The Show Goes On

BY ANN THRASH

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The Lowcountry’s world-famous azaleas put on a fabulous show every spring. But, like a sweet dream, they’re gone in the blink of an eye. For a few lush weeks, their bountiful blooms grace our gardens and spill across city parks and country paths, painting the landscape with pinks, purples, corals and reds. Then, before we know it, they’re gone for another year—just a misty pastel memory.

If you’ve ever thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if azalea season lasted a little longer?”—you’re in luck. Thanks to a relatively recent innovation, it can be azalea season not once or twice, but three times a year. Say hello to the ‘Encore’ azalea. As the name suggests, ‘Encore’ azaleas bless gardens and gardeners with repeat blooms—spring, summer and fall each year. The spring show isn’t the end of the story, as it is with traditional azaleas.

Plant breeder Robert E. “Buddy” Lee started working to develop ‘Encore’ azaleas in the early 1980s when he found a tray of azalea cuttings blooming, to his surprise, in the hot summer sun at his azalea nursery in Louisiana. The off-season blooms inspired him to begin crossing traditional spring-blooming azaleas with a rare type of Taiwanese summer-blooming azalea. The result was the now-patented ‘Encore’ azalea.

“Botanically speaking, in nomenclature and name, they’re very close to traditional azaleas,” Lee says. “Anything traditional azaleas can tolerate, ‘Encore’ azaleas can tolerate. And they can be treated much the same way. They were bred mostly for specific traits.”

One of those traits, of course, is the three blooming periods each year. Another is the plant’s increased sun tolerance (traditional azaleas are shade lovers). In fact, for peak bloom and growth, ‘Encore’ azaleas should get four to six hours of direct sunlight or light-filtered shade each day—conditions that are seldom hard to come by in the Lowcountry.

‘Encore’ azaleas are also more hardy in cold weather than traditional azaleas. Lee says most varieties perform well as far north as zone 6, areas where the average annual extreme minimum temperature can be a few degrees below zero. (By comparison, most of the Lowcountry is in zone 8.)

‘Encore’ azaleas first hit the market in 1998. Seven varieties were available then, and now 22 more have joined the Encore family. Lee offered his perspective on this spring’s four newcomers:

Autumn Sunburst Lee describes Sunburst’s 2 1/2-inch blooms as “orange-pink” with white ruffled edges set against dark green foliage. It will grow to about 4 feet tall and 3 1/2 feet wide.

Autumn Lily “Lily has large white blooms with nice green foliage,” says Lee. “With some of the white azaleas, you find that the foliage often has some yellow, but Lily has nice, dark green leaves.” The 3-inch flowers occasionally have single purple stripes. This is one of the most cold-hardy ‘Encore’ azalea varieties, Lee adds. It can reach 5 feet tall and wide.

Autumn Jewel This dwarf pink azalea, like Lily, is quite cold hardy. Two-inch blooms cover the plants, and the pretty purple foliage will be an eye-catcher in the winter. Jewel will grow to 4 feet tall and wide.

Autumn Ivory At just 3 feet tall and wide, Ivory is ideal for smaller spaces, containers or foundation plantings. The 2-inch flowers on this compact plant are bright white.

Spring and fall are great times to plant ‘Encore’ azaleas, so head out to a local nursery that carries them, such as Abide-a-While in Mount Pleasant, Hyams on James Island or Brownswood on Johns Island (you’ll find ‘Encore’ azaleas at some home improvement stores, too). Plants come with detailed advice, but be sure to keep the soil moist at first; new azaleas can die quickly if the soil dries out excessively.

Lee says acidic, well-drained soil is the key to a happy azalea. If your garden gets salty breezes, amending the soil is particularly important. “They’re not highly adapted to salt, like most azaleas, but I feel they do have a little more adaptability there,” Lee says. “As long as you keep the soil acidic and use a mulch like a pine bark mulch, I think they’ll be OK.”

As Lee points out, azaleas aren’t exactly shrinking violets. “When they mature and get anchored, azaleas are tough. Gosh, some of them have been at Magnolia [Plantation and Gardens] since the 1840s,” he says. “Historically speaking, the Charleston area has been credited with the first evergreen azaleas ever planted in North America. That was at Magnolia in 1848.” Until that first outdoor planting, azaleas were exclusively greenhouse plants.

Today, more than 160 years later, the azalea’s roots in Lowcountry gardens—and hearts—are strong. And at his nursery, Lee continues to work on innovations that will win more fans.

“Right now I’m breeding for dark red colors and for compactness, as well as variegated leaf colors,” he says. “In the future, I want to work on a dark purple leaf color, and some tri-color flowers on deep green foliage, and even introduce a fragrance. There’s a slight fragrance right now, but to introduce a really fragrant one—that would be awesome.”

Ann Thrash writes about food, homes and gardens and lives in Mount Pleasant.