The 'Lights' series of azaleas brings the colors of the tropics to Minnesota's early spring landscape. The plants are world-renowned for varied colors and incredible flower bud hardiness—an achievement that initially took two decades. The first crosses were made in 1957; 'Northern Lights'—with various shades of fragrant pink flowers on a 4- to 6-foot bush—was the first introduction, in 1978. Since then, 12 new 'Lights' have been released.

Although nearly commonplace in zone 4 landscapes today, the range of colors and flower forms in the 'Lights' azaleas were unknown even as recently as the mid-'80s when some of the richer yellow, orange, and multihued cultivars began to find their way into the landscape.

University azalea breeders continue to improve foliage quality and powdery mildew resistance. Researchers are screening 41 deciduous azalea varieties in replicated field plots in Minnesota and Ohio to identify mildew tolerant or resistant cultivars for use in future breeding. Most of the varieties in the field are also screened in growth chamber experiments to determine whether the same resistance/susceptibility reactions occur. If so, the powdery mildew screening can occur more quickly—on a smaller scale, in the off-season, and with less expense.

Breeders now also select for attractive fall foliage color, flower fragrance, and significantly extended bloom periods—cultivars that flower later into June and possibly even July.

U of M Azalea (RhododendronVarieties

Image Cultivar Year Color Features Plant Size
N/A Apricot Surprise 1987 Light orange Fragrant flowers and late flowering 3–4'
'Candy Lights' Azalea. Candy Lights™ 2001 Light pink Pale yellow streaks, very fragrant 5-6'
Electric Lights Double Pink Azalea Electric Lights Double Pink 2015 Light pink Double flowering, true pink, buds hardy to -30°F, blooms for 7 weeks  6'
Electric Lights Red Azalea Electric Lights Red 2015 Fiery red Blooms early. Compact, with shiny foliage, buds hardy to -30°F 4'
'Golden Lights' Azalea. Golden Lights 1986 Golden Fragrant. Greater mildew resistance 4-6'
'Lemon Lights' Azalea. Lemon Lights 1996 Lemon yellow Narrower, upright plant 4-5'
'Lilac Lights' Azalea. Lilac Lights™ 2001 Pinkish purple Darker speckles on upper lobes 3.5-5'
'Mandarin Lights' Azalea. Mandarin Lights 1992 Orange Extremely hardy 5-6.5'
'Northern Hi-Lights' Azalea. Northern Hi-Lights 1994 Creamy white Bright yellow upper petal 5-6'
'Northern Lights' Azalea. Northern Lights 1978 Pink Fragrant flowers, various shades of pink 4-7'
'Orchid Lights' Azalea. Orchid Lights 1986 Orchid Earliest flowering of the 'Lights.' Extremely hardy, compact plant 2-3'
'Rosy Lights' Azalea. Rosy Lights 1984 Deep rosy pink Abundant blossoms, buds hardy to -45° F 4-5'
'Spicy Lights' Azalea. Spicy Lights 1987 Salmon pink Large flowers. Early flowering 5-6.5'
'Trip Lights' Azalea. Tri Lights™ 2000 Soft pink Deep rose buds. Yellow upper petal highlight 5'
'White Lights' Azalea. White Lights 1984 White Abundant blossoms, with slight yellow highlight 5-6'

Did You Know?

Rhododendron is the genus name for both rhododendrons and azaleas. In the Upper Midwest, azalea refers to the deciduous members of the genus Rhododendron and rhododendron refers to those that hold their leaves through the winter.