Royal Azalea



Shell-pink flowers, generously-sized, and on a graceful bush grown as much for leaves as flowers, Royal azalea is the azalea to have in Summer as well as Spring gardens.


Indeed, I have a pair of them, nodding across from one another in the North and South Pink Borders.


Because my gardens' peak season is July to frost, Spring is my season of inadvertent horticultural interest. Sure, things bloom, and often spectacularly so. And, as we're seeing, there's a crush of colorful Spring foliage too.


But entropy and expectation lurks on all sides of these individual high points. Hasty piles of April prunings and weedings, joined in May by crates of tender tubers to plant, flats of annuals ditto, and a hundred or two pots of everything that's been overwintering in the greenhouse. All silently pleading to be handled, planted, removed, arrayed, and adored.


No wonder that April and May and even much of June, exciting as they are, are just what happens on the way to Summer.


So it's high praise indeed for me to actually plant an azalea or a rhododendron, which are usually exciting in Spring and then just so much horticultural padding and furniture the rest of the year.


But Rhododendron schlippenbachii is a season-long story. In truth even if it were a one-trick pony I'd be tempted to plant it just for the name itself.   Baron von Schlippenbach (poor guy—von Schlippenbach?—although I'm sure he couldn't have been prouder) collected the shrub in the Russian Far East in 1854. 


To English-speakers the name is a bit funny just in the sound of it, but also because it's a bit of prophetic punning. A couple of decades on and it's not unusual for the bush to begin to fail branch by branch. It schlips back, bit by bit, until it's all gone.  It has entered the age of schlippin' back.


While it's still alive enough to greet the new season, the gracefully-sparse Spring flowers are nothing like the wall-to-wall, foliage-obscuring veneer of flowers that evergreen "foundation-plant" azaleas wear. Those bushes often look like tissue-paper souvenirs of floats from a Rosebowl Parade.


Rhododendron schlippenbachii is only spangled with flowers, not spackled. The blooms are few enough to be appreciated as individuals. Even better, their scattered array is just the thing to complement the emerging leaves.


Especially compared with the small, almost box-leaf foliage of evergreen azaleas, schlip's leaves are large indeed—three to five inches inches. And they're in whorls of five or six right at the tips of the twigs. 




After a Spring blush of tan or burgundy, they settle into Summer with a hint of cooling blue—just the color to partner with the pink, burgundy, yellow, indigo, or white of warm-weather flowers and foliage of near neighbors in its bed.


Having written that, what's bumping elbows with my own schlips? Am I taking advantage of how well the schlip's distinctive foliage synergizes with upcoming Summer excitement? Well, let's see. My two schlips' kindly abutters are Rosa 'Sally Holmes': Palest pink flowers. Acer negundo 'Flamingo': White and pink foliage. Mum 'Last of All': Pink flowers. Salix alba 'Sericea': Silver-willow leaves. Luzula nivea: White woodland-grass flowers. Clerodendron trichotomum: White flowers, burgundy calyxes, blue berries. Eupatorium fortunei 'Pink Elegance': Pink and white leaves, white flowers. And, if it ever gets a head of steam, Clematis viticella 'Abundance', with deep burgundy flowers.


Good: I'm practicing what I preach.


Oh yes: the "Royal" azalea thing. The bush is also native to Korea, where (I'm guessing) it was understandably a favorite with the elites and the patriots. It's also used as the floral emblem of a number of Korean cities and counties today. Into royalty yourself? This is the one azalea you must be sure to plant.  Just into great plants with multi-season appeal? Ditto.



Here's how to welcome this classy azalea to your garden:


Latin Name

Rhododendron schippenbachii

Common Name

Royal Azalea


Ericaceae, the heather family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous shrub.


Zones 5 - 9


Broadly-upright, with visible branches accented by distinctive foliage. 

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

Six feet tall and almost that wide.  Older individuals can get over twelve feet tall.


The foliage is so large—intermediate with that of a generic azalea and a generic rhododendron—that the shrub can be a lively mystery.  With the branching visible, more like that of a native rhododendron, this is a graceful and airy shrub.

Grown for

the large pale-pink or white flowers in small clusters at the tips of the branched. 


the accompanying, and then Summer-long-enduring, whorls of unusual foliage. The Fall foliage color is exciting, too.

Flowering season




Humus-rich "woodland" soil, light and leafy and moisture-retentive, with good Winter drainage.  Full sun is fine if there's the water for it, otherwise afternoon shade. 

How to handle it

After it's established this is a shrub that needs little but time and affection. The branching pattern is naturally graceful, the growth is steady if not truly speedy, the flowering reliable.


Would look even more elegant if underplanted with dark-leaved groundcover, to contrast with the blue-hinted Summer foliage.  Liriope perhaps? Shade-tolerant carex? And like almost anything that flowers, if there were ever opportunity to back the shrub with a dark-foliaged and well-clipped hedge, avail yourself of it.  The light flowers and foliage will show up all the better, as well as the tan-barked branches in the Winter.  And the natural growth pattern will be highlighted by the dense vertical plane of hedge behind it.


None—except if/when yours begins to "schlip back." Good soil, kind watering during droughts, and a supportive word now and then are my recipe for a long a happy life. Me as well as the shrub. 


Rhododendron schlippenbachii is reported as being preferred by deer over all other azaleas and rhodies. It's worth it to cover the shrub with a net. 


White-flowered forms are available too.


On-line and at retailers.  This is a shrub whose sterling qualities seem immune to tarnishing by popularity.


Layering, cuttings, seeds.

Native habitat

Far-East Asia















FacebookTwitterRSS Feed

Stay in touch!


Sign up for twice-monthly eNews, plus notification of new posts:


* indicates required