Encore — “a demand by an audience for an additional performance.”
When you think about azaleas, most likely you have an image of masses of color in the springtime, blooming along with dogwoods and other spring-blooming trees, shrubs and flowers. And rightly so because that is how azaleas have been traditionally grown and used. Several towns in Texas host Azalea Trails every spring, including Tyler, Nacogdoches and Houston. Wouldn’t it be great if these floriferous plants had another season of bloom for an encore performance? The good news is that there has been a game-changing advance in the azalea world, ever since the first reblooming azaleas, branded as Encore, came on the scene in the mid-1990s.
As the name suggests, Encore azaleas repeat their spring “performance” with another display of flowers later in the season. In the case of Encore azaleas, they often rebloom in mid- to late summer, and again in late fall. While an azalea sporting occasional fall blooms is nothing new, the breeding program by Robert “Buddy” Lee of Independence, Louisiana, was a deliberate strategy focused on increasing that tendency by using a number of varieties that regularly displayed the reblooming trait.
Azalea varieties that often have a second flush of scattered blooms are not rare. Dr. David Creech tells me the cultivar ‘Koromo Shikibu’, which was selected as the SFA Gardens signature azalea because of its unusually shaped spider blooms and purple color (in homage to the University’s colors), also sports sporadic blooms in the summer, followed by a nice fall bloom.
Many years ago, I planted in my Tyler landscape a mass of ‘Watchet’ azaleas — a Robin Hill hybrid with large, pink flowers that usually bloom in mid-April. A bonus I didn’t realize at the time was that they regularly had a nice scattering of blooms in the fall. It turns out that Buddy Lee used this cultivar in some of his crosses. One of the main azaleas he used in his breeding program was a red-blooming Rhododendron oldhamii known as ‘Fourth of July’ because it was blooming at that time (in July) on new growth!
Azaleas bloom in spring on flower buds that were formed on shoots produced the previous year. So, to find an azalea that consistently bloomed from flower buds formed on current-season growth was indeed unique. Buddy Lee collected pollen from those July blooms and used them for crossing different azalea cultivars that flowered in the fall. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today the Encore series of azaleas has 33 varieties in a wide range of colors and mature heights. All the Encore branded azaleas have “Autumn” as part of their name, like Autumn Royalty and Autumn Chiffon, helping reinforce the fact that these will bloom in the fall.
But Encore, though the oldest in the reblooming game, is not alone. There are now several other branded and trademarked azaleas with repeat-blooming as their claim to fame. These include Bloom-a-Thon, ReBLOOM, Déjà Bloom, Perfecto Mundo and Double Shot azaleas. As their clever names suggest, they will bloom again in the fall. Some of these branded azaleas were bred not only for the reblooming trait but also for cold hardiness well up into USDA Cold Hardiness Zone 6.
Because there are so many repeat-blooming azalea varieties now, you can create a bed based not only on the color of the flowers but also on the mature height of the plant. For example, on the Encore website, one list separates the 33 varieties into whites, purples, pinks, reds and bicolor blooms. Another list groups them by size — dwarf and intermediate. Think of the possibilities with a layered effect of taller azaleas toward the back of a bed with shorter ones toward the front. If you do your homework, considering the mature height and width of the plants, you will need to do very little pruning to keep the display looking as originally designed.
What a lot of folks don’t realize is that azaleas, though commonly thought of as shade-loving plants, will bloom better if they receive more sun. Since they have a shallow, fibrous root system, a very sunny location could put them under too much stress if the planting beds are not properly prepared, mulched and appropriately watered based on environmental conditions. Some of the reblooming azalea varieties do better with partial shade, while others, like the Encores, will perform better with more sun. It pays to research before investing in one type or the other. There are a couple of locations in Tyler where Encore azaleas are growing in commercial landscapes with mostly full sun, and the late-fall bloom is spectacular.
