Aza­leas worth get­ting to know

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

IN Ja­pan, Sat­suki are the most an­cient, nu­mer­ous and adored of all the groups of cul­ti­vated aza­leas. They take their name from the fifth month of their home­land’s old lu­nar calendar, which is when they bloom, start­ing in mid May, peak­ing around mid June and of­ten con­tin­u­ing into July. As a group, they com­prise two native Ja­panese species, Rhodo­den­dron in­dicum and R. eri­o­carpum, and, de­rived from them, a mul­ti­tude of cul­ti­vars and hy­brids.

All are com­pact ever­green or semi-de­cid­u­ous shrubs, sel­dom over 3ft tall and dense with diminu­tive leaves. They’re smaller than the Ku­rume Aza­leas in ev­ery re­spect apart from their flow­ers. These are showy and, although they open ten­ta­tively at first, they soon cover the bush in colour.

Sat­suki have been a stan­dard feature of Ja­panese gar­dens since the 12th cen­tury. Ei­ther clipped into shape (soon af­ter flow­er­ing) or left alone, they are the fa­mil­iar ever­green spheres, domes, amoe­bas, squares and low hedges that punc­tu­ate and struc­ture land­scape com­po­si­tions. As a de­sign el­e­ment, their veg­e­ta­tion’s sculp­tural per­ma­nence is more im­por­tant than the pass­ing beauty of their blooms, but the lat­ter have not lacked at­ten­tion.

Sat­suki breed­ing has yielded a vast range of flower form and colour. In some cul­ti­vars, the hue is con­sis­tent. In oth­ers, a re­mark­able pro­cliv­ity for sport­ing re­sults in blooms of more than one colour and pat­tern—say, red, white and red-and-white-striped —all on the same plant. Rather than prun­ing out such mu­ta­tions, the Ja­panese rightly let them co­ex­ist, ap­pre­ci­ate them as facets of kalei­do­scopic char­ac­ter.

Their love of these bushes that be­have like bou­quets is man­i­fest in myr­iad gar­dens, so­ci­eties and shows. In Tochigi, a Pre­fec­ture (county) famed for hor­ti­cul­ture, Sat­suki are a way of life and a liv­ing: nurs­ery af­ter nurs­ery is de­voted to their pro­duc­tion and, in some cases, craft­ing into bon­sai, an art for which they’re al­most as pop­u­lar as they are for land­scape gar­den­ing.

Sat­suki were prob­a­bly the first Ja­panese aza­leas to be grown in Europe. In 1680, Jakob Breyne, a Danzig mer­chant and plant ex­pert, pub­lished an ad­mir­ing de­scrip­tion of one that he’d seen in a gar­den in the Nether­lands. The Dutch im­ported them from Ja­pan via Batavia, their colony in Java. In con­se­quence, botanists mis­tak­enly be­lieved that they orig­i­nated from ‘In­dia’ (mean­ing the East Indies), hence Aza­lea in­dica, the name that Lin­naeus coined for them in 1753, a mis­nomer per­pet­u­ated in R. in­dicum.

They are hardy, but this er­ror about their ori­gin led Euro­peans to sup­pose oth­er­wise. In the 19th cen­tury, the prob­lem was com­pounded when the name Aza­lea in­dica was mis­ap­plied to a dif­fer­ent and gen­uinely cold­hat­ing species from south­ern China. This plant (cor­rectly, R. sim­sii) spawned a group of ten­der cul­ti­vars that be­came and re­main pop­u­lar in­door pot plants—va­ri­eties that, due to their par­ent’s misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion, were called In­dica or In­dian Aza­leas.

These eclipsed true R. in­dicum and its fel­low Sat­suki, which, in any case, rarely sur­vived their wrong-headed cos­set­ting in Western glasshouses. Of late, how­ever, we’ve been redis­cov­er­ing these plants. We’re be­gin­ning to use Sat­suki in Ja­panese-style schemes; as chic and shapely ev­er­greens in Euro­pean de­signs both Mod­ern and tra­di­tion­ally for­mal; to paint rock gar­dens and the edges of wood­land and wa­ter; among their Ku­rume cousins to ex­tend the flow­er­ing of aza­lea col­lec­tions; and (as I do) in large clay pots to make a dis­play around a court­yard. They ask lit­tle in re­turn: sun or good light for at least part of the day and cool, moist, but welldrained acid soil.

A num­ber of Bri­tish nurs­eries are now list­ing Sat­suki. For spec­i­mens of size and splen­dour, I’d rec­om­mend Paramount Plants in north London (www.paramount­plants.co.uk), which of­fers, among oth­ers, two of my favourite cul­ti­vars. A dark­green cloud of nar­row leaves aflame with silky scar­let flow­ers, R. Sum­mer Sun re­minds me of the wild R. in­dicum that I’ve en­coun­tered be­side rivers in Ja­pan. By con­trast, R. Haru-no-sono (‘gar­den of spring’) pro­claims art, glam­our and play­ful­ness: a low emer­ald dome smoth­ered in a mot­ley of gor­geous blooms that are var­i­ously or­chid pur­ple, flu­o­res­cent pink, pale rose, white and parti-coloured.

These are just the be­gin­ning. In its role as In­ter­na­tional Cul­ti­var Reg­is­tra­tion Au­thor­ity for Rhodo­den­dron, the RHS is de­vel­op­ing a database of Sat­suki cur­rently grown in Ja­pan. Its com­pil­ers—my part­ner Yoko Ot­suki and the Rhodo­den­dron reg­is­trar Alan Les­lie—are in the throes of adding 1,694 cul­ti­vars. The other day, Yoko mused: ‘I won­der if any of that lit­tle lot will catch on over here.’ The won­der will be if they don’t.

Above: R.

The aptly named Haru-no-sono or ‘gar­den of spring’. Right: R. Sum­mer Sun is rem­i­nis­cent of wild aza­leas

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