Wild azaleas

Rhododendron kaempferi - (Yama-tsutsuji)


Wild azaleas on the hills above Sano


For a glorious week at the beginning of May the wild azaleas carpet the hills, in a spectacular layer of blooms under the tree cover. Without the fussy attention given in parks and gardens, there are no trim, globular masses, but a more diffuse, unkempt display. They certainly live up to their common name of "torch azalea".

Mountain top

Azalea bushes

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There are variations in colour - pinks, mauves, and salmon pink, but I believe these are all varieties of the same species. The Latin name attributes this to one of the first Western explorers of Japan, Engelbert Kaempfer, who illustrated it in his book Amoenitates Exoticase, published in 1712. But the plant itself appears to have been first introduced to Western gardens by Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, who collected it from Nikko in the north of Tochigi-ken. (This is all described in Spongberg's excellent book, "A Reunion of Trees". My review.)


It's not particularly difficult to pronounce tsutsuji, except that English doesn't ever start a word with the /ts/ sound. Perhaps I've found the reason why - just try to say "The first tsutsuji"! This multilingual tongue-twister causes a total throat convulsion between the two words. Incidentally, in normal use the name is written in kana: the kanji above (Chinese characters - actually this is really the Chinese name) are fairly obscure, and I think would defeat most current speakers of Japanese (if presented without the photograph, that is).