THINK FALL FOLIAGE
One thing not usually considered about evergreen azaleas is that they can have a wide range of fall- and winter-foliage color. I used to get inquiries about supposedly yellowing or sick azaleas, when in reality those yellow leaves were its typical fall display for that variety. If we appreciate trees with bright-yellow leaves in the fall, why not azaleas? Depending on the variety, azalea fall- and winter-foliage color can range from dark purple, burgundy, orange, red, yellow and different shades of green.
Steve Brainard, past president of the American Azalea Society, designed the first phase of the Ina Brundrett Azalea Garden on the Tyler Junior College Campus. It was an innovative design, in that besides the typical spring flower display with companion Japanese maples in the beds, the evergreen azaleas were selected and arranged to show off their foliage color in the late fall, winter and early spring. The design concept was effective as masses of varieties with maroon or bronze foliage alternated with those sporting light-green or yellow leaves.
Typically, darker-flowered red or orange varieties tend to have a reddish tint to the fall foliage, such as the popular ‘Fashion’ cultivar, while white and light-pink varieties have lighter green or even yellow leaves in the winter. One of my favorite varieties with colorful winter foliage is ‘Midnight Flare’, which has dark reddish-maroon colored leaves in the fall. I planted it next to ‘Watchet’, which has lighter green leaves in the fall. ‘Midnight Flare’ has deep, dark-red, glossy blooms in mid-April, complemented by dark-green, glossy leaves. ‘Watchet’ which blooms at the same time, has clear-pink blooms, occasionally throwing a second set of blooms in the fall. So, both varieties are great for just their flower display, but ‘Midnight Flare’ also adds to the landscape in the wintertime with its foliage color.
Another favorite of mine is ‘Coral Bells’, a common Kurume type of azalea that blooms with small, bright-pink flowers in early to mid-March. But once the weather turns colder, the medium-green leaves take on a pleasant light reddish-bronze to orange color on this very compact azalea variety. ‘Coral Bells’ is also a choice variety where you need a low-growing plant in the front of a bed or under low windows. One of my favorite azaleas that develops a fair amount of yellow leaves in the winter is ‘Delaware Valley’ — a single white, early-spring blooming variety.
All the azaleas I’ve mentioned up to this point are evergreen azaleas, holding their leaves for more than a year. There is another group of azaleas native to North America that is deciduous, dropping leaves in the fall to reveal bare branches. But before defoliating, these azaleas end the year with a wonderful display of fall colors, and depending on the species and varieties, the autumn hues may include bronze, burgundy, orange or yellow foliage.
I asked Buddy Lee what future breeding goals he has for the Encore azaleas, and he answered, “Leaf color!” Imagine an evergreen azalea with dark-purple foliage as a backdrop to lighter-color blooms of pink or white. Other goals he mentioned include fragrant flowers, striped petals and picotee blooms with bicolor centers. Could there even be a yellow azalea somewhere in the future?
Like all azaleas, reblooming azaleas grow best in soils with an acidic pH (below 7.0) that are moderately moist, drain well and have plenty of organic matter. Azaleas are sensitive to poor water quality, so if you have high salt, or sodium content, in your water supply, it will be a limiting factor. If you do not have ideal soil conditions, you can construct raised beds with soil mixes to get around that limitation. You can also grow some of the smaller dwarf-statured varieties in large containers filled with a quality potting mix. This is a great way to place and enjoy them where they will shine the best.
Since reblooming azaleas bloom again on new, current-season growth, a light shearing and fertilization right after spring bloom will stimulate new growth for an encore performance of blooms later in the year. Note that timing of blooming will vary each year depending on environmental conditions.
With so many varieties of reblooming azaleas to select from, coming in all different colors and mature sizes, you can develop a symphony of beauty that will gladly provide you an encore performance in the fall. It is like “déjà vu all over again.” And while you are designing for a late-season performance, remember the possibility of incorporating months of winter fall-foliage color to keep the symphony going.
By Keith Hansen
Smith County Horticulturist, Emeritus
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service