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Azaleas and Rhododendrons: What is the Difference?

Deciduous Azaleas, Evergreen Azaleas, Lepidote Rhododendrons, Elepidote Rhododendrons

Deciduous Azaleas, Evergreen Azaleas, Lepidote Rhododendrons, Elepidote Rhododendrons, Rhododendrons, Evergreen Shrubs, Flowering Shrubs

Producing a blaze of color from early spring through the summer and even into the fall, Azaleas and Rhododendrons are popular ornamental shrubs for gardens of all sizes. But what is the difference between Azaleas and Rhododendrons?

Once classified in separate plant groups, Azaleas, and Rhododendrons are now placed together in the genus Rhododendron because of their many common characteristics. Gardeners and nurseries continue, however, to make the distinction, referring to each by their common name.

The classification can be complex due to the large number of species and hybrid varieties, often leading to confusion between the two. However, they do have key differences that can help distinguish them.

  • Leaves: Rhododendrons generally have larger, thicker, and leathery leaves. Some species have a coating of scales or a ‘felt-like’ covering underneath. Azaleas, on the other hand, have smaller, thinner leaves, and the undersides are typically smooth and lack any noticeable texture.
  • Flowers: The flower structure is a key difference. Azalea flowers usually have five stamens (the male part of the flower), while rhododendron flowers have ten or more. Azalea flowers often appear funnel-shaped, with petals fused along the sides, while rhododendrons display larger, bell-shaped flowers.
  • Blooms: Azaleas are known for their vibrant displays, with entire shrubs often covered in blooms. They bloom in various colors, including pink, purple, red, orange, and white. Rhododendron blooms tend to be larger and denser, and the color range includes white, pink, red, and purple, and some species offer yellow and nearly blue flowers.
  • Growth Habit: Generally, most azaleas are deciduous, shedding their leaves in the fall, while most rhododendrons are evergreen, keeping their leaves throughout the year. However, there are exceptions, with some azalea species being evergreen, particularly in warmer regions.
  • Size: Rhododendrons tend to be larger shrubs, some growing into small trees, while azaleas remain smaller, bushier plants.

Azalea

  • May be deciduous or evergreen
  • Leaves tend to be thin and soft, often hairy
  • Leaves never have scales
  • Flowers typically have 5 or 6 stamens
  • Evergreen Azaleas generally have 1 to 3 flowers at the end of each stem
  • Many small stems

Guide Information

Hardiness 4 - 10
Plant Type Shrubs
Genus Rhododendron
Exposure Partial Sun
Season of Interest Spring (Early, Mid, Late)
Summer (Early, Mid, Late)
Fall
Maintenance Low
Water Needs Average
Soil Type Clay, Loam, Sand
Soil pH Acid
Soil Drainage Moist but Well-Drained
Characteristics Showy
Tolerance Rabbit
Attracts Butterflies, Hummingbirds
Landscaping Ideas Patio And Containers, Wall-Side Borders, Hedges And Screens, Beds And Borders, Banks And Slopes
Garden Styles City and Courtyard, Informal and Cottage, Japanese Garden, Traditional Garden
Rhododendron calendulaceum (Flame Azalea)
Rhododendron schlippenbachii (Royal Azalea)
Rhododendron viscosum (Swamp Azalea)

Rhododendron

  • Usually evergreen, sometimes deciduous
  • Evergreen species have large, thick, leathery leaves
  • Some species may have small dots, called scales, on the undersides of their leaves
  • Flowers typically have 10 or more stamens
  • Flowers are often grouped in large clusters called “trusses”
  • Fewer, stout stems

Despite these differences, azaleas and rhododendrons share some similarities. They both prefer well-drained acidic soil, partial to full shade and benefit from a layer of mulch to keep their roots cool. They also offer beautiful, showy blooms that make them highly desirable for any garden.

Rhododendron occidentale (Western Azalea)
Rhododendron periclymenoides (Pinxterbloom Azalea)
Rhododendron prinophyllum (Roseshell Azalea)

Some Favorite Azaleas and Rhododendrons

Rhododendron ‘Daviesii’
Rhododendron ‘Gibraltar’
Rhododendron ‘Girard’s Fuchsia’
Rhododendron ‘Homebush’
Rhododendron ‘Klondyke’
Rhododendron ‘Nestucca’
Rhododendron ‘Nova Zembla’
Rhododendron ‘Olga Mezitt’
Rhododendron ‘Roseum Elegans’
Rhododendron ‘Scintillation’
Rhododendron catawbiense (Catawba Rosebay)
Rhododendron vaseyi (Pink-Shell Azalea)

Discover These Helpful Guides for Further Reading

Beautiful Azaleas and Rhododendrons for Rock Gardens
Great Ferns as Companion Plants for Azaleas and Rhododendrons
Rhododendron and Azalea: How To Grow And Care with Success
Great Hostas as Companion Plants for Azaleas and Rhododendrons
Great Bulbs and Perennials as Companion Plants for Azaleas and Rhododendrons
Best Shrubs as Companion Plants for Azaleas and Rhododendrons
Compare All Rhododendron
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Rhododendron
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Rhododendron
While every effort has been made to describe these plants accurately, please keep in mind that height, bloom time, and color may differ in various climates. The description of these plants has been written based on numerous outside resources.

Guide Information

Hardiness 4 - 10
Plant Type Shrubs
Genus Rhododendron
Exposure Partial Sun
Season of Interest Spring (Early, Mid, Late)
Summer (Early, Mid, Late)
Fall
Maintenance Low
Water Needs Average
Soil Type Clay, Loam, Sand
Soil pH Acid
Soil Drainage Moist but Well-Drained
Characteristics Showy
Tolerance Rabbit
Attracts Butterflies, Hummingbirds
Landscaping Ideas Patio And Containers, Wall-Side Borders, Hedges And Screens, Beds And Borders, Banks And Slopes
Garden Styles City and Courtyard, Informal and Cottage, Japanese Garden, Traditional Garden
Compare All Rhododendron
Compare Now
Explore Great Plant Combination Ideas
Rhododendron
Guides with
Rhododendron

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