Azaleas, Rhododendrons correspondence course. Learn how to cultivate and propagate plants in these families. Understand their cultural requirements and the variety of species in cultivation.

Course Code: VHT106
Fee Code: S2
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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Become an expert with Rhododendrons and Azaleas

  • Learn to identify and grow different rhododendrons and azaleas
  • Nurture, maintain, prune, water, fetrilise, propagate rhododendrons
  • Explore your passion, improve your career, work in horticulture

A Brief History of Rhododendron Culture

Rhododendrons (R. hirsutum or R. ferrugineum) were originally cultivated around the mid 1600s; and called "Alpine Roses". One hundred years later Linnaeus officially designated Rhododendron as a genus and Azalea as a separate genus. In the 19th century George Don ascertained that the two plants were far too similar to belong to separate genera. They were then brought together under the one genus, Rhododendron.

The Rhododendron genus is divided into three groups the first and second groups are what we commonly know as rhododendrons the third group comprises the azaleas.

  • The first group is further divided into two sub groups: those with and without scales on their leaves. Lepidotes have scales. These plants are small and evergreen with scaly leaves and stems. Elepidotes do not have scales, the plants are large, some being trees, and have smooth leaves and stems.
  • The second group are the evergreen Vireya also known as Malesian rhododendrons. They have scales and grow in tropical areas of South East Asia.
  • The third group are the azaleas and are predominantly small evergreen or deciduous plants, with small leaves, depending upon the species.

It is generally not possible to cross breed between the above three groups. However, crosses occur readily between species from within each group.

Apart from the 800 or so species available there are a multitude of hybrids in cultivation and also many that are no longer popularly cultivated. These hybrids are often grouped into what is termed an ‘alliance’ to make it easier determine the parentage of the various plants. An alliance is a group of similar rhododendrons that also have offspring: seedlings, with similarities to the parent. For example: the R. kiusianum alliance. Hybrids usually have the same growth and leaf characteristics as the parent plant but may vary considerably in the flowers.

Given that there are so many hybrids around which are able to boast: improved hardiness, more and longer lasting flowers, and a variety of sizes to suit all gardens, many of the natural species of rhododendrons are among those that have become less favourable. This is a shame because many of them are truly stunning plants. It seems that only the hardiest have survived the sways of fashion.

Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction
    • Introducing Rhododendrons
    • Introducing Azaleas
    • Indica and kurume hybrids
    • Deciduous mollis hybrids
    • Review of the system of plant identification
    • Classification of Azaleas and Rhododendrons-sub genera
    • Information and networking
    • contacts (i.e.: nurseries, seed, clubs etc.)
  2. Culture
    • Soils for Azaleas and Rhododendrons
    • Most Common pest and disease problems with Azaleas and Rhododendrons
    • Other cultural considerations
  3. Propagation
    • Methods of propagating azaleas and rhododendrons
    • Using root stimulating auxins
    • Propagation of different types
    • Layering, cuttings, seed
  4. The most Commonly Grown Varieties.
    • R. arborescens -a very popular species
    • Indica hybrids
    • Kurume hybrids
    • Mollis hybrids
    • Other deciduous hybrids
    • Azaleodendrons
    • Uses for Azaleas
  5. Other important groups.
    • Scope
    • Rock Rhododendrons
    • Vireyas
    • Other tropical Rhododendrons
    • Hybrids
    • Cultivated Rhododendron species
  6. Lesser Grown Varieties.
    • Obscure species
    • Varieties that have become less popular
    • Alpine Roses R. hirstulum, or R. ferrugineum)
    • Yak Hybrids
    • Lesser grown Azaleas
  7. Making the best use of these plants. In containers, in the ground, as indoor plants, growing and showing, growing for profit.
  8. Special Assignment
    • A study of one selected plant or group.


  • Discuss how Rhododendrons and Azaleas are classified.
  • Describe the general cultural requirements that are common to all Rhododendron species.
  • Select appropriate materials for propagation
  • Propagate Azaleas and Rhododendrons.
  • Describe species of azalea are most commonly grown.
  • Describe a range of common varieties of Rhododendrons.
  • Conduct valid research into lesser known varieties of Rhododendron and Azalea.
  • Determine various uses and applications of rhododendrons in the home garden.
  • Demonstrate the knowledge acquired for a specific group or individual plant in the Rhododendron group of plants.

