Camellias have been known to trigger acute plant envy in Northern U.S. gardeners. If only those voluptuous blooms came on hardier shrubs that could withstand sub-zero temperatures.
Camellias have been known to trigger acute plant envy in Northern U.S. gardeners. If only those voluptuous blooms came on hardier shrubs that could withstand sub-zero temperatures.
Some of the most brilliant fall shrubs come in small packages and have the added benefit of being native. This sets them apart from the many non-native, ecological troublemakers sold in most garden centers, which are seasonally beautiful but noxiously invasive. Landscape favorites like dwarf Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) and Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), are among the worst weedy offenders.
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Flowering shrubs do lots of good things in the garden, but their length of bloom often disappoints. Exceptions do occur, with hybrid roses being the most obvious and ubiquitous example. They’re not the only shrubs that bloom long and well, though. Here are seven of the best of the rest. Their individual flowers may not be as voluptuous as those of a hybrid tea rose, but in other respects – including habit, foliage, and disease-resistance – they more than hold their own.
Almost all lilacs are one-and-done bloomers. Not so with littleleaf lilac ‘Superba’ (Syringa pubescens ssp. microphylla ‘Superba’). Abundant clusters of sweet-scented, pale lilac-pink flowers open from reddish buds in mid-spring, a few days after those of common lilac. Then, in midsummer, a miracle occurs, with a second flush of blooms developing on the current season’s growth. Littleleaf lilac is also attractive out of bloom, forming a dense, rounded, 8-foot specimen clad in dainty, privet-like leaves. Plant breeders have crossed ‘Superba’ with other lilacs to produce several repeat-blooming cultivars, including those in the Bloomerang® Series. For maximum rebloom, plant ‘Superba’ and its offspring in full sun and fertile, loamy, near-neutral soil. A spring top-dressing of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is all to the good. These lilacs do best in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 8.
Viburnums, like lilacs, typically flower for only a couple of weeks per year. One of the few exceptions is the remarkable ‘Summer Snowflake’ (Viburnum plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake’), whose terraced branches are frosted with flat clusters of white flowers from mid-spring to early fall. It also differs from other doublefile viburnums in its relatively compact, narrow habit (5 to 7 feet tall and wide). Although lacking the wide-sweeping drama of full-sized doublefile cultivars, such as ‘Mariesii’ and ‘Shasta’, ‘Summer Snowflake’ literally makes a better fit for foundation plantings and other niches where space is limited. The leaves take on smoky maroon tones in fall. All doublefile viburnums perform best in sun to light shade and humus-rich soil, in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9.
Many weigelas throw a few flowers now and then in the months following their main late-spring display. This has inspired plant breeders to develop new Weigela (Weigela hybrids) cultivars that rebloom not demurely, but with abandon. Those in the Sonic Bloom® Series are reputed to produce several good flushes of showy, trumpet-shaped blooms not just in late spring, but throughout summer and early fall. Sonic Bloom® weigelas flower in pink, purple, or white, depending on the variety. These relatively recent introductions have yet to prove their mettle in many parts of the U.S. – but they’re well worth a try in a sunny spot in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8. At 4 to 5 feet high and wide, they won’t take much space while you’re putting them through their paces.
A parent of the variegated, briefly blooming Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, Caucasian daphne (Daphne × transatlantica) is in most ways superior to its popular offspring. Where it particularly outdistances ‘Carol’ is in its repeat, spring-to-fall display of tubular, white, sweet-scented blooms. The dainty, oval, semi-evergreen leaves are also attractive and are strikingly variegated in forms such as ‘Summer Ice’. Most varieties of this outstanding daphne top out at about 3 feet tall, with their branches splaying with age (or with heavy snow). It does well in sun to light shade in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.
Not many years ago, panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) was represented in gardens almost exclusively by the mop-headed cultivar ‘Grandiflora’ (more commonly known as peegee hydrangea). Today, numerous outstanding varieties of this exceptionally hardy species (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9) have found their way into horticulture, including many with lacy, conical flower clusters rather than weighty mops. Most Hydrangea paniculata cultivars bear white-flowered panicles from mid to late summer, but other flowering times and colors also occur. Look for ‘Limelight’, with full flower-heads that age to chartreuse-green; ‘Pinky Winky’, an early- to late-summer bloomer that evolves from white to rose-pink; and the late-blooming (and magnificent) ‘Tardiva’, with large lacy spires of white flowers from late summer to frost. These large shrubs can be cut back severely in early spring to keep them in bounds. Dwarf varieties such as ‘Little Lamb’ require no size control.
