Rhododendron vs Azalea: How to Tell the Difference

Updated: Mar. 29, 2023

Be a garden sleuth and find out the identify of your mystery plant. See key differences between rhododendron vs azalea shrubs.

Baltimore orioleCourtesy Marcia Festa
Male Baltimore oriole on a blooming rhododendron

Some plants are just hard to identify—rhododendrons and azaleas definitely fall under this category. They both glow with fresh pink flowers in spring that, on first glance, look very similar to each other. So maybe you bought a mystery plant off of the clearance rack at the garden center or simply lost the plant tag years ago, but you can still make an educated guess. Follow these general guidelines to tell the difference between rhododendron vs azalea.

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Are Rhododendrons and Azaleas the Same?

The two plants are very closely related. In fact, azaleas are actually part the rhododendron genus. This means all azaleas are technically rhododendrons, but not all rhododendrons are azaleas.

The traits listed below are generalities. While they generally hold true, it’s possible for a rhododendron to display the characteristics of an azalea (and vice versa!). Hybrids and cultivars can be especially tricky to identify.

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Differences Between Rhododendron and Azalea

How to Identify an Azalea

Bloom-A-Thon azalea features double pink flowers with frilly petals that decorate the entire shrub.Courtesy of Proven Winners - www.provenwinners.com
Bloom-A-Thon azalea features double pink flowers with frilly petals that decorate the entire shrub.
  • Size: Azaleas are usually smaller, with some ground cover varieties only growing 1 to 2 feet tall.
  • Foliage: Their pointed and narrow leaves that are sometimes fuzzy. Many species are deciduous, dropping their greenery in the fall.
  • Blooms: The flowers tend to be more spread out on stems and more funnel-shaped. They also have less than five stamens, which are the long structures that stick out of the center of the flower.

Azalea Care

12 Bbam23 Juliewolfe1 orange azaleaCourtesy Julie Wolfe
Orange azalea flowers

To properly care for azaleas, horticultural expert Melinda Myers notes: “Azaleas prefer partial sun and acidic soil that is also moist and drains well. Soggy soil is detrimental to the shallow roots of azaleas. It can be beneficial to cover the surrounding soil with a 2-to-3-inch layer of organic mulch, such as pine straw, composted pine bark or leaves. This helps conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds and insulate the roots from temperature extremes. Just pull the mulch back from the stems to keep them dry.”

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How to Identify a Rhododendron

Dandy Man pink rhododendron blooms grow in clusters at the end of each plant.Courtesy of Proven Winners - www.provenwinners.com
Dandy Man pink rhododendron blooms grow in clusters at the end of each plant.
  • Size: Rhododendrons are generally larger flowering bushes, with some growing 20 feet wide.
  • Foliage: Most of the leaves are bigger, evergreen and more leathery than the ones that grow on azaleas. Some species have speckles, often called scales, on the underside of leaves.
  • Blooms: Look for flowers that are bundled in groups at the end of the stems. They may be bell-shaped and have 10 or more stamens.

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Rhododendron vs Azalea: Get Expert ID Help

When it comes to identifying a rhododendron vs an azalea, it’s never bad to get a second opinion. Try contacting your local cooperative extension office or gardening club for help. They can help you pinpoint your exact plant and offer care tips.

You can also submit your gardening question to Birds & Blooms via our online form. If it is chosen for publication, our garden experts will answer it in an upcoming issue of the magazine.

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