Good morning, Azalea

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 bet the bees find it hard to resist an invitation like this.

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.


14 Responses to “Good morning, Azalea”

  1. 1 Marni May 21, 2010 at 16:01

    Hmmm. I have always disliked, actually rather intensely, both azaleas and rhododendrons; I have horrible memories of being called outside in the spring to pick off the sticky dying flowers, hunching over for hours and getting all, well, sticky and hunched. No pleasant scent- in fact, our azaleas always seemed to emit an odor of poo! I banned them from my garden when I moved into my house, so great was my dislike. NOW I realize that I have always had contact with only the evergreen ones, which always seemed too stiff and formal for my personal party. Today’s blog entry has taught me that I have a small, uneducated view of these plants and it might behoove me to broaden my horizons in this area- thanks Matthew, I’ll give it a go the next time I find myself wandering the nursery aisles!

  2. 2 jstwndrng May 21, 2010 at 17:19

    Marni, great to see a comment from you. Yes, I’m an agitator, and no mistake. And yes, deadheading rhodies is an dreadful sticky task. I’m so sorry for your little Marni of the unpleasant memory. I won’t do it. Some believe that the plant will not bloom the next year if you don’t do this, but that’s patently absurd. How did the plant manage to bloom then before gardeners? It looks a little neater, yeah, which is only important in impeccably manicured yards, which we don’t have one of. Tell them you want to see some of the smelly Ghent hybrids. Go soon, if you go. They’ll be losing bloom real soon.

  3. 3 Kip May 21, 2010 at 17:36

    Tis sad, but true, that my allergies prevent me from fully enjoying these flowers. Beautiful to the eye to be sure, but much agitation to the old olfactory system. No such snotty issues with a fantastic photo!

  4. 4 jstwndrng May 22, 2010 at 11:07

    You have a way with the turn of phrase, Kipper. What you just wrote is sort of a longish haiku. I’m allergic, too. A hellish situation to be unloading pheasant grass and itchy junipers out of a stuffy semi trailer in late May, but when I reflect on my nursery days I (or my ranch days) I never really remember all the time I spent sneezing and wiping my nose. So, note to self, don’t send pungent flowers to Kip.

  5. 5 Ben May 27, 2010 at 10:31

    We don’t have Azealia…Asal…Azal..Azaleas here in Fairbanks, least not that I am aware of. Perhaps in the Botanical Garden at the University Farm. I sneeze anyway. Religiously, on the way to a tour at the firehouse, six times in succession, without any warning. Then I’m done. Usually hits just past the overpass on the Rich Hwy. Hmmmm. Perhaps there are Azeaaleas, Aszl…(oh, bother it!)the flowers… there I am unaware of.

    • 6 jstwndrng May 27, 2010 at 11:02

      Ben, I had a good chuckle reading your comment. A – Z – A – L – E – A. I want you to write it a hundred times.

      Despite how much you love your job, maybe you’re allergic to leaving the house and fam. Or just maybe the gummit planted scotch broom all over the highway cuts up there like they did down here, before realizing that scotch broom has no natural predators or even competitors in this area (and plenty of willing pollinators) and that it would take over any open space, which it did, and that many folks are allergic to it (like me). Just an idea.

      • 7 Ben May 27, 2010 at 12:53

        These are all good points. I could easily be swayed to believe that the gummint is behind some sort of infestation of …such things. One more reason for Sessession. As for the job, I would be inclined to take more interest in this theory, but alas, the said sneezing only manifests itself in the Spring, at approximately 0615. A few days ago a very violent fit of sneezing just about caused me to assault the median and vault the railray crossing. It left me feeling like Captain Haddock during the matter of Flight 714.

        Actually, the truth of the matter is that Birch pollen appears to be in vogue and is abounding in record numbers this year. The vehicles are covered in it every morning. I suspect I am reacting to the early morning’s affects on the pollen or some such thing.

  6. 8 jstwndrng May 27, 2010 at 15:16

    Birch pollen? A fad, mark my words. It’ll be gone by summer.

  7. 9 Lisa May 28, 2010 at 14:39

    Wow, I’ve never seen an azalea like that before, and before today, I thought all azaleas kept their leaves throughout the year. Maybe those kind aren’t hardy in the southeast.

    • 10 jstwndrng May 28, 2010 at 15:16

      Thanks for stopping by. You may be right about the climate. Some of the decidous azaleas seem delicate, but I would think that if you put them in morning sun (don’t let them bake), they would be okay in your region. I’ll look it up in my Sunset garden book and report back.

      [Lisa writes about dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder. Click on her name to read her blog]

  8. 11 sjgbloom2012 May 28, 2012 at 10:34

    hello, Matt,
    i’m on the plant committee of Seattle Japanese Garden – we are documenting plants there, and i came upon your great post while researching rhododendron viscocepalum ‘Daviesii’ – i linked to it from the SJGbloom blog.

    i’m new to wordpress and not sure if my signature will link to the blog; so just in case, it is here:
    btw, great blog, i will reading more of it when have a chance.

    greetings and thank you for helping me – i was greatly confused about this plant. aleks

    • 12 Matt May 28, 2012 at 17:40

      Hi Aleks,
      Thanks for reading and for commenting. Your signature link worked fine and I followed it to some photos of the beautiful specimens you have there. I hope mine becomes that broad and lush someday. Is this the Japanese garden that’s over in the Arboretum? If so I need to get over there for a visit. Thanks for the link and the kind words about my blog. I don’t remember where I got the information I included and which you have now reposted…I hope it’s correct. Enjoy the spring!

  9. 13 sjgbloom2012 May 30, 2012 at 20:26

    Matt, your information seem to be corroborating with that of royal horticultural society – they list daviesii as crosses of the fragrant luteum and various american species – lovely mongrels of sort:).

    yes, that very japanese garden in arboretum – it’s very colorful and un-japanese right now with all the azaleas blooming crazily. if you visit and want a tour, drop me a line – i’m a guide there, and happy to give you one. wisteria is doing its thing right now, too. greetings from seattle to seattle:)

    • 14 Matt May 30, 2012 at 20:39

      I’ll definitely try to make that happen, and soon, before everything goes out of bloom. Thank you for such a kind offer. Also, I’m glad you double-checked with the royals about the Daviesii, and I’m double glad that I was not in contradiction with them. 🙂

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