"Here at Encore® Azalea, we're excited to be debuting a plant that's both nostalgic and unique. We increasingly see consumers and landscape professionals looking for these kind of plants, and I think the Autumn Moonstruck™, the latest addition to the Encore Azalea collection, certainly fits the bill", says Robert 'Buddy' Lee of Plant Development Services. Lee is the inventor of the Encore collection and breeder of the varieties in this collection. Autumn Moonstruck is the first Encore release with stable variegated foliage.
Robert 'Buddy' Lee
From a breeder's perspective, Lee worked on Autumn Moonstruck for several years before he put it into production. "I wanted to make sure that its color was stable. It's unusual for an azalea to offer gold variegation, so I sensed early on that we had found something special. When it comes to variegation, azaleas can tend toward reversion, so we worked for years to ensure that this variety would be extremely stable. We're pleased to confirm that it is. Another standout quality of this variety is its semi-double pure white blooms, which bloom in spring and repeat season after season, similar to the rest of the Encore Azalea collection – known as the world's best-selling reblooming azalea collection. In the fall, the blooms on Autumn Moonstruck are particularly heavy. White flowers always fascinate me because they stand out in the landscape – they seem to shout, 'Here I am!'." Like all Encore Azaleas, Autumn Moonstruck reblooms in spring, summer, and fall and blooms best in full sun to partial shade conditions. The variety thrives in USDA Zones 7a-10b and reaches 5' high by 4' wide when mature.
Azalea, only an old plant in name
But how has the popularity of the Azalea developed over the years? "Historically, azaleas were the backbone of the Southern garden, then demand diminished a bit in the latter part of the past century with the introduction of new plants and competition. Early on, bigleaf rhododendrons and deciduous azaleas were key fixtures on the market, but with the onset of the multi-season bloomers and new varieties of evergreen azaleas, we're now seeing evergreen azaleas rise to the top again. Today, azalea interest has increased over other types of rhododendrons because azaleas have more adaptability to a wider range of conditions. Also, a new generation of gardeners is realizing that azaleas – particularly reblooming azaleas – reward even the most inexperienced gardener with bloom after bloom and easy care. 'Azalea' is an old plant in name, but new selections like Autumn Moonstruck are bringing an air of freshness and excitement to it."
A plant that thrives
On top of seeking unusual or new varieties, everyone, regardless of whether you're a home gardener or a landscaper, is looking for a plant that will thrive without too much fuss. "In that regard, Autumn Moonstruck excels as well. It's easy to take care of, and it's a great production plant with strong roots and excellent growth. That toughness combined with its aesthetic appeal makes it well-suited to meet the growing demand for unique plants."
Lee and the team of Plant Development Services, Inc. also notice that consumers are being drawn toward plants with a familiar or nostalgic element, like those they saw as a child in 'grandma's garden.' "Every year, there are hundreds of new plants hitting store shelves, but the plants that consumers recognize will always feel more comfortable. In short, they're seeking something exciting yet recognizable. Azaleas carry that wonderful sense of comfort and familiarity for so many gardeners, particularly those in the Southeast, but Autumn Moonstruck offers them something new."
More color in more places
"Autumn Moonstruck offers more color in more places. When people think about color in a landscape plant, the first thing that comes to mind is usually flowers. Autumn Moonstruck offers eye-catching color in the form of crisp white blooms and stunning variegated foliage, so it's a guarantee of beautiful, visually dynamic color in all four seasons. And when you consider the fact that those iconic blooms will rebloom season after season just like the rest of the Encore Azalea collection, Autumn Moonstruck really offers something unparalleled on the market. I think consumers will enjoy Autumn Moonstruck as a particularly striking specimen plant – it would fit well in a prominent place, front and center in a landscape. It could also be used as a border or a line of plants in a location that really demands something stunning and eye-catching."
Expectations Autumn Moonstruck
According to Lee, the demand for azaleas is rising. And in anticipating how the demand will develop for Autumn Moonstruck, he has high expectations. "As more and more people grow Autumn Moonstruck and it gets more established in landscapes, it will emerge as a recognizable and highly sought-after variety in the marketplace. When people have success with beautiful plants like this one, it's contagious. We've certainly seen it before with other high-performing Encore Azaleas, and we anticipate this to be a strong performer as well. Its uniqueness will keep it in a good competitive space, even among the other Encores on the market."
More variegated leave varieties in the pipeline
Will more varieties with variegated leaves follow? Lee: "I've been working on variegated azalea varieties for numerous years and am getting closer with a few plants that are in the evaluation stage. Variegation is a quality that I like very much in a plant, and I'm exploring ways to incorporate red hues in new growth, reddish stripes, and different variegation. But it's easier said than done; sometimes, you lose vigor when you start adding these traits. Being novel is one thing, but keeping all those traits together on a strong, vigorous plant takes time, and we're committed to doing it right. I am working hard on it and have several moving forward."