JARS v44n2 - The First International Azalea Festival, 1989, Kurume

The First International Azalea Festival, 1989, Kurume
Satoshi Yamaguchi, Ph.D.
Lab. of Ornamental Plant Science
Kurume, Fukuoka, Japan

The city of Kurume is located in the northern part of Kyushu Island, Japan. Although not well known to foreigners, Kurume is familiar to all Japanese as the home of the Kurume azalea.

In 1989, Kurume celebrated its 100th anniversary with several special events. The main event, the International Azalea Festival, took place in April and honored the important role the Kurume area plays in the nursery business in Japan. During the 28 day festival, some eight million people visited the festival site. Dr. T. Chikami, former mayor of Kurume, and Dr. J.L. Creech from the U.S. along with Dr. T. Tamura were among those who initiated the festival planning.

Display Garden

Over 200,000 plants, with more than 1,000 varieties of evergreen azaleas, were exhibited in the display garden. Some of the plants formed a huge stylized five petal azalea flower. Others made an azalea pyramid 10 meters high with a 10 meter square base resembling a sky garden. Visitors also saw very old azalea trees including a 300 year old Kirishima azalea and a 150 year old R. scabrum .

Flowering azaleas at Festival site.
Flowering azaleas at Festival site.
Photo by Satoshi Yamaguchi

The Pavilions

One pavilion displayed azaleas collected from foreign countries including the U.S., U.K., Belgium, West Germany, and others. Here visitors enjoyed a multi-screen TV display of azalea cultivars and a traditional Japanese azalea garden exhibit. A second pavilion featured a large Rikka style ikebana and housed commercial nursery and landscape displays.

Miniature traditional Japanese azalea
garden in Pavilion.
Miniature traditional Japanese azalea garden in Pavilion.
Photo by Satoshi Yamaguchi

The Azalea Symposium

The Azalea Symposium took place midway through the festival. Dr. J.L. Creech (U.S.) spoke on 'The First Kurume Azalea Festival - A World Occasion". He stressed the importance of preserving the genetic resources of evergreen azalea species and hybrids.

Dr. J. Heursel (Belgium) described the introduction and development of "Kurume Azaleas in Western Europe." Japanese speakers included T. Ohgai on "More Flowers and Greening Plants in Our City Life," Dr. T. Tamura discussed "Prospects of Wild Azalea for Future Horticulture," and Dr. S. Yamaguchi described "The Origin of Kurume Azaleas."

Kurume Azalea Monograph

The festival executive committee supervised a special azalea publication written in both Japanese and English. This book, Monograph of Kurume Azaleas and Their Relatives , contains articles by Dr. Creech, Dr. Heursel, Dr. K. Heike (Czechoslovakia) and Dr. Yamaguchi. All varieties of Kurume and other evergreen azaleas are described and pictured in full color. The book is available from the Ashishobou Publishing Company, 1-2,Akasaka-3,Chuoku, Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan.

Azalea Tour

After the symposium, tour groups visited areas of Kyushu where rhododendron species are native and where hybrid swarms, the presumptive ancestor of the cultivated Kurume azalea, are found. The group I led traveled first to the west, where we visited Mt. Seburi, a 1,000 meter high mountain range, with large stands of R. reticulatum and some R. metternichii . Halfway to Shimabara, near Mt. Unzen, we toured the Yaetane Seed Co., growers of florist azaleas and later stopped at the Yokota Nursery, the largest specialty grower of R. kiusianum .

We continued south towards Mt. Kirishima. Although it was still early for R. kiusianum flowers, we saw a fine hybrid swarm of intermediate plants of R. kiusianum and R. kaempferi in bloom. Plants such as these may be the ancestors of the Kurume azalea. Many Japanese horticulturists believe Mt. Kirishima is the birth place of the Kurume azalea's provisional ancestral plants.

While at Kirishima, we visited Kagoshima University and Dr. Kenichi Arisumi, an authority on flower pigment analysis and color breeding and a leader in hybridizing for heat tolerant rhododendrons and azaleas.

We reached Mt. Takatoge just as R. sataense was beginning to flower. The flowers on the hilly slopes were extraordinarily beautiful - it was like a paradise. Astonishingly, we met Dr. Creech's tour group there. All the azalea groups: American, European and Japanese stood together on Mt. Takatoge. To me this symbolized the meeting and mixing of different gene pools which is the main cause of the genetic diversification needed to produce a new species!

After leaving Dr. Creech's group and Mt. Takatoge, we visited the still active volcano, Mt. Sakurajima. We were fortunate enough to have fine weather on the days we saw azaleas, with rain only on our travel days.

Our final stop was Beppu, famous for its many hot springs. Here we toured the Ă“hita Pefecture Horticultural Experiment Station. The station specializes in the utilization of hot-springs energy, using it to warm the greenhouses and sanitize soil compost. This station is also the center for Malaysian rhododendron genetic preservation in Japan and has a long history breeding Bungo azaleas (cross of Kurume and Hirado) and deciduous azaleas (fragrant polyploid).

At Fukuoka we said goodbye to each other. We will all remember our azalea tour in Kyushu and the success of the First International Azalea Festival '89 in Kurume. I am happy to add that the Kurume city officials plan to construct an azalea arboretum to display and preserve all the azaleas collected for the festival.

Dr. Yamaguchi is a plant breeder with the National Research Institute of Vegetables, Ornamental Plants and Tea, Kurume, Japan. He has been senior author and co-author of several technical articles previously published in the ARS Journal.