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Azaleas are an immensely popular shrub in gardens from Georgia to Maine, famous for their beauty and their large displays of stunning, funnel-shaped flowers. They belong to the same genus as rhododendrons, but tend to have a smaller and more compact growth habit than varieties called rhododendron. Plants termed rhododendrons by nurseries, however, are generally taller, with larger flower clusters. They are not as well adapted to hot summers as some varieties of azaleas are.

There is a type of azalea to suit every taste. Azaleas may be deciduous (shed their leaves in the fall) or evergreen, although more azaleas are deciduous. Their color range spans pink, orange, red, yellow, purple, and white, and there are also some bi-colored varieties. Azaleas look beautiful in shrub borders, foundation plantings, masses, groupings, or, for some smaller varieties, in rock gardens. They look exceptionally good massed under deciduous trees.

With both azaleas and rhododendrons there is one cardinal rule: they must have acidic soil. If your plot does not naturally have acidic soil, you must either correct the situation with an application of a product intended to make the soil more acidic, or plant your azaleas in raised beds with specially treated soil. Azaleas also tend to prefer moist, semi-shady conditions, but some varieties can take full sun. They like soils rich in organic matter, such as compost.

There are many varieties of azalea available, and the gardener would be wise to consider carefully which type of azalea is most likely to thrive in his garden. Southern and Belgian Indica types are hardy only in the South and California, in zones 8 - 10. They are evergreen species with flowers ranging from white and violet to pink, red, and salmon. Kurumes is another popular evergreen variety, which tends to be slow growing and is hardy in zones 6 - 9. Knapp Hill - Exbury hybrids, on the other hand, are a very hardy, deciduous variety of azalea. They thrive in zones 6 - 8, although some are hardy through zone 4. The blooms of this variety are huge and are borne in large trusses. The medium green foliage turns yellow, orange, and red in the fall. These hybrids are also relatively large for azaleas, growing from 4 to 8 feet tall, and as big around.

Once you have your azalea and have planted it in a place where it is likely to thrive, very little maintenance will be required. Pruning most varieties is not necessary and does not lead to a larger display of flowers. In fact, azaleas thrive best with lots of moderation - moderate water, moderate light, and moderate fertilizing and pruning. So just sit back and enjoy.