How can we not mention the ever-popular, somewhat cold-tender butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and its many hybrids, which draw in butterflies over much of summer with their steeples of fragrant blooms in a variety of colors? Recent developments in the butterfly bush universe include the introduction of several compact, sterile cultivars with especially prolonged bloom and no pesky seedlings. These include ‘Ice Chip’, ‘Lavender Chip’, and ‘Purple Haze’. Buddleia davidii and its hybrids do best in full sun in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9, and usually benefit from a hard early-spring pruning, even in areas where they don’t die back.
Popular in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S., flowering abelia (Abelia × grandiflora and kin) are small to medium shrubs that could be used much more in the northern fringes of their USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9 hardiness range. Their dainty, fragrant bells – in various shades of pink or white – cluster on arching stems from midsummer into fall. Small, oval leaves add to the delicate, fine-textured feel of these quietly attractive plants. Most flowering abelias are evergreen to semi-evergreen into USDA Hardiness Zone 6. In zones 5 and 6, flowering abelias often work well as winter die-back shrubs, resprouting in spring and flowering in late summer and fall. In all hardiness zones they benefit from early-spring pruning of snarled or winter-killed stems.
What is a Native American rose? Is it the beach rose (Rosa rugosa) that grows vigorously on the sand dunes of northeastern America,
or the wreath rose (Rosa multiflora) that rampages all over the eastern half of the United States? Could it be the Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata), which grows freely in Georgia? The answer is none of the above. All are prolific, tough species roses, but none are native to North America.
True native roses, which are both beautiful and useful for wild and not-so-wild landscapes, are a bit harder to find at local nurseries, but they are worth seeking out. They look great in wild landscapes, offering delicate fragrant flowers and colorful hips. Bees and wildlife love them!
Over 20 rose species are native to various parts of North America, but some are rarer than others. Most bloom only once a year and bear single, pollinator-friendly single flowers in white, pink, or rose. When the petals fade, native roses develop nutritious scarlet hips that are a treat for birds and animals, not to mention the humans who sometimes forage for them. Some natives are armed to the teeth with lots of sharp prickles, making them perfect for boundary or privacy hedges. Species like Rosa blanda, which feature relatively smooth stems, can hold their own in more “civilized” situations.
The following native roses have the widest North American geographic distribution, making them good candidates for wild gardens.
Pasture or Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina): Sometimes called the “pasture rose”, fragrant Rosa carolina roams much farther than the boundaries of its namesake state, surviving in dry open meadows and along forest edges. It is native to the eastern half of North America and succeeds especially well in the southeastern United States. The prickly plants grow 3-feet tall and wide with pink flowers that bloom in May to June , depending on the location. As with many species roses, petal color fades to near-white as the blooms age. The crisp green foliage turns beautiful shades of orange-red in the fall. Though quite shade tolerant, this disease-susceptible rose flowers and performs best in full sun.
Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana): Rosa virginiana is a taller shrub rose (5- to 7-feet tall and 3-feet wide) that is less geographically widespread than Rosa carolina. It sports single, fragrant blooms that may be pink, yellow, or rose-purple and flower from June to August. It requires full to partial sun and is tolerant to a wide range of soil types, from moist soils to dry. Leaves turn fire orange-red in fall alongside deep red hips.
Prairie Rose (Rosa blanda): This sweet thornless rose bears several evocative nicknames, including “prairie rose”, “Hudson’s Bay rose” or “Labrador rose”, for its favored locales. Cold-hardy and tough, it is native across northeastern North America where it survives in open, dry, sunny prairies and open woods. Its nearly thornless stems and mounded habit make it a good candidate for use in “wild” planting schemes. Flower color varies from dark pink to white and blooming may occur from June to August. It only reaches 4-feet tall and wide, but it tends to spread, so it needs elbow room. Native plant lovers can rejoice in the fact that the relatively smooth stems make necessary pruning easier.
