Rhododendrons belong to the Ericaceae or erica family. Other familiar members of this family
include the heaths and heathers (Erica and Calluna) mountain laurel (Kalmia),
(Pieris), cranberry (Vaccinium) , Leucothe and Andromeda. Almost all of the ericaceous genera
make good garden plants. Several other genera are often associated with rhododendrons but they do
not belong in the same family: Camellia is in the Theaceae, Daphne in the Thymalaeaceae and
Mag- nolia in the Magnoliaceae.
With so many species discovered over several centuries it is perhaps not surprising that the genus
Rhododendron has been split into more manageable groups and revised several times. Currently the
genus is divided into eight subgenera:
The first four of these subgenera contain by far the bulk of the species – the entire genus but for five
species. Of the last four Candidastrum, Mumeazalea and Therorhodion each include only one species (R.
albiflorum, R. semibarbatum and R. camtshaticum respectively) while Azaleastrum includes two species
(R. ovatum and R. stamineum).
Subgenera Rhododendron and Hymenanthes include the plants that gardeners recognize as the
“true” rhododendrons. Some of these, the lepidote rhododendrons, have small scales on their leaves
and make up the subgenera Rhododendron. Elepidote rhododendrons, those without leaf scales,
form the subgenera Hymenanthes. Subgenus Pentanthera covers the deciduous azaleas and Tsutsutsi the evergreen azaleas.
Some of the subgenera are divided into sections, which are further divided into subsections. There
are also groupings known as alliances and aggregates composed of very closely related species.
Biological classification is based on the Linnean system of binomial (two names) nomenclature.
Binomial names are also known as proper, scientific or Latin names. Latin (and to a lesser extent Greek)
has always been the language of scholars and scientists and is very useful because it is an international
language without borders.
The genus, the first name, is a grouping of closely related plants that share certain characteristics. The
species, the second name, is a single plant type within the genus. So there can be many
rhododendrons but only one Rhododendron yakushimanum.
To qualify as a species a plant must be genetically stable and capable of reproducing true to type from
seed. Natural or artificial hybrids, mutants and selected forms are not regarded as new species because they
cannot naturally replicate themselves. If they are capable of natural replication yet can still interbreed
with the species they may be considered subspecies: naturally occurring, self-perpetuating variations.
Subspecies (the name is often abbreviated to ssp or subsp) are usually geographical variations that occur
after a population has been isolated for long periods. The genera and species are the last links in a long series of divisions and subdivisions. For most
purposes simple identification by genus (Rhododendron) and species (forrestii)
is adequate (remember that azaleas are part of the genus Rhododendron too).
Variety and cultivar names
Hybrids or unusual forms may occur naturally, and once a plant enters cultivation it is almost certain to
be hybridized or developed in some way. Hybrids and cultivated forms fail the first test of a species -they
cannot reproduce true to type from seed -so they must be classified in some other way.
Four terms are commonly used to describe these
plants: variety (correctly varietas), cultivar, hybrid and clone.
All garden plants are commonly called varieties, but the botanical definition is more precise. A
variety is a naturally occurring variation of a species, expressed as the abbreviation var, as in Rhododendron forrestii var tumescens. When cultivated it may also be known as a selected form. Forma is a term
similar to variety but usually differs from the species in less botanically important details.
Cultivar is a contraction of cultivated variety and refers to plants, occurring either naturally or
in cultivation, that are not capable of reproducing naturally and which must be perpetuated by
Hybrids are the result of crossing two plants of
different botanical classification. That most commonly means two different species within the same
genus, though hybrids between genera are also possible -with considerable limitations. When two
hybrids are themselves crossed they no longer fully fit the description of a hybrid or a cultivar, so the
term culton was instituted. Although a useful term, it is hardly ever used and such plants are usually
referred to as cultivars. Clones are vegetative replicas of the original cultivar or hybrid. As most garden shrubs,
they are not reproduced by repeatedly crossing the same parent strains, the term is used
somewhat interchangeably with cultivar and hybrid.
What is an azalea?
Strictly speaking there is no such thing; all azaleas are rhododendrons.
Initially the azaleas were classified separately from the rhododendrons but with
time it became clear that the division was artificial.
The azaleas form two of the eight rhododendron subgenera. The deciduous
azaleas make up the subgenera Pentanthera and the evergreen azaleas are classified under Tsutsutsi.
Obviously, deciduous azaleas drop all of their foliage in the fall. But that doesn’t mean that
evergreen azaleas retain their foliage. While they hold most of their leaves through fall, by the end of
winter they can be almost bare, especially in cold climates. Because “evergreen” azaleas can shed
much of their foliage, botanists prefer the term persistent-leaved to evergreen for these plants.
Evergreen azaleas have two distinct types of foliage, thus they are dimorphic. Look closely at the
foliage of an evergreen azalea as it develops through the growing season and the two forms will be readily
apparent. The new growth that develops in spring is light in texture and quite a bright green. These
leaves last through summer but begin to drop in the fall and carry on dropping through winter. The
second flush of new growth that develops in summer and early fall is of a heavier texture, is darker green
and tends to persist through winter.