Despite being largely considered an outdoor spring flower, Azaleas can be found on sale as pot plants in the Advent period. They brighten our homes at Christmas with their red, pink and white flowers.
Chinese Cultural Symbolism
The Azalea carries symbolic meanings in Chinese culture. It is seen as a symbol of womanhood. It is also describing as the thinking home bush (xiang shu). It represents thoughtfulness and pensiveness. These meanings seem particularly appropriate to me as it is a plant I associate with my mother. It is one of her favourite plants both in the garden and in the house.
Folklore and Art
There are multiple versions of a Chinese legend that associate the blood red Azalea with the cuckoo. In one version, a king was assassinated and turned into a cuckoo. The cuckoo sang plaintively about his violent death. His song was so bitter that blood poured from his beak. The blood dyed the Azalea flowers a brilliant red.
In another version of the tale, the cuckoo cries out at the death of the Du Yu. Again, its plaintive cry turns the Azalea red. The timing of Azalea blossoms and the first cuckoo coincide in April. The two are represented by the same Chinese characters as they are so tightly bound in the consciousness. They also feature together in famous artworks, including a print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) in the British Museum.
Azaleas are in the Ericaceae or Heather family. They used to be classified in their own genus. However, DNA analysis has seen them placed in the Rhododendron genus. Azalea japonica is now Rhododendron japonicum. While Rhododendrons are evergreen, Azaleas can be both evergreen and deciduous. Another key characteristic is that while Rhododendrons generally have 10 stamens, Azaleas have 5. (A clear demonstration of where Linnaeus’ sexual classification fails). There is also a significant difference in leaf size and flower position. They grow best in well-drained, acidic soil or ericaceous compost in a pot.
Azaleas and Rhododendrons have been subjected to selective plant breeding for centuries. A number of countries hold Azalea Festivals: Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and the United States. It is known that Buddhist monks cultivated Azaleas. The early cultivation of this Asian plant makes the exact country, or countries, of origin difficult to prove. The earliest mention of the plant is in a Japanese poem from 759 CE. Azaleas’ popularity looks set to continue both indoors and outdoors for a long time to come.
Gallery of Images
References and Further Reading
- Bruno, Gwen (2017): Azalea Plant History. Garden Guides. 21 September 2017.
- Cumo, Christopher (2014-2020): Azalea. Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia
- Gallivantrix (2020): Wang Di becomes a Cuckoo. Myths & Tales from China 10 – The End.
- Prontes, Isabel (2017): What is the meaning of Azaleas? Garden Guides. 21 September 2017.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.
© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and BotanyKaren.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.