Wood’s Rose (Rosa woodsii): This is one of the better natives for colorful flowers and hips. Pink-flowered Wood’s rose is a westerner by inclination, found in growing wild in the western half of the United States and much of Canada. It also goes by the name “mountain rose” because it succeeds in challenging high-altitude conditions. Small, medium-pink flowers appear annually from May to July on upright shrubs adorned with blue-green foliage and a bumper crop of prickles. Growing up to 5-feet tall, Wood’s rose is extremely cold tolerant. In addition to the flowers, the shrubs produce loads of bright, teardrop-shaped hips and have fiery fall leaf color.
Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris): If your wild garden is damp, Rosa palustris may be right for you. Native to the eastern half of North America, swamp rose is a large shrub (8-12-feet tall) that likes to be sited at the water’s edge, where it can commune with moisture-loving sedges, iris and other, similarly inclined plants. It will tolerate some shade but it blooms and performs best in full sun. The late spring blooms are lightly scented and may be deep rose pink or pale pink. The prickles are hooked, which makes pruning a challenge.
Climbing Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera): This spring-blooming climbing rose offers blooms that range from deep magenta to white. Sometimes known as the “bramble-leafed”, it sends out long, flexible shoots that enable it to scramble up to 15 feet, making it useful as a substitute for non-native climbing roses. If trained on an arch or trellis and provided full sun and good draining soil, climbing prairie rose can be a show-stopper. The fragrant pink blooms appear in clusters that develop into showy red hips in fall. Wise gardeners remove the root suckers that inevitable sprout at the base, enabling the plant to shoot skyward without producing a thicket underneath.
Remember that wild landscapes and gardens can be “wild” without looking completely unruly. They are created using native species and emphasize biodiversity, habitat creation, sustainability, and beauty. Plant placement can be naturalistic while also be civilized and pleasing to the eye.
To use native roses most effectively, provide enough space. Many, but not all varieties grow tall and relatively wide, with a tendency to form dense thickets if left to their own devices. They look great planted alongside bold native Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa), breezy native bunch grasses like Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’), and native purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).
Species roses have gotten by on their own for millennia, but they will respond with more flowers and hips if given a good start with a quality soil amendment like Fafard® Premium Topsoil, alfalfa meal natural fertilizer, and regular of water. All bloom and perform better if given open air and full sun. Prune seasonally to keep plants tidy and to promote good airflow, which will dissuade fungal diseases.
Native roses are not available in big-box stores or even most garden centers. The best way to locate specific species is to seek out mail order nurseries that specialize in species roses. High Country Roses is one such source.
Giant blooms bursting with color—these make Chinese or Hawaiian hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) a floral favorite in sizzling summer gardens. Huge variety is another perk of these tried-and-true tropical shrubs. There are literally hundreds of types that come in many floral color variations and sizes. And, their familiar good looks bring to mind Hawaiian shirts, leis, and landscapes. What’s not to love?
Native throughout tropical Asia, these hibiscus have been bred for centuries for their big, beautiful flowers. Through woody, they are fast growing and ever blooming, making them ideal for large patio containers and bed plantings. Their lush, deep green foliage creates a perfect foil for the big beautiful flowers. Some leaves are even glossy. These plants are only hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11, which means they will only survive winters in the most southerly regions of the United States. But, they will overwinter well in a sunny, warm indoor location where winters are cold. A bright south-facing window, sun room, or conservatory is perfect.
The flowers are between 4 and 8″ wide and comprised of five large, open petals. The largest varieties are the size of dessert plates. They come in loads of bright, tropical colors to include all shades of pink, red, orange, yellow, and white. Unusual colors, such as near black, gray, and purplish hues are also common. Many blooms are bicolored and tricolored, with radiating rings of bright color. At the center of each bloom is a protruding pistil lined with colorful stamens, which is attractive and interesting in its own right.
There are literally hundreds of varieties of Hawaiian hibiscus. The International Hibiscus Society has a full register of every type under the sun. Anyone interested in learning more about these beautiful flowers should have a look. The wide ranging varieties give a complete picture of all this plant has to offer. To get a good look at exciting newer, interesting selections, check out the offerings of specialty growers, such as Charles Black’s Hidden Valley Hibiscus. His amazing hibiscus may be just enough to hook you!
Garden center varieties are often bred for compact habits and high flower production. The Tradewinds varieties are particularly nice, being developed to produce lots of flowers on tidy plants ideal for container growing. Though the plants are small, they always grow and flower best in large containers that allow their roots to spread and easily access water and nutrients. Large containers also need to be watered less often.
