Garden Detective

Finding a match for older azaleas

Garden Detective: Reader Kristine Sohrakoff is trying to find a perfect match for her pale pink azaleas. The possibilities are many.
Garden Detective: Reader Kristine Sohrakoff is trying to find a perfect match for her pale pink azaleas. The possibilities are many.

Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.

Q: We have azalea plants along our driveway of a recently purchased Mendocino home. They are 20-plus years old, but some of the plants have died. We would like to replace them with the same variety. Is it possible for you to identify the plant based on the pictures?

Kristine Sohrakoff,

Wheatland

Bee garden writer Debbie Arrington: That’s a beautiful pale pink azalea. But matching its variety from a photo alone is nearly impossible.

More than 10,000 named varieties of azalea have been introduced including many new hybrids that have replaced older ones. So you’re not only looking for an unusual shade of pastel pink but a variety that may no longer be available to consumers.

Your best bet is to come up with something that has the same characteristics as the bushes you’re trying to replace. You also may be able to narrow down the group of hybrids to which your azalea belongs, finding a fit from the same family and perhaps a close relative.

A popular and showy woody shrub, azaleas are part of the Rhododendron genus along with blueberries, cranberries, heather and, of course, rhododendrons. Native to forests and woodlands, they all love acidic, well-drained soils.

Azalea shrubs may be either evergreen or deciduous. In addition, the foliage can range from apple green to dark forest hues tinged with red.

Some azalea shrubs stay small, under 1 or 2 feet. While others grow quite big, 6 to 10 feet or more. Most azaleas prefer morning sun and afternoon shade, while others can take full sun all day. Some bloom in February (early blooming) while others wait for April and May (late blooming). While most bloom only once, others bloom both in spring and fall.

Before you start searching for replacements, note which aspects of those categories your azaleas most closely resemble. Judging by your photos, this is a smaller variety, under 3 feet, most likely evergreen with large 3-inch single blooms. Each bloom has five petals.

Most modern azalea hybrids were developed with specific aspects in mind: cold hardiness, shrub size, sun tolerance and flowers (including color, pattern and form). Some hybridizers created several varieties that share similar attributes and look very much alike.

Judging by the flowers alone, your azalea looks a lot like “George L. Taber,” a popular Southern Indica hybrid that has that same form and pale pink petals but with a lavender blotch and speckles. “Mistral,” another Southern Indica hybrid, has similar form and all-pink blooms, but in a slightly darker shade. “George L. Taber” and “Mistral” are still widely available from nurseries and mail order companies such as Monrovia Nursery (www.monrovia.com). “Pink Lace,” a variety grown by Matsuda’s Nursery in Sacramento, is another Southern Indica with that same pale pink color and contrasting blotch. Matsuda’s azaleas are available at Green Acres Nursery & Supply.

Southern Indica hybrids all share the same trait: They can withstand full sun (although they prefer some afternoon shade). They tend to get taller than your shrubs, 3 to 5 feet at maturity, but can be pruned to size. But they can’t withstand very cold winters.

Among the naturally small azaleas, slow-growing Satsuki hybrids stay under 2 feet tall, but are late blooming, usually in April or May. (Satsuki means “fifth month” in Japanese.) There are dozens of pale pink or orchid Satsuki available, including “Gumpo Pink” and “Haru-No-Sono.”

Considering which azalea varieties were prevalent when your shrubs were planted, look at Glenn Dale and Robin Hill hybrid azaleas. Both were widely available at the time your azaleas were planted.

Originally developed in Maryland as cold-hardy alternatives to Southern Indica varieties, Glenn Dale hybrids include more than 450 named varieties and tend to stay about 2 to 3 feet tall at maturity. Among the pale pink Glenn Dale hybrids that may fit your needs are “Pixie,” “Refrain” and “Youth.”

Introduced in the late 1960s and 1970s, repeat-blooming Robin Hill hybrids stay dwarf with huge flowers in the fall plus more in spring. Of this group, consider “Gwenda,” “Watchet” and “Sir Robert.”

A newer hybrid that may fit your needs is “Strawberry Truffle,” a Walberton’s hybrid (from yet another azalea breeder). It has pale pink single blooms with ruffled edges and is grown by Matsuda’s.

The best time to plant your new shrubs will be in early spring, just about the same time your azaleas likely will be blooming. That may allow you to compare flowers more closely, too.

When transplanting your new shrubs, plant them an inch or two high, so the shrubs sit a little above soil level; that allows their root balls to settle in. Mulch them with pine needles, bark or other high-acid mulch, but avoid manure or mushroom compost, which may be too alkaline.

The Bee’s Debbie Arrington is a consulting rosarian and lifelong gardener. darrington@sacbee.com, 916-321-1075, @debarrington.

Garden questions?

Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties. Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to h&g@sacbee.com. Please put “Garden Detective” in the subject field and include your postal address. To contact UC Extension directly, call:

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