Royal Azalea, a Fragrant Beauty

Royal Azaela in Seattle Japanese Garden
Royal Azaela in Seattle Japanese Garden

Royal Azalea blooms around April each year.

The elegant simplicity of the Royal Azalea makes it particularly appropriate for any garden influenced by Japanese aesthetics, including our Seattle Japanese Garden. This deciduous azalea received the British Award of Merit (A.M.) in 1896, and is considered by many experts to be one of the finest azalea species.

Rhododendron schlippenbachii (Royal Azalea) was discovered in 1854 by a Russian naval officer, Baron A. von Schlippenbach – hence the unwieldy species name. It’s native to Korea, the Korean archipelago, Manchuria, and the Russian Far East., but probably not Japan; authorities disagree on this point. It is very common in Korea, where it forms the dominant understory on the lower slopes of mountains, in open woodlands. The English plant explorer E. H. Wilson recalled a trip to Korea, where he viewed “the wonderful sight of mile upon mile of drifts of purest pink …Through thin woods of oak with gray and rose-tinted unfolding leaves, I have walked for hours among myriad blossoms of this beautiful Azalea.” (Wilson, E. H., If I Were toMake a Garden.)

This exceptional Azalea has lightly fragrant, saucer-shaped flowers. Held in loose clusters of 3 to 6, they’re pale pink or white, often with reddish-brown flecks. The rounded leaves appear in groups of five at about the same time, and seem to be whorled (swirled) at the stem tips. Thinly textured, they will burn if not given protection from the afternoon sun. In open shade, autumn transforms them into fiery shades of yellow, orange and crimson.

In its native woodlands, the Royal Azalea becomes a large shrub, and develops an upright, open habit, to about 15 feet tall. In cultivation, particularly in areas with more morning sun, it usually grows to about 4 feet tall in 10 years, with a dense, more rounded habit. It’s very hardy, and is particularly suited to areas with cold winters, such as parts of eastern North America. It also does well in the Pacific Northwest. Admirers are likely to find it in the larger retail nurseries.

Rhododendron schlippenbachii is truly a four-season plant, with its purity of flower, leaf and form. In the Seattle Japanese Garden, its pale spring flowers and brilliant fall foliage are very much at home.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.