Grow these beautiful flowers anywhere there is sun. They prefer fertile soil that drains well and perform best with some supplementary fertilizer for flowers. Starting with a fortified potting mix, such as Black Gold’s All-Purpose Potting Soil with RESiLIENCE, is a good idea. Potted plants appreciate large containers and will fill them in quickly, if plants are happy and well-tended. In warmer zones, these shrubs are best planted in garden and shrub borders mixed with other lush, tropical plants loaded with bright color.
Hydrangeas, circa 1970, were a bit of a bore, represented by a few stodgy standbys such as the Victorian, mophead-flowered PeeGee hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’). Today, however, they’re the epitome of horticultural cool, with numerous new and exciting varieties to choose from.
Witness, for example, what’s happening in the world of panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata). Where once there was only ‘Grandiflora’, there now are dozens of seductive cultivars of this East Asian native, in a variety of shapes and colors. Many bear lacy, white steeples in the manner of ‘Tardiva’, an old (and – until recently—neglected) variety that is still unsurpassed for its showy blooms that peak in August and September, weeks later than most other paniculatas. Comprising both large, sterile florets and small, fertile florets, the blossoms possess an airy elegance that eludes ‘Grandiflora’ and other sterile-flowered, mophead forms. Numerous other excellent ‘Tardiva’ types – such as ‘Kyushu’ and ‘Chantilly Lace’ – have recently entered the scene. Most flower in midsummer.
Some recent cultivars come in hues and sizes that are new to the paniculata tribe. The lacy spires of ‘Pink Diamond’ and the early-summer-blooming ‘Quick Fire’ gradually evolve from white to dark pink, passing through a beguiling bicolored phase along the way. In contrast, ‘Limelight’ deepens its snowball blooms to an astonishing chartreuse-green that glows most brightly in partial shade. The dwarf cultivar ‘Little Lime’ does similar things on a smaller scale (4 to 5 feet tall rather than the typical 8 to 12). It exemplifies another welcome paniculata trend: compact cultivars that fit nicely in smaller gardens. White-flowered examples include ‘Little Lamb’ and ‘Bobo’.
Even the stodgy old PeeGee hydrangea has undergone a makeover, with the introduction of several cultivars (including ‘Unique and ‘Webb’s’) that outdo ‘Grandiflora’ in the size and showiness of their snowball inflorescences.
Most paniculata cultivars respond well to severe pruning in early spring, which restricts their height, increases their inflorescence size, and slightly delays their bloom. In whatever form, they’re among the hardiest and most adaptable ornamental shrubs, thriving in full to partial sun from USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8.
Cold-hardiness is much more of an issue for undoubtedly the most popular hydrangea species. Prized in USDA zones 6b to 9 for its reliable summer display of showy blue, pink, or white blossoms, big leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) has long been the despair of gardeners in zones 5 to 6a. There, it typically dies to the ground in winter, resulting in a disappointing summer display of lush foliage and few to no blooms. Breeders are hard at work, however, on a new generation of “re-blooming” cultivars that flower on the current year’s growth. Several have made it to market, including the much-hyped blue-flowered mophead ‘Endless Summer’. To date, none of these ballyhooed newcomers are consistent performers in zones 4 and 5, alas. But for gardeners in milder zones, these and other recent introductions make for a larger selection of Hydrangea macrophylla cultivars than ever before.
Several other highly ornamental East Asian hydrangeas (such as Hydrangea serrata, H. aspera, and H. heteromalla) are increasingly available from American nurseries. All are well worth trying, where hardy.
Two eastern North American species have also seen a significant fashion upgrade in the past few decades. Fifty years ago, smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) meant one thing: ‘Grandiflora’, commonly known as Hills of Snow. A classic pass-along plant, this suckering, 4-foot shrub formed many a backyard thicket, topped in summer by mildly ornamental , loosely structured, 6-inch globes of dull-white sterile florets.
Today, ‘Grandiflora’ has numerous successors, most operating on a grander (and floppier) scale. Their queen mother is the ubiquitous ‘Annabelle’, whose foot-wide midsummer domes are notorious for toppling. Her several imitators, such as ‘Incrediball’, also topple, as does the recently introduced pink-flowered snowball, ‘Invincibelle Spirit’.
