a hole that has been amended with organic matter; cotton burr compost is perfect. Water thoroughly to settle the soil and mulch around the plant to help protect the new roots from winter cold. Prune lightly after spring’s first bloom to keep your Encores looking full and shapely.

Sizes vary from small (2.5 -3 feet tall and wide), medium (3-4.5 feet) and large (more than 4.5 feet). Choose the right size for the place you intend to plant. There is nothing worse than realizing once you are home that beautiful little shrub beneath the window will grow to block your view.

Encore’s Rhododendron parentage is visible to me in the large blooms, often with a speckled pattern in the center; the elongated, somewhat hairy foliage is another inherited trait. When I think azalea, I picture clean, green, diminutive foliage and flowers at home in Japanese gardens. There I go, being particular again.

LeeAnn Barton, Stillwater, can be emailed at