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Rhododendrons & Azaleas: How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Rhododendron and Azalea Bushes | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Rhododendrons and Azaleas

A flowering pink rhododendron bush/shrub.
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Rhododendrons are popular among gardeners with their evergreen shrubbery and early blooms.

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Rhododendron spp.
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How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Rhododendron and Azalea Shrubs

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Flowering rhododendron and azalea shrubs, both from the genus Rhododendron, have long been mainstays of the garden; many have leaves which stay green all year. Caring for Rhododendron isn’t difficult as long as you meet their specific needs. Learn more.

About Rhododendrons & Azaleas

Azaleas are actually part the rhododendron genus. This means all azaleas are technically rhododendrons, but not all rhododendrons are azaleas. 

How to tell the difference? 

Rhododendrons are generally larger flowering bushes, with some growing 20 feet wide. Azaleas are usually smaller, with some ground cover varieties only growing 1 to 2 feet tall.

The leaves of the rhododendron are generally large and leathery; the flowers are often bell-shaped and grouped at the end of the stems with 10 stamens (the long structures that stick out of the center of the flower). Azalea leaves are usually pointed and narrow. The flowers tend to be more spread out on stems and more funnel-shaped. They also have less than five stamens.

Rhodes are fussier, preferring environments where it is neither too hot nor too cold (Zones 5 to 8). They need a certain amount of chilling to develop strong flower buds. In the winter, protect rhododendrons from cold damage. (See more below.) Azaleas come in two groups: evergreen and deciduous (varieties that drop their leaves in the fall). Both can be found in nearly every part of North America, from the frosty Canadian plains to tropical Florida.

With thousands of varieties, there are rhododendrons and azaleas for just about every landscape situation. They come in many flower colors, including pink, red, white, yellow, and purple. Though most plants flower in the spring, there are also summer-blooming varieties that add color to the garden.

Explore tips for growing the best varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas.

Tips for Buying Plants

  • When shopping for rhododendron or azaleas, pay attention to when they flower. Early varieties can blossom in March; late ones into July or even the fall.
  • Buy plants that are deep green (not yellowed), aren’t wilted, and have been well watered. Check the soil in the container with your finger and avoid plants that are bone dry.
  • If your weather heats up to above 90°F in spring, avoid white-flowered azaleas. Their thin petals drop off in the heat.
  • In hot climates, buy plants in 3-gallon pots rather than 1-gallon pots. Small plants, with their smaller root balls, struggle in the hot late spring and summer.
Planting

Most large-leafed varieties require dappled shade; avoid deep shade or full sun. A sunny spot that receives a few hours of shade is perfect. See regional guidelines below.

Soil should be well-drained, humus-rich, moist, and acidic (pH 4.5–6).  

Azaleas and rhododendrons have shallow root systems and need moist soil and mulch to keep them from drying out. Amend planting areas with compost, peat moss, or a substitute, only if your soil is poor. Learn more about soil amendments and preparing soil for planting.

→ Not sure which hardiness zone you’re in? See the USDA map.

Planting in Cold or Temperate Regions (Zones 3 to 6)

  • Plant in full sun to increase flowers and avoid mildew problems. Shrubs need a minimum of 6 hours of full sun daily.
  • Plant on the sheltered side of a windbreak. If subjected to cold, dry winds, their leaves and buds dry out and die, especially during winter winds.

Planting in Warm or Hot Regions (Zones 7 to 11)

  • Plant in a site that receives afternoon shade, especially in hot areas. In tropical zones, azaleas will bloom in full shade.

How to Plant Rhododendron & Azaleas

  • Plant in spring or early fall.
  • Space plants 2 to 6 feet apart, depending on their estimated mature size. Dig a hole as deep as the root ball and about twice as wide. 
  • Set new plants so that their top roots are at soil level or slightly below. If you plant them any deeper, the roots and trunks may rot.
  • Fill the hole half full with soil, then water it well to settle the soil before filling it with the remainder of the soil.
rhododendron flowers
Rhododendrons are a welcome sight each spring!
Growing

How to Care for Rhododendron & Azaleas

  • Mulch plants every spring with 2 to 5 inches of pine bark chips or pine needles to protect shallow roots and retain soil moisture. A lack of water reduces flower bud formation. Read more about using mulch.
    • Tip: A common mistake is to create a so-called “mulch volcano,” where mulch is piled heavily around the trunk of the shrub. In fact, this can keep the trunk too wet and encourage rot. Always leave a few inches around the trunk free of mulch.
    • See our guide to using mulch.
  • Fertilize azaleas and rhododendrons sparingly and only when flower buds swell in the early spring, even if they are fall bloomers. Heavy applications of fertilizer will burn the plants’ roots.
  • Water plants during the summer if rainfall is less than 1 inch per week.
  • After flowering, deadhead where practical, to promote vegetative growth rather than seed production. Remove dead flowers from rhododendrons carefully; next year’s buds are just under the old heads and will start to develop shortly after flowering.
  • Azaleas and rhododendrons may be transplanted at any time during the growing season, but they transplant most successfully during fall or early spring when they are dormant and temperatures are cool. 

Winter Care for Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons are shallow-rooted plants; in cold regions, apply several inches of organic mulch around the base. In regions with severe winters, consider wrapping evergreen rhododendrons with burlap in the fall. Cold, dry winds will cause too much moisture evaporation from the leaves, which will wither and die. To help them recover from cold snaps, deeply water rhododendrons if there are warmer days. In the spring, prune out any dead or damaged branches and leaves.

Pruning Rhododendron & Azaleas

  • In general, do not prune spring-flowering shrubs such as azaleas and rhododendrons. If you need to reduce height, prune after flowering in the spring.
  • Otherwise, just remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches at any time of year. 
  • On young and old plants, simply snap off spent flower stalks by bending them over until they break away from their stems. Be careful not to damage growth buds at the base of each flower stalk.
Rhododendron bud red
This bud is a sure-fire sign that beautiful flowers are almost here!
Harvesting

Cut branches once the buds have just opened. Change the water every few days and give the stems a fresh cut at the same time. Vase life is about 7 days.

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Wit and Wisdom

The name “rhododendron” comes from the Greek rhodo, for “rose,” and dendron, meaning “tree.”

The glittering leaves of the rhododendrons
Balance and vibrate in the cool air;
While in the sky above them
White clouds chase each other.
–John Gould Fletcher

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