Gardeners looking for a sturdier (and more charming) arborescens variety can opt for the ravishing ‘Mary Nell’, which bears showy, stylish, snow-white lacecaps on stout 4-foot stems. Another wonderful option is Hydrangea arborescens ssp. radiata, whose leaves are often lined underneath with a luminous silver-white felting that flashes in the breeze.
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is yet another eastern U.S. native that offers many more delicious possibilities than ever before, including several pink-flowered and double-flowered varieties. The best (such as ‘Snow Queen’) produce showy spires on strong flop-resistant stems furnished with bold, deeply lobed leaves that turn burgundy-red in fall. Full-size selections grow to 7 or more feet, but gardeners with more limited space can now choose from a bevy of excellent compact-growing cultivars including ‘Munchkin’, ‘PeeWee’, and Sikes Dwarf’. Of particular note is ‘Ruby Slippers’, a compact variety whose flowers age from the usual white to a much less typical deep pink.
Hydrangeas grow well in a variety of partial shade and sun locations, so long as they have fertile garden soil that drains well. Amending yearly with organic amendments, such as Fafard Garden Mature Blend, and top dressing with leaf mulch will help support plants and encourage best growth.
Late summer and fall is a time when most gardens (and gardeners) could use a bit of a pick-me-up. And no plants are better suited for the job than the relatively few shrubs that flower in the growing season’s waning weeks. Whether used as single specimens to spice up drab niches, or combined with other colorful fall plants (such as autumn crocus, Japanese anemones, beautyberries, goldenrods, and sourwood) in a collective blaze of autumnal glory, fall-blooming shrubs are essential elements of a four-season garden.
Quite a few fall-blooming shrubs commence flowering in spring or summer, thus providing multi-season display. Among the longest-blooming of this lot is Daphne × transatlantica. A parent (along with Daphne cneorum) of the much more widely grown Daphne × burkwoodii, this small shrub produces flushes of bloom from mid-spring to fall, long after ‘Carol Mackie’ and other burkwoodii cultivars have ceased flowering. With its clustered, frosty-white, fragrant blooms and dainty, blue-tinged, semi-evergreen leaves, it makes an ideal candidate for a pathside or patio planting. Its variegated cultivar ‘Summer Ice’ has creamy-white leaf margins. Plants are hardy to USDA Zone 5, and are best sited where their rather brittle branches will not be subjected to extra-heavy snow loads.
More familiar to gardeners are several other shrubs that flower from summer into early fall. Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) produces large candles of fragrant flowers in a range from violet to lilac-pink to white. Butterflies adore them. A somewhat cold-tender shrub, butterfly bush is root-hardy to USDA zone 5, often dying to the ground in the colder sectors of its hardiness range. Even where it’s reliably root-hardy, it usually benefits from a severe pruning in early spring, growing to several feet tall by midsummer. Many cultivars are available, including the outstanding, compact hybrids ‘Ellen’s Blue’, ‘Blue Chip’, and ‘Ice Chip’. This species seeds itself profusely in warmer areas of its range, where it is sometimes considered a nuisance.
Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), like Buddleia davidii, is a large, fragrant-flowered, butterfly-thronged shrub that usually dies to the ground in the northern fringe of its USDA zone 6 to 9 hardiness range (but attains tree-like proportions in warmer districts). The divided, five-fingered leaves are spicily pungent. Steeples of lilac-blue or white blooms appear from late summer to early fall, on stems that grow to several feet in a single season. Notable cultivars of chaste tree include blue-flowered ‘Shoal Creek’ and white ‘Silver Spire’. Vitex fanciers in USDA zone 5 might want to try chaste tree’s hardier relative, Vitex negundo var. incisa, which has more elegant, finely divided foliage and wispy sprays of lilac-blue flowers.
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syricacus) is yet another favorite that flowers from summer into early fall. The large, somewhat floppy blooms bear little resemblance to those of their namesake, nor do their lobed, vaguely maple-like leaves. First introduced to gardens in the sixteenth century (or earlier), this large shrub or small tree has given rise to numerous selections with floral colors ranging from blue to violet to burgundy to pink to white. Among the best are the sterile, white-flowered ‘Helene’ and ‘Diana’, which unlike most other cultivars will not self-sow. Hardy to USDA Zone 5, rose of Sharon will recover quickly and bloom if killed back in a severe winter (or if heavily pruned in early spring).
