As people with just the haziest knowledge of Japan are generally aware, there is in that country no small affection for the cherry blossom. From March to April, the delicate blooms progressively make their way northward along the length of Japan, and only someone with a temperament of stone would fail to be unmoved by the billowing grandeur of the pale-pink clouds. However, as we all know, all things come to an end, and so it is that eventually the petals sadly fall, leaving behind the bright-green cherry leaves. But as if to make up for that lost splendor, nature in Japan offers something by way of floral compensation: the passing of the cherry blossom season heralds the time for azaleas.
Like cherry trees, azaleas have been widely planted in Japan. Lines of the hardy shrubs attractively adding color along roadsides are a very common sight in Tokyo and other cities, and azaleas are popular plants in parks and gardens. The lobed tubular flowers command such esteem that a number of places hold azalea festivals. One of the most notable is the festival in Higashi Village on the northeastern coast of the main island of Okinawa, which begins in early March. Every year, around 80,000 visitors go to feast their eyes on some 50,000 planted azaleas.
More than the attractions of the flowers themselves, though, back in the days before Japan became prosperous and its city streets bristled with convenience stores, children looked to azaleas for a different purpose. They used the blooms as an alternative to the candy they were unable to afford. Youngsters would twist off the flower and suck the sweet nectar from its base. When older Japanese recount such tales of their youth, it is a charming reflection of life in a more impoverished but simpler age.
But beyond this image of a youth unsullied by latter-day sophistications, there is the remarkable fact that so many Japanese have such fond memories of the experience and emerged unscathed. As well as being renowned for their beauty, azaleas are notoriously toxic. One of the earliest historical accounts of mass poisoning occurred in the first century BC when, according to ancient historian Pliny the Elder in Natural History, Roman troops intending to invade Pontus, a region beside the eastern Black Sea, were enticed to consume what is known as “mad honey.” They were so debilitated after eating the deliberately planted sweet stuff they were heavily defeated by defending forces. Modern commentators believe that the honey was produced by bees that fed on the nectar of Rhododendron luteum, the yellow azalea.
As the Latin name for that plant indicates, both azaleas and rhododendrons belong to the genus Rhododendron. Most of the rhododendrons and azaleas grown in Japan were originally introduced from China, but they have been a familiar part of Japan’s scenery for many centuries. Since the first book on azaleas, Kinshu makura (“Brocade Pillow”), appeared in 1692, the plants have traditionally been classified into two groups: tsutsuji and satsuki. It is the tsutsuji that are the first to appear, hot on the heels of the cherry blossoms. The satsuki do not begin to bloom until around June, their name in fact being derived from the old name for the fifth month of the year in the lunar calendar.
However, an appreciation for azaleas goes much further back than that 1692 volume. In seventh-century Nara, then the capital of the nation, azaleas appear to have adorned the residence of Prince Kusakabe, the imperial crown prince. In the eleventh-century work The Tale of Genji, a masterpiece of Japanese literature and often described as the world’s first novel, the titular hero, Prince Genji, takes the young Murasaki, who was the great love of his life, to his magnificent new mansion in Kyoto. There, he gave her a residence with a garden, in which azaleas were planted together with cherry trees and wisteria because he understood how much Murasaki loved the spring.
It was after Edo (as Tokyo was previously known) replaced Kyoto as Japan’s political center in 1600 that something of an azalea boom began to develop in the country. Gardeners looked to something other than the classical peonies and camellias that had been admired for centuries, and they found it in the shape of azaleas. Plant collectors began hunting around the country for new azalea varieties, going as far as the Okinawa (then called Ryukyu) that is home to the Higashi Village festival. Gardening had traditionally been regarded as a pastime of the rich, but the azalea allowed it to be something that could be enjoyed by people of all classes. Kinshu makura was one tangible expression of all that interest in azaleas.
The azalea that has been so greatly appreciated by the people of Japan since ancient times has not, however, made its presence quite so strongly felt in the decorative arts. The trumpet-shaped blossoms have never really been honored as a central theme in Japanese painting nor been chosen with the same regularity as their flowery competitors for use as a motif. One reason for the azalea’s inability to engage the creative genius could be related to the less than glorious manner in which the dazzling splendor of the azalea flowers finds its end. Unlike cherry blossoms, which depart the branches in a gentle rain of pink petals, the flowers tend to sag, droop and cling to the leaves with just no sense of finale.
Though azaleas may not have figured as prominently in the visual arts as other flowers, the sheer beauty of the bloom has never been in contention since ancient times. One poem that appears in the Man’yoshu, the eighth-century poetry collection that is the oldest such collection in Japan, exquisitely uses the azalea as a touching simile for a mother, sorrowful over the absence of her child:
She waited, standing or sitting,
wondering on what day, what month or what year,
her son, handsome as the azalea,
would return to her again.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.