Forsythias, those cheerful harbingers of spring (but certainly not the first woody plants to bloom) are completing their annual gaudy display, and as they fade into their seasonal greenness, our eyes fall upon the bright mauve-purple blossoms seemingly as common as Forsythia – the PJMs. These rugged evergreens with smallish oval-shaped leaves are thought of by many as azaleas, but they are not. They are Rhododendrons.
It is easy to understand the confusion, because they are related. All azaleas are Rhododendrons, but not all Rhododendrons are azaleas (they are botanically differentiated by the number of stamens each flower carries: azaleas have five, while Rhododendrons bear ten or more.) And azaleas are grouped within the genus Rhododendron, and part of the larger heath family which also includes heathers, blueberries and cranberries, mountain laurels, and more – all prefer cool, moist acidic soil, so mulches are always helpful (see my previous article.) Rhododendrons (not azaleas) can be divided into 2 categories: large-leaved and small-leaved types, and the PJM belongs to the latter group. Generally speaking, those with large leaves prefer some shade, although they flower better if given at least 1/2 day of sun, and the small-leaved Rhododendrons perform best in full sun, but tolerate some shade.
Those familiar with azaleas know them to bear bright red, pink, purple or white flowers on spreading bushes that remain semi-evergreen in the winter. These types perform better in more southerly locations, but can be found locally each spring when in bloom. They generally need careful siting to prevent the crisping of their foliage in our cold and dry winter air. Deciduous azaleas are far more reliable, and have a much greater range of flower color – from white to yellow, orange to red, but no blue or purple. And rather than having the narrow bloom times of the semi-evergreen varieties, by choosing different deciduous types, one can have flowers from April to August.
Rhododendron ‘PJM’ was hybridized in the 1930’s by the late Ed Mezitt of Weston Nurseries in Massachusetts, and he named it after the initial letters of his father, who founded the nursery. This fortuitous marriage of an Asian species and an American native has become the benchmark of hardy rhododendrons, and it is very hardy. It is also quite easy to grow, thriving in full sun to part shade. Its only downfall is soggy soil, as it leads to root rot. Indeed, its ease of growth has made it as common as lilac and forsythia in the northeast, and combines well with some Magnolias which bloom at the same time.
Because its purply color can be a bit jarring in the landscape, Ed Mezitt continued to breed rhododendrons in search of calmer pinks and whites, but also a true red (which he never achieved in his small-leaved hybrids, but came close with ‘Landmark’, one of my favorites.) The varieties ‘Olga Mezitt’ and ‘Aglo’ (Olga spelled backwards) are nearly as popular as the PJM, and bloom about a week or so later, nearly in concert with crabtrees. Their showy flowers are a clearer pink, but their habit is a bit more “open” than the denser ‘PJM’. These varieties, as well as many others including ‘PJM’ have deep green foliage that is aromatic when brushed against, and which turns dark bronze to mahogany when the colder weather arrives in the fall.
Mezitt’s breeding work also included azaleas, and he used the rich palette of deciduous species native to New England and the Northeast in his work, as well as a hardy semi-evergreen species from Korea. The deciduous hybrids are outstanding, because most bloom in early to mid-summer. (A future article will cover these superb “Summer Blooming Azaleas.”) Further reasons to grow these types: they are often sweetly fragrant, and many have vivid fall foliage, extending their season of beauty. Although his semi-evergreen introductions are less well-known (and hence not easy to find,) they generally perform better in central New England than those more commonly available, because that is where they were bred and tested.
Large-leaved Rhododendrons will soon be blooming in May. Although there are hundreds of varieties hardy for our area, most nurseries and garden centers stock relatively few. Because they are frequently used as “foundation plants”, it’s best to look for varieties which remain naturally compact, rather than dealing with green monsters which can quickly swallow up a window. Look for a discussion in an upcoming issue of some of the lesser-known varieties which I consider to be better in many respects from the traditional offerings.