Japanese gardens tend to be characterized by an evergreen palette of plants in which bright colors or scents are not foregrounded. Even the frothy pink confection that is the wonder of the cherry blossom in April is typically white or the palest pink. Late April which signals the end of Spring in the lunar calendar is punctuated by flowering plants that exhibit unashamedly vivid colors. Chief among these are plants commonly known as azaleas and rhododendrons.
Originally thought to come from Mount Kirishima on the southern island of Kyushu, the plants are slow growing. Flowers completely cover the whole shrub with colors ranging from red, dark red and peach to white. Has relatively small flowers and leaves and thus lends itself to pruning into balled shapes. I remember being amazed when I first heard that Japanese gardeners tend not to like the ostentatious display that a bush covered in flowers would make and preferred the subtlety of just a few flowers, perhaps as much as a third of the bush to be covered at any one time. In order to maintain this desired blooming habit, they would literally pick off the errant blooms.
The next variety of azalea to bloom is Rhododendron indicum commonly known as the Satsuki azalea. Very common in gardens since ancient times, it can be trimmed as a single specimen or planted in groups. It’s commonly used for Bonsai as it so easy to grow. Since the Edo period (1600-1868), the Satsuki azalea has also been used as an important karikomi plant in Japanese gardens. Karikomi is particular type of clipped hedge form that becomes quite sculptural not unlike topiary. The most common pruning style creates round hummocks which almost look like green rocks.
Slightly later on, a large variety of azalea known as ōmurasaki (Rhododendron pulchrum) blooms. It is very popular in parks and private gardens, under street trees and in mass plantings with colors mixed. Colors range from white to magenta pink.
On mountain sides and shaded woodlands, the taller native Japanese rhododendron Tsukushi shakunage also blooms at this time. Its leaves are very different from the smaller azaleas and are leathery, shiny with both ends acute in shape. Flowers are pink to light red and shrubs grow up to 4 meters tall.
Although all of these plants in the azalea/rhododendron family have a long history in Japanese gardens, despite their gorgeous colors, they retain an unpretentious air and are almost overlooked especially in art and literature. While not displayed in tea ceremony flower arrangements on account of their bright colors; there is a process to burn branches of the azalea and coat them with lime to make shiro-zumi “white charcoal” which is used in tea ceremony. Azaleas have not always been a fixture in Imperial waka poetry either.
For most of Japanese history, the cultivation of flowers was part of the aristocratic, elite culture. However, from the early Edo period (1600-1868) onwards, flower gardening also became popular among urban commoners and samurai. In fact, the azalea really started to become popular at that time as a low-bush flower and it seemed ideal for gardening. Many new cultivars appeared at that time. It seems that in recent times that most Japanese take azaleas for granted. There are a few exceptional temples or public venues where the sheer scale of massed azaleas blooming at once become a tourist draw card. Mimuroto-ji in Uji and Nagaoka Tenmangu shrine in Nagaoka-kyo are particularly famous.
The description for the seventeenth micro-season refers to the fact that frost has stopped forming at this late point in Spring and therefore farmers are busy getting ready to plant the emerging rice seedlings in their paddies soon.