My Favorite Yashio Azaleas
Reprinted from the Vancouver Chapter newsletter, October 2000
This group of azaleas consists of three azaleas species native mostly to mountains in the Kanto
region of Japan, which includes metropolitan Tokyo. The three azaleas are:
Aka (red) Yashio azalea or Rhododendron pentaphyllum.
Shiro (white) Yashio azalea or Rhododendron quinquefolium.
Murasaki (purple) Yashio azalea or Rhododendron albrechtii.
Since they are all heat-tender, it is not easy for us to grow them at low elevations here. The interesting thing is that although they have been called Yashio azaleas for the past several hundred years, almost no one knows today what Yashio means. There is a prefecture called Tochigi, situated north-northeast of Tokyo in the same region. On the mountains in this area the Yashio azaleas are abundant.
A governor of the prefecture a long time ago happened to be a rhododendron hobbyist. He was so fond of the three Yashio azaleas that he designated all three as the flowers of his prefecture. Usually the symbol of a local government is limited to one species, but he greedily included all three Yashio azalea species as his prefecture flowers. In writing this account I phoned the Tourist Section of the prefecture and, just for fun, asked them what Yashio meant. As expected, not one there knew the answer.
I live in a small city some 50 miles north of Tokyo. On April 20th [of last year] I drove some 45 miles north of my town and visited a nature park on the side of Mt. Akagi. Mt. Akagi has been known to us for the past several hundred years and appears in a famous drama. Its peak is 6600 feet (1980 m) high and the nature park is located between 2000 and 2300 feet (600 and 690 m). When I called at the park, the Aka Yashio azaleas, or Rhododendron pentaphyllum, were all in full bloom and the sight was just spectacular. I didn't count how many were there, but nearly all of them were over 100 years old, and the flower shade varied from one tree to another. Some were almost white, some pale pink, and some were deep pink. The gradation of flower colour was fascinating.
Photo by Hideo Suzuki
Photo by Hideo Suzuki
Rhododendron pentaphyllum has also been known to us as "akagi azalea." A long time ago the villagers living at the foot of the mountain collected bunches of the flowering branches in early spring and brought them all the way to Tokyo, where they sold them, shouting, "How about akagi azaleas? Hence the name "akagi azalea." When they bought them the people in Tokyo put the branches in vases filled with lukewarm water and waited till the flowers opened. I have been thinking of making an experiment duplicating the practice to see how long it took from a certain day of collecting for the flowers to open, but so far I have not got around to it.
Then on May 17th, I made another trip to Akagi Nature Park. The season there usually is a month behind because of the elevation. This time Rhododendron quinquefolium or shiro (white) Yashio azaleas were at their best. Pure white flowers with emerald green leaves were all over there. What a beautiful sight! To tell the truth, while the Akagi Nature Park was still in the process of being developed, I worked for several years as an advisor on a volunteer basis.
Photo by Hideo Suzuki
Speaking of Rhododendron quinquefolium reminds me of a bitter experience I had decades ago. On a mountain owned by an acquaintance of mine I discovered a giant and gorgeous R. quinquefolium tree. Its appearance resembled a trained pine bonsai, but it was huge and appeared to sit on a large flat rock. People said it must have been at least 500 years old. Though I was a novice then, when it came to rhododendrons the tree intrigued me, and I purchased it on the spot from my acquaintance, the owner of the mountain. It was quite a project to dig and carry it down to the foot on the mountain. I hired six people, a bulldozer and a truck and planted the azalea in my garden. The following spring beautiful, pure white flowers covered all the branches of the tree. I was very pleased and excited. The following spring it also gave me a good show of flowers, just as it did the first year. Then, our rainy season arrived in June and the azalea looked rather weak. With the advent of our hot and humid summer in July it became weaker, and in the fall it passed away. I felt guilty losing such a splendid R. quinquefolium. I now think I should have at least removed all the flowering buds the first year the plant was in my garden.
Last but not least of the three Yashio azaleas is murasaki (purple) Yashio azalea, or Rhododendron albrechtii. It is not indigenous to Mt. Akagi and we did not plant them there. Some 20 miles north of Mt. Akagi there is a hot spring spa called Kusatsu on the side of a mountain. It is Japan's most famous hot spring spa, one that all Japanese know at least by name. About 20 years ago I visited the spa early in spring. But it seemed that spring was nowhere near ready to arrive, with skeleton deciduous trees and brown grass as far as one could see. The sight was lonely and miserable. When I looked more closely, however, something of deep purplish red could be seen here and there. These were the flowers of R. albrechtii, which appeared before the leaves. I was so impressed with their beauty that I stood there a long time admiring these azaleas. The next day I moved to another hot spring spa about 20 miles to the west (Japanese like hot springs very much!). There I again came across R. albrechtii. To my disappointment, however, the flower colour was a pale purplish red and not as pretty as those I had seen the day before. Evidently the flower colour varies with the habitat.
Drawing by Hideo Suzuki
At one time or another I have cultivated all three Yashio azaleas in my garden. Some lasted for as much as 10 years, but most for a much shorter period of time. I think, however, they must be happier in British Columbia where the summers are much nicer, and cooler. Here in Japan, Yashio azaleas are flowers you can enjoy only in the wild, in the mountains.
Hideo Suzuki is the Immediate past President of the Japanese Rhododendron Society.