Wednesday 3 May 2017

Amazing (and poisonous) Azaleas

A line of red azalea bushes running off into the distance
Red azaleas along a local boardwalk
After the sakura and together with the wisteria, the most common flower this time of year are the azaleas (tsutsuji), typically large white or pink flowers that are a member of the Rhododendron family. The flower is quite amazing close up since one petal (usually the top) has an incredible pattern which looks like it has been stamped or imprinted on the flower, and this pattern overlaps slightly with the two petals either side (see picture right). Nezu Shrine in Tokyo, which has a beautiful 300-year-old azalea garden, is currently holding an azalea festival (tsutsuji matsuri) - poster below.

Smaller and late blooming Satsuki azaleas (June 3rd)
There are actually two closely related plants in Japan, the tsutsuji which bloom from mid-April and the shinier and smaller satsuki (Satsuki azaleas - pictured right) which are native to Japan and bloom later from mid-May (hence the kanji 皐月/五月 which means fifth month in the old lunar calendar). Since they are both closely related types of Rhododendron, most Japanese have a hard time distinguishing them. Apparently, in the past in Japan children use to twist off the tsutsuji flower and suck the sweet nectar from the bottom of the bloom. This would seem to be rather dangerous "old-fashioned kid's play" (mukashi asobi) given that one variety (renge-tsutsuji or Japanese azalea) is poisonous enough to cause convulsions and breathing problems!