This is the flower of a plant that is called by many names, including Azalea ‘Daviesii’, Rhododendron ‘Daviesii’, Rhododendron (or Azalea) ‘Viscosepalum’ var. ‘Daviesii’, Rhododendron viscosum x molle, Rhododendron x viscosepalum Rehder ‘Daviesii’, and the Daviesii Ghent hybrid Azalea.
I just call it my Davies azalea (the group of plants we call azaleas is a subset of the species Rhododendron). But I don’t need to know its name. I know its face and its fragrance. This plant, a deciduous azalea, is a good friend of mine, an ally of my best self, an olfactory lamp on my soul’s journey. It leads me to God.
This plant smells a little like honeysuckle. It blooms in May and its fragrance is a thick, dark sweetness that hovers in your senses feeling slow and warm. Its aroma comes up in the morning when the sun warms the ground, or after a rain. The morning I took this photo I had been out for an early walk after a night of rain, and the sun was just hitting it as I returned to the house. I wish you could smell this image. This is as near as a plant comes to waving “hello” when you come home.
I became interested in deciduous azaleas when I first worked at a local nursery in 1994. I had only ever seen evergreen varieties, and didn’t know there were azaleas that lost their leaves. I was drawn to the bright coral, yellow, and pink flowers of the Exbury hybrids such as ‘Klondike’ and ‘Homebush’, particularly how their blooms always arrived with the onset of their new spring leaves, which are always bright limey green. The combination of the new foliage and cheery blossoms made me happy.
Later I discovered that some deciduous azaleas are extremely fragrant. By then I had worked at a nursery for two different periods, once during the ’90s and once in the oughts, and had even gone through two thirds of a horticulture degree at Edmonds Community College, and had become very fond of fragrant shrubs and trees. For a while I had intended to grow fragrant ornamentals as a business (it didn’t work out, mainly because of a lack of money and space).
Before Mara was born and for a few years after, Angela and I used to drive up to Snohomish, where there was a small nursery attached to McDaniel’s Hardware, an independently owned franchise of the Do It Best hardware brand. McDaniel’s, we found, always had really interesting plants at prices we liked. They didn’t have a lot, but what they had was well cared for, invitingly presented, often locally grown (there are many small growers in the immediate hinterlands thereabouts), and sometimes plants I’d never seen before despite my involvement in the industry.
My first Davies azalea I got at McDaniel’s. We planted it in the front yard at our old cottage, which I still walk by every day on the way home from work. It didn’t really like the spot I planted it in and it didn’t grow quickly, but it was established enough when we sold the house that I left it, despite my desire to dig it up and bring it with us. I found this one more recently (I can’t recall where, now) and planted it last year, watered it every day for months and months and months while we went without rain.
I have had several other fraggy azaleas, some that didn’t make it. One smelled a little like candy and had red and white striped flowers. One that survives yet is a species rhododendron named R. atlanticum, which is wildly sweet, almost unbelievably sweet smelling. It was given to me by a plantsman named Richie, who was my boss and mentor both at the nursery and then later at a small botanical garden where I interned for a year. It was the tiniest little scraggle of twig — too small for its one-gallon pot — when he gave it to me, and it has had a rough time in gardens at both of my homes, but it is still alive. Rescuing it and finding a better spot in the garden for it is one of the projects on my to-do list.
Whenever Mara and I pass a flower that I know to be fragrant I pause and encourage her to take a whiff. I want her not to miss any of these miracles, these tiny blessings that come and go so quickly. Someday she’ll be too busy texting a boyfriend or hyperspacing herself to the movies. But for now she is a willing participant.
This one I wanted to share with you.