Right. I have a small problem. I have moved 97 photographs taken over the last weeks into a file marked ‘azaleas’ with the intention of writing on this most ubiquitous plant on our mountain. As a teacher my pupils knew my favourite quote from Churchill: “Please excuse this long letter, but I don’t have the time to write a short one.”…
Perhaps I must tell their story, and show their portraits, and add captions only where necessary. And not try too hard to edit and order. And leave room for a follow-up. So here goes!
Sometime in the Seventies we became aware of the Spring Festival, today known as the Magoebaskloof Spring Faire. For two weeks as first the azaleas and then the flowering cherries put on their show, the local Garden Club ladies opened the ‘garden’ of our neighbour to the public. Over the years the Garden Cottages where built with the proceeds: a group of 20 or so cottages let at excellent rates to retired folks in our local village of Haenertsburg. The Faire has grown to include numerous activities and venues, and the 25th anniversary of the ‘modern’ Faire was celebrated this year.
Box Thompson, our neighbour, the infinitely gentle spinster daughter of a pioneering legend on the mountain, was a brilliant horticulturist who obtained a B.Sc degree in Botany and Zoology before WW2. She at first grew indigenous and exotic bulbs in her nursery, but for various reasons started changing to azaleas and flowering cherries during the 1960s. (In “Between Woodbush and Wolkberg” her mother, Googoo Thompson, recounts her fascinating 96 years to Brigitte Wongtschowski – a worthwhile read for anyone wanting a sense of our local history.)
Our first visit to Box’s ‘garden’ was magic. It was not really a garden but a series of mother-beds and grow-on beds and cutting beds clambering up the hills in small terraces, reflected in several still pools and shaded by a magnificent collection of trees.
“The woman is mad” we said, “she has turned her whole farm into a garden!” But the seed was sown and within a few years we were well on our way to madness ourselves… Today the gardens are owned by her niece, and go by the name Cheerio Gardens – and I have seen the glorious mix of red and pink azaleas reflected in the water on a calendar I found in Europe!
Our first azaleas we bought in full flower during the festival from Box and from various neighbours. They would be dug up with a spadeful of soil and wrapped in wet newspaper and a piece of plastic, and we would plant them shallowly in rich acidic soil without them so much as dropping a bloom. It was wonderful, standing among hundreds of gorgeous plants and saying “Let’s have that one…and that one… and that one…” and paying next to nothing for them! Almost immediately we started taking our own cuttings. Happily the best time coincided with the long summer holiday over Christmas; and happily my dad had had a little wall built behind which my mother organised her cutting bed. It was a comfortable height for inserting the cuttings, and afterwards she would shield them with umbrellas of bracken fronds. By the time we planted the arboretum we too were producing at nursery scale! And just as well, for my dad planted over 1000 of them during that spring and summer of 1997…
Because of the way they were bought and propagated, names never entered the picture, although yet another of Box’s nieces is very good at identifying and naming the various colours and growth patterns. I must admit that I’ve never tried to master the intricacies of the subtle differences between cultivars. In fact I’m rather vague on the whole genus Rhododendron. Originally Rhododendrons and Azaleas were classified separately. Today the over 900 species, not to mention many thousands of hybrids, are lumped together. I would say I could tell the one from the other – until an expert tries to confuse me with borderline examples. Then I’ll be useless. The easy answer is that we find few rhododendrons in South Africa (Why? I don’t know…), so it is most likely an azalea.
Rhododendrons –and from here on I’m talking entirely from my own knowledge and experience, not from books, so don’t take it as gospel – rhododendrons are altogether coarser plants, with bigger, thicker leaves. Those I know in our part of the world are tree-like rather than shrub-like. They carry their flowers in trusses which develop from huge buds like many deciduous trees, just bigger; those pictured above are 3cm (over an inch) long. The new year’s flowerless growth is from similar but slimmer buds. The bud top right is beginning to break into individual flower buds.
Azaleas on the other hand are less bullet-like in their buds and more twiggy in their growth. The flowers show colour from early on, rather than breaking from a bud. And if you count, you will see that they are mostly carried in threes – it is the density of the twigs that gives the impression that an azalea is smothered in flowers.
And smothered they are; on a good bush one sees hardly any leaves. Typical also are the markings on the flower, and it is here where the infinite variety comes in; white azaleas, for instance we have in three sizes, each with soft green, strong green, soft pink, strong pink or no spots.
Speaking of white azaleas – these seem to have two not three buds. So I went on a bit of a search; and I change my statement to ‘evergreen azaleas have two or three buds, seldom more’. Although these azaleas are evergreen, in autumn a percentage – say 20% – of their leaves change to lacquered red, orange or yellow, set of by the bright green of the remaining leaves. As a complement to the wonderful autumn trees they are perfect!
Our evergreen azaleas come in every imaginable shade between white and brightest pink, some two-toned or picatee, reds from half-ripe tomato via watermelon to pure rich red, and all shades of mauve. Flower size varies from 15mm (1/2 inch) to 75mm.
Halfway between the deciduous and the evergreen azaleas lies our pale mauve one. It is more deciduous than not, and there is a quality about its colouring which is uniquely its own. It is tall and upright like the deciduous azaleas, and like most of them it is scented, but only lightly. Yet its buds are those of the evergreen azalea, although here they seem to be grouped in fours and fives. Let’s take a look at the “claws” of the deciduous azalea, and you will see how much they differ:
Try to ignore the stunning smoky flame colour and look how the flowers start from a single point within a growth bud (you can see the bracts that covered the bud below the flowers). More importantly, look how they were folded together within the bud. If the evergreen azalea starts off like this, then the flowers have become like little candles by the time they are visible.
So to me the biggest difference between the two lies in the way the flowers are carried – the evergreens’ are candles, the deciduous’ are claws. Then of course there is the colour. Whereas the evergreens tend to white-pink-red, the deciduous are mainly in the cream-yellow-orange range, often with magnificent smoky oranges you find in few other flowers.
However you also find soft pure pinks, and many salmony tones.
And when they are covered in blooms they can be as generous as any evergreen, with their profuse claws making up for their fewer twigs. This pale cream one with russet buds has the most wonderful scent as well, like so many of these deciduous azaleas!
A 2006 photo of the white azaleas across my dam – how the trees have grown!
I love the white azaleas, but there is no doubt that there are very few garden plants that can blast you with colour the way azaleas can. Combine them – with one another or with other plants – and the possible colour effects are endless, from the most subtle to the most strident, and a walk through the garden in azalea season is about as close to sensory overload as one can get! I’ll leave the visuals to speak for themselves…