An Introduction to Rhododendrons and Azaleas
Family: Ericaceae

Origin: Europe, Asia, North America, extending south, though some are found in tropical South-East Asia with one species being native to Australia (R. lochae); between 500 and 900 species.
Appearance: Shrubs and trees, mostly evergreen but some deciduous; most flower in late spring to early summer with bright, showy, floral displays. The rhododendron genus includes azaleas.
Culture: All rhododendrons prefer fertile, freely-draining, moist, acidic organic soil; lime-haters; a protected position in part shade is best. Areas prone to hot, dry winds should be avoided; tolerant of air pollution. Hardy hybrids and alpine species can be planted in more open sites in full sun. Like other rhododendrons, azaleas prefer acidic, fertile and moist soil. Feed with well-rotted manure or compost at least twice annually, especially in autumn. Pruning is not necessary as both rhododendrons and azaleas tend to keep a compact shape, however, light pruning annually may be undertaken to maintain shape and improve vigour. Deadheading is best done by gently pinching out with the fingers so as not to damage shoot tips.
Propagation: Successful propagation can be achieved with seeds, cuttings, layering and grafting. Take cuttings of hardy hybrids, Kurume azaleas, and alpine species in summer or as late as early winter for small-leafed species and keep in a cold frame. Bottom heat and hormones are useful. Larger leafed species are often grown from seed in early spring and kept at 13-16 degrees C. Layering can also be undertaken at any time of year for large-leafed species as well as deciduous azaleas. Grafting is only used for hardy hybrids.
Health: Frost hardy to tender tropical plants; aside from the tropical species none are properly tender but they may be sensitive to cold winds and intense sunlight; frosts may damage buds of early flowering species. Pests may include the rhododendron leafhopper, whitefly, lacewings, weevils, leaf miners, rhododendron bugs, or mites. The leafhopper is most prevalent; they puncture buds with their mouthparts which causes bud blast disease. Mites can usually be controlled by releasing predatory mites. Diseases may include leaf spots, silver leaf, bud blast, petal blight, galls, and root rots. Honey fungus can kill plants. Chlorosis may appear if the soil is too alkaline.

Uses: Shrubberies, container plants, borders, massed displays of foliage or flowers, bonsai, rockery, alpine garden, woodland garden.
Rhododendrons include all Azaleas. Many different groups have been developed by hybridizing or breeding different cultivars within a species, for example:
Ghent Azaleas (R. gandavense): have been developed mostly by breeding R. viscosum, R. flavum, R. nudiflorum and R. calandulaceum.
Deciduous Azaleas: Have been created by breeding several species including R. flavum, R. calendulaceum, R. nudiflorum, R. viscosum, R. sinense, R. molle, R. occidentale, and others.
Indica Hybrids (syn. R. indica; Indian Azaleas): These are evergreen, sometimes tender, small shrubs derived mostly from R. indicum, R. mucronatum, and R. Simsii. Flower colours include white, pinks, reds, mauves, and purples.
Kurume Hybrids: These are derived mainly from R. Kaempferi and. R kiusianum. They are small, slow-growing, compact evergreen shrubs. Again, some may be tender in colder areas, but generally they are the most frost-hardy of the evergreen azaleas. They tend to be twiggier than Indicas with smaller leaves and denser foliage. Whilst normally smaller than the Indicas, the Kurumes also display great variation in height and spread.
Mollis Hybrids: These are deciduous small shrubs derived from R. molle and R. japonicum. Flowers often appear before foliage on the tips of stems. These flowers are trumpet-shaped, 6-7cm across, and appear in early spring. Colours include white, yellow, and orange. Growth is generally upright. Foliage is more open than with Indicas and Kurumes, and leaves tend to be larger.

Other Rhododendrons vary in size from dwarf shrubs from as little as 25cm to trees up to 20-25m tall (R. giganteum). Many smaller varieties have been developed specifically as rockery plants. Despite some rhododendrons being simply too large for a small garden there are hundreds of other varieties that are ideal where space is limited.
The tropical species found in South-East Asia and Australia plants are the vireya rhododendrons. These prefer warm, humid conditions and are generally not frost-hardy.


Some Lesser Grown Rhododendron Species

R. cinnarbarinum: a 2– 6m native to Northern Burma with fragrant, tubular flowers ranging from red to orange. Flowers are borne in clusters of five to eight in early summer and measure 2.5-4.5 cm wide and up to 6.5 cm long. Leaves are ovate and a smoke blue colour all over when young, turning scaly with grey green upper sides when mature.

R. decorum: a 1.5-6m shrub from Western China and also Northern Burma. It has white to pink fragrant, funnel shaped flowers sometimes speckled green or red. The flowers which are 7.5-12.5 cm wide and up to 7.5 cm long appear in early spring to early summer in loose clusters of eight to ten. The large leaves are grey green above and smoke blue beneath measuring between 10 and 15cm. These plants are very hardy.

R. degronianum: a small 1-3m dome shaped shrubby plant from Japan producing speckled, bell shaped pink to red flowers in late spring. The leaves are dark green measuring up to 15cm long and have a red to fawn underside. The subspecies ‘Wada’ has deep cinnamon coloured under sides to the leaves and a more compact habit.

R. fastigiatum: This small evergreen, alpine species from Yunnan Province in China has tiny leaves less than 1.25cm long and grows to a height of 1m with a spread of 30-60cm. It produces terminal trusses of three to five small, purple to lavender, bell shaped flowers measuring 2.5cm wide and 1.25cm long, in early to mid spring. It is relatively hardy and free flowering.