The large, white, cylindrical flower clusters of panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) typically appear in midsummer. The cultivar ‘Tardiva’, however, comes into bloom weeks later than most other selections, peaking in late summer and early fall. Lacier and more elongated than those of the familiar peegee hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’), the flower clusters are especially large and late on plants that receive a severe pruning in early spring (plants grow to 7 feet tall in one season). This rock-hardy large shrub succeeds into USDA Zone 3.
In contrast to the above shrubs, Thunberg’s bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii) concentrates all its bloom in September and early October, enveloping its arching branches in a lavish, vibrant display of rose-purple flowers. As with many late-blooming ornamental shrubs, it sometimes dies back in severe winters, returning from the ground to bloom the following autumn. It’s usually sold in the form of ‘Gibralter’, whose 6-foot stems splay under the weight of its prolific flowers. Other cultivars with pink or white flowers are sometimes available. For tidier winter looks, these shrubs can be pruned back in fall and mulched with Fafard Natural & Organic Compost to keep them protected through winter.
Last in flowering time but certainly not in garden value is a species from forests of central and eastern North America. In the wild, witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) forms a large, often straggly understory shrub whose sparse, spidery yellow flowers are hidden among its yellowing leaves from early to mid-autumn. In the garden, however, it’s an entirely different animal – especially in the form of the recently introduced ‘Harvest Moon’. Bearing a showy profusion of relatively large flowers on naked branches, this cultivar’s floral display rivals that of winter-blooming witch-hazels such as ‘Arnold Promise’. Give it a good, humus-rich soil in sun to partial shade and it will develop into a dense 12-foot shrub that acquits itself well even when not dazzling onlookers with its fragrant, sunny blooms. Where space is limited, try ‘Little Suzie’, a compact, 5-foot witch-hazel selection that works well in foundation plantings, hedges, and other tighter niches.
A single azalea, cloaked in bright petals, is the essence of spring. Grouped together, these versatile shrubs make an elegant tapestry in semi-shaded areas of the garden. With single or double flowers in white, shades of pink, red, purple, yellow and orange, the artistic possibilities are unlimited. Achieving great garden effects with one or more of the many azalea species and varieties requires little more than knowledge of their basic cultural requirements, a bit of garden or container space, and imagination.
All azaleas belong to the rhododendron genus and have Latin names that begin with the word “rhododendron.” So do their close relatives, the ornamental plants that go by the common name, “rhododendron.” This can cause confusion for novice azalea buyers. Fortunately, differences between azaleas and rhododendrons are fairly easy to spot, even if plant tags are missing. Azaleas are generally small-leafed deciduous or evergreen shrubs with loose clusters of fragrant, funnel or trumpet-shaped flowers. Rhododendrons are most often evergreens with larger leaves and fat trusses of bell-shaped blooms.
A mature azalea–which can grow anywhere from two to eight feet tall–may look big and strong, but its roots are shallow and need consistently moist, well-drained soil that is on the acid end of the pH spectrum. If you are not sure about your soil chemistry, use a soil test kit, available at nurseries and garden centers, to find out. If soil is neutral or alkaline, amend with a product like Fafard Sphagnum Peat Moss to help increase acidity. Preserve soil moisture by mulching azaleas with at least two inches of organic material, spread in a two-foot radius around the base of each plant. If pruning is needed, do so immediately after flowering.
In the wild, azaleas are natural understory plants that thrive in light shade. This trait makes them perfect for the semi-shaded or woodland garden, where the colorful blooms lighten things up in mid to late spring. If you have room, plant varieties like fragrant, pink ‘Candy Lights’ in groups of three for dramatic impact. Underplant azaleas with spring bulbs for early interest and install hosta varieties for color and texture later on. Add foliage color by using a variegated azalea such as the semi-evergreen ‘Bollywood’, featuring green leaves edged in cream.
Native azaleas, including the fiery golden-orange flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) and pale pink flowered mountain azalea (Rhododendron canescens), make excellent additions to native plant gardens. The blooms attract butterflies and hummingbirds, while the fragrance lures human admirers. Place close to paths or seating areas to take advantage of the scent. For succession of bloom and three-season interest, try combining flame azalea with another native shrub, oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), which bears white flower panicles that age to pink and oak-like leaves that redden in the fall.
