Azaleas bring us sparkling colour in spring, then for the rest of the year their contribution to our displays is limited to foliage. But since the 1980s a Louisiana plant breeder has been developing varieties that also bloom in summer and autumn.
Robert “Buddy” Lee is a plant breeder from Independence, Louisiana, and the launch of his Encore Series of evergreen azaleas has brought his reblooming azaleas to a wide audience.
More than thirty varieties have been released over the years, and the most suitable have now been chosen for sale in Britain. I asked David Millais of rhododendron and azalea specialist of Millais Rhododendrons, and vice chair of the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group, about this reblooming series.
"There has been quite a lot of consumer interest in Encore Azaleas since they were seen on TV in 2015 at the Augusta National Golf Club in America for the Golf Masters,” David told me. “Unfortunately, the first plants introduced to Europe were not hardy enough, with our cooler summers the wood didn't harden enough for winter. More recent selections have been trialled for Northern European conditions and seem more suitable.
“Encore Azaleas are best grown in a sunny position to ripen the wood and to encourage autumn flowering. Summer and autumn flowering should improve with age, so don't be too disappointed if flowering is initially a bit sparse."
Four varieties, all reaching 75-90cm, have been chosen for their suitability for British conditions. Encore Autumn Fire ('Roblez') (top) has rich red, semi-double blooms with dark spots, plus dark glossy foliage that turns bronze in winter. Encore Pure White ('Homlea') has glossy foliage setting off the pure white flowers brightly. Encore 'Lila' has soft lilac flowers fading almost to white and with pretty purple speckling on the upper petal. Encore Sunburst ('Roblet') has coral pink flowers with ruffled white rims set against rich, dark leaves; it may be sold as Autumn Sunburst.
These Encore azaleas were originally developed using a variety of Rhododendron oldhamii named ‘Fourth Of July’. Rhododendron oldhamii is a common red-flowered species native to Taiwan where it’s known to sometimes bloom as late as October. ‘Fourth Of July’ was selected from seedlings grown from seed collected in Taiwan in 1968.
“Buddy” Lee crossed ‘Fourth Of July’ with 'Double Beauty', a strong purplish red, hose-in-hose variety from the 1960s, to create Encore Autumn Rouge (‘Conlea’) although this variety is not available in Britain. All the other varieties in the series are descendants of this original cross.
You can order Encore Azalea from the RHS Plant Shop and from Millais Nurseries.
Please note, the contents of this blog reflect the views of its author and do not constitute an official endorsement by the RHS.