Encore Azaleas offer more blooms more often

Published 12:02 am Sunday, May 15, 2016

Humans are drawn to color and no shrub brings more color to a spring landscape than the azalea, which has been cultivated throughout the south since the mid-1800s.

Numerous outstanding varieties are available including the Southern Indica group, the more cold hardy Kurumes and Girard Hybrids and the late blooming Robin Hill Hybrids and Satsukis.

One of the biggest advances in azalea culture, however, occurred with the discovery of the re-blooming Encore Azalea series.

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Hybridizer Buddy Lee, inventor of the Encore Azalea, was a speaker at the recent Master Gardener State Conference in Biloxi.

Lee serves as the director of plant development services, the introducers of Encore Azaleas, the Southern Living Plant Collection and the new Sunset Western Garden Collection.

He also has a connection with one of Vicksburg’s master gardeners, Judy Pennington. She was his seventh grade science teacher in the piney woods of southeast Louisiana, where he grew up on his family’s dairy farm in the small community of Independence.

Lee told attendees that he became interested in plants by age 6 or 7.

Southeast Louisiana is a prime location for azalea cultivation and he owned a small azalea nursery. He noticed a tray of azalea cuttings blooming in the summer sun. That was quite unusual and inspired him to pursue a path that led to the Encores. This involved crossing traditional spring bloomers with the rare Taiwanese summer blooming Rhododendron oldhamii.

It took 15 years and many crosses resulting in more than 45,000 blooming azalea seedlings to find that first Encore azalea that became commercially available in 1997.

The rest is history and more than 15 million of the 29 various colors and sizes of Encores have been sold.

Encore azaleas have dramatically extended the growing season with their repeat blooming. Some are quite small getting only 2.5 feet tall while others can grow up to 5 feet in height.

They come in shades of white, pink, red, lavender and coral. Some are ruffled, some have blooms embellished with darker shades of color or freckles, some are more cold hardy than others but all of them tolerate more sun than the traditional varieties (minimum of 4-6 hours of sun is recommended for maximum bloom, heavier shade results in sparser blooms) and consistently offer an encore or re-bloom when given appropriate care.

All azaleas are acid loving plants and thrive in well-drained, organically amended soil. Gardeners can have their soil tested for pH through the Extension Service. 4.4 to 5.5 is ideal but many azaleas will tolerate a pH between 4 and 6. Excellent drainage is really important or the roots will rot. The top of their root ball should be out of the ground 1-2 inches with a 4-inch layer of mulch around the plant; however, mulch should never touch the stem. I killed the first few azaleas I planted because they were too deep in the ground. The Encore planting guide also recommends carefully but firmly loosening the root ball prior to placing the plant into the prepared soil, then pulling the soil around the plant and watering in thoroughly before adding mulch.

New plants require more water than established plants. Water at least once a week if no rain occurs for the first year including fall and winter if the weather is really dry. Shrubs and trees are a long term investment and are more expensive that annuals and perennials. Azaleas like to be fertilized in spring after our last frost and again in August with an acid fertilizer, generally labeled as azalea-camellia food available at local nurseries. Whenever azaleas become leggy, they should be pruned immediately after the spring bloom finishes since they begin to set new blooms within 8-10 weeks. That second application of fertilizer assists in healthy bloom formation.

Care and planting instructions as well as where to purchase the Encores can be found on the website: encoreazalea.com. Gardeners can visit their Facebook page and they welcome pictures of Encore azaleas in home landscapes posted to Facebook, Instagram or pinned on Pinterest.

Lee remembered Pennington well and they had a good visit at the conference. No one knows how much that seventh grade science class influenced his interest or pathway in life but good teachers always make a difference. They just seldom get the opportunity to see the results of their efforts.