Bloom-a-Thon ‘White’, which tops out at 36 inches tall, is typical of smaller azaleas that work well in large containers. The Bloom-a-Thon and Encore series, like other compact, reblooming varieties, have the added bonus of flowering once in mid spring and again in early summer, with the possibility of an additional flush of bloom in early fall. For a continual feast of flowers, underplant containers of reblooming azaleas with New Guinea impatiens in complementary or contrasting colors. Containerized azaleas benefit from the good nutrition and water retention provided by a quality potting medium like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Soil.
Sometimes azalea lovers get carried away with color, planting magenta, orange and pink varieties close together. While this may stop traffic in the neighborhood, it also tends to create visual chaos. Make the landscape more coherent by choosing one color or color range, such as pinks. If there is room, plan for a succession of bloom by planting an early blooming azalea, like pink-flowered ‘Camilla’s Blush’ and a later flowering specimen in the same color range. ‘Weston’s Lollipop’ is one example. Underplant with perennials and annuals in the same hue. For a sophisticated finish, add a few contrasting companion plants in a shade that is on the opposite side of the color wheel. ‘Lime Green’ flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata), for example, makes a perfect foil for a pink planting scheme.
So many beautiful spring-flowering trees and shrubs have branches that can be forced early for a little indoor spring in late winter. The process is simple but forcing times vary from plant to plant. Fast-to-force branches are the most satisfying, and the color they bring to the table never disappoints. All you need are some shears, water, flower food, and a little patience.
The earliest flowering shrubs of the spring are often the best to choose. They typically only require short forcing times. Many of the early bloomers are fragrant as well as colorful, which helps them make an even more pronounced statement for table arrangements.
Some of the better common quick-blooming branches for forcing are golden Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia), fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.), pussy willows (Salix caprea), curly willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), and bridal wreath spirea (Spiraea prunifolia), all of which will force in around two weeks. The branches of many popular flowers shrubs that bloom a little later, like Rhododendron, dogwood, cherry, and lilac, typically take more time to force, often between four and five weeks.
Branches only force well in late-winter when they have been outside and dormant for long enough through winter. Late January to February is the perfect window for harvest time.
When pruning branches, be sure to selectively remove those that should be pruned off anyway. That way, you will be killing two birds with one stone. Crossing, old, or out-of-place branches are the best to prune off and bring inside.
Cut branches with sharp, bypass pruners as opposed to anvil types that crush branch tissue. (I like Felco 2 classic pruners.) Clean cuts will enable branches to take up water and food more efficiently, which will result in prettier, more successful flowering. Make branch cuts ¼ inch above a bud and select branches between 1 to 3 feet long, depending on the size and impact of the display you want for the final arrangement. Cut branches should be placed in a container of water immediately, so have a bucket or jar on hand at cutting time.
Bring the branches indoors, and using a floral knife, cut the bases of the branches at 45 degree angles. Then immediately place them back in the water. This maximizes their ability to take in nutrients and water. Cold water is best, especially if outdoor temperatures are below the freezing point. Branches should always be held upright in the container, and the water should only cover the first inch of the branch bases.
After a day or so, replace the container water with slightly warm water, and add a homemade flower preservative made from the following: 2 cups lemon-lime soda, 2 cups warm water, and ½ teaspoon bleach (recipe care of Purdue Extension). At this point, the branches need to be stored in a cool place with moderate light, and the container’s water level needs to be maintained at its original depth. After a week or so, the buds should start to plump up and show some color.
Once the signs of bud break appear, place your branches in a warmer, brighter spot with indirect sunlight, and arrange them in a vase with added flower food. In a matter of days, they should be blooming and beautiful!
After flowering, the bases of some of your branches may root. This is most common with pussy willow and curly willow. If this happens, be sure to pot up your cuttings.
Plant the rooted cuttings in 1-gallon pots filled with Fafard Professional Potting Mix, and keep the pots moist in a cool, well-lit location until the threat of frost has passed. Once the weather has warmed up, the cuttings should have rooted well enough to be planted in the ground. You might even want to share some with friends, so they can force their own winter branches in the future and keep the cycle of sharing going.