R. irroratum: a medium shrub to small tree measuring up to 9m from Vietnam, Indonesia and China. The flowers, which are borne in early to late spring, are bell shaped, narrow, and vary in colour from white, cream, or pink and are spotted red or purple. Leaves are elliptic or oblanceolate, 6-13cm long, and green on both sides. The subspecies ‘Polka Dot’ has striking white flowers which are heavily marked with purple spots.

R. wardii: these evergreen shrubs come from China and have a height of 3m with a spread of 1.5m. They have oblong to elliptic rounded leaves up to 10cm long. Young leaves a re a bright blue green and are smooth all over. Mature leaves have a dark green upper side and blue grey under side. Saucer shaped flowers emerge in late spring to early summer in clusters of 7-14, measuring some 6.5cm wide. They are a rich bright yellow colour, sometimes spattered with crimson. It is not the hardiest of species. The Litiense group are thought to be a form of R. wardii var. wardii are very attractive shrubs which produce wide saucer or bell shaped clear yellow flowers and bluish, oblong waxy foliage.

R. macabeanum: a large round shrub or small tree to 8m with a spread of 3-5m from northern India. It makes a spectacular woodland tree and has leathery leaves up to 30cm long which are dark green and veined on the upper side and silver to white on the under side. Large trusses of bell shaped flowers are borne in mid spring and are pale yellow flower with a purple blotch at the base.

R. pemakoense: A small spreading evergreen shrub from Tibet with a height of 60cm and spread of 90cm. One alpine variety only grows to several centimetres tall producing many suckers. Leaves are ovate to round up to 2cm long and have dark green upper sides with scaly, blue green under sides. Flowers are large in comparison measuring 3.75cm wide and 3cm long. Flowers are lilac pink to purple funnel shaped and are borne singly, or in pairs, in early to mid spring. They are highly floriferous but are susceptible to frost damage.

R. russatum: A low growing evergreen shrub with a compact habit from China. These plants have a height and spread of 60-120cm. Leaves are ovate, scaly and 2.5-3.5cm long with an orange yellow underside. Funnel shaped flowers are produced in late spring to early summer in clusters of 5-10. Flowers are 2.5cm wide and 1.75cm long and are a deep blue purple or violet, often with a white throat. This species is hardy and floriferous.


Yak Hybrids

R. yakushimanum: is native to the Japanese island of Yakushima where it grows on cool mountain sides however it is also able to tolerate some sun. It is an important species because it is the parent of many modern hybrids, often referred to as ‘Yak’ hybrids. These hybrids are particularly suited to smaller gardens due to their compact habit. They have leathery leaves and produce clear flowers in spring in a variety of colours. Once they have finished flowering they produce new stems which become covered in a white, downy layer. They are best planted in autumn or spring and will tolerate slightly more sunny and exposed conditions than many other rhododendron varieties. Examples include:

• R. 'Bashful': this plant has attractive leaves which are silver grey when young. It is one of the more well known yak hybrids and is one of a range of hybrids named after the ‘seven dwarfs’ of ‘Snow White' which were cultivated in the 1970s. Flower colours vary from white through to orange, yellow, pink and crimson

• R. 'Morning Magic': is one of the most striking of the white varieties and bears relatively large flowers.

• R. 'Fantastica': is recognised by its two tone flowers which begin as crimson and then turn to a spectacular shade of pink.




  • Increase the number of Rhododendron species and cultivars you are familiar with.
  • Develop a foundation of framework for understanding different groups of Rhododendrons. This will make it easier to learn, understand and retain information whenever you encounter new species or cultivars in the future.
  • Discover how extensive the study of Rhododendrons can be - the more you learn, the more you will realize there is to learn.
  • Improve your capacity to propagate and grow rhododendrons in different places and different ways.
  • Begin to establish a reputation as an expert with Rhododendrons and Azaleas.


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Our principal John Mason is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture

Member of the Nursery and Garden Industry Association since 1993

ACS is a silver sponsor of the AIH. The principal, John Mason, is a fellow. ACS certificate students are offered a free membership for this leading professional body.Provider.

Recognised since 1999 by IARC

Course Contributors

The following academics were involved in the development and/or updating of this course.

Yvonne Sharpe

RHS Cert.Hort, Dip.Hort, M.Hort, Cert.Ed., Dip.Mgt. Over 30 years experience in business, education, management and horticulture. Former department head at a UK government vocational college. Yvonne has traveled widely within and beyond Europe, and has

Adriana Fraser (Horticulturist)

Adriana has worked in horticulture since the 1980's. She has lived what she preaches - developing large gardens and growing her own fruit, vegetables and herbs and making her own preserves.
In 1992 she formalised her training by graduating with a certif

Gavin Cole (Horticulturist)

Gavin started his career studying building and construction in the early 80's. Those experiences have provided a very solid foundation for his later work in landscaping. In 1988 he completed a B.Sc. and a few years later a Certificate in Garden Design. I

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