At this time of year, you’ll see neat little domes of dark foliage topped with candy-coloured flowers appearing in florists, garden centres and on supermarket shelves.
These little treasures are commonly known as indoor or Indian azaleas and are, in fact, rhododendrons (R. simsii).
They are perennially popular for Christmas displays, yet, like their Poinsettia and cyclamen shelf-mates, they have a bit of a reputation for being picky.
Don’t let their diva-like behaviour turn you away. Indoor azaleas will reward patient owners with a scrumptious floral display.
The deep green, oval leaves of the indoor azalea are slightly hairy
Firstly, choose the correct plant. An azalea that is dry is an azalea that will die.
They really loathe dry compost, and if a plant dries out even once it will usually drop all its flower buds. Foliage will also dull, and the brown papery husks that protect the buds will also drop everywhere.
Choose a bold, healthy plant that has a few open flowers and a ton of buds to keep the flowering season stretching well into the new year.
Check that the compost is moist and ideally buy from a well-ventilated, cool display area, rather than a stuffy, hot one.
Flowers come in shades from white through to baby pink, coral and magenta.
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Indoor azaleas originally come from mountainous regions in Asia, where the soil rarely dries, and the air is humid. For this reason, azaleas like a cool, bright spot with just a smidge of sunlight in the winter.
They can survive temperatures as low as 7°C, though prefer around 10-15°C. The cooler you keep your plants, the longer they will flower and the slower they’ll dry out. At temperatures above 21°C, plants will begin to suffer and drop flowers.
A bathroom, porch, kitchen or utility room is ideal. Try to avoid centrally-heated rooms and always keep away from heat sources.
Azaleas can be grown as bonsai, but are even more difficult than normal. Standard plants are an easier alternative.
Damp from top to toe
At a risk of repeating myself, indoor azaleas really don’t react well to drying out.
They enjoy drenched roots and being watered from the bottom using a tray. Remember: damp, not soggy. As a rhododendron, the indoor azalea prefers soft water, so rainwater is ideal.
Misting or standing on a gravel tray is an excellent way to elevate humidity levels and keep plants content.
If you manage to keep your azalea happy through the winter months, then it will put on a new flush of growth come spring.
You can place them outside in the summer, or plant them out if you wanted to. They’ll need to come in again around September/October time, though, as the indoor azalea is not hardy and will die if caught by a heavy frost.
A cool, bright windowsill, such as North or East-facing is ideal, but avoid placing above a radiator.
The plants we buy around Christmas have usually been forced to flower early. So if your plant blooms in subsequent years, it will more likely be in late winter/early spring.
Feed with ericaceous fertiliser during the summer and, once more for luck, never allow to dry out completely.
Always keep compost damp
A cool, bright spot is ideal
Humid conditions mean happy plants
Never allow to dry out fully
A cool greenhouse or conservatory (not frost hardy) is ideal
Pests and diseases include:
Buy in bud for the longest flowering season, much like this handsome specimen