In praise of poukhanense azalea

Poukhanense azalea is a charming flowering shrub of early spring that draws praise for its hardiness and pretty blooms.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff/The Christian Science Monitor
Poukhanense azalea, a Korean azalea, is a reliable flowering shrub that blooms prolifically in early spring.

Each day this week, my smile has grown wider as I approach work, because of the poukhanense azalaeas cheerfully blooming outside my office building.

I especially welcome them because they're one of the early flowering shrubs of spring, usually bursting with blooms even before the weather warms up.

They grow well in Tennessee, where I have lived, and they do well in Boston. That means they're adaptable, a good quality in any plant. And this is a hardy flowering shrub -- to Zone 4, most references say, which is unusual for an evergreen azalea.

But they have an awful mouthful of a name -- not only is poukhanense not easy to pronounce (Poo-can-ence), but the botanic name is Rhododendron yedoense var. poukhanense.

Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

Where does the name come from?

I've known this Korean azalea for years, but only recently wondered about how it got its name. For anyone else who might wonder: "Poukhanense alludes to Mount Poukhan in Korea, and Yedoense means "from Edo," i.e., Tokyo.," notes Paghat the Rat Girl, who gardens in the Pacific Northwest.

And as a historical note, Ian Donovan relates on the website of the American Rhododendron Society:

The Korean Azalea is found on the Korean Peninsula from Seoul south in open country, on grassy mountain slopes, and in thin pine woods, at times abundant. In addition, it can be found on the Republic of Korea island of Cheju (Quelpart); and the Japanese islands Shimono and Kamino (collectively Tsushima).

French missionary Pére Urban Faurie collected specimens from Poukhan mountain outside Seoul, which Lévéille used to describe the species in 1908. In 1905 J. G. Jack sent seeds back to the Arnold Arboretum that he collected on Poukhan-san. Some of the resulting plants were sent to England in 1913.

I will confess that although I've grown dozens of other azaleas, I've never planted a poukhanense – for reasons I'll mention in a moment.

I'm always interested when I see that all the references to the plant say that it grows 3 to 6 feet tall. The ones I've seen are generally taller, even here in Boston. Interestingly, Mr. Donovan says that it's prostrate in the wild.

Poukhanense is a wide plant – it can grow as much as 12 feet in diameter, although that takes some years. So give it plenty of space when you plant.

For the increasing number of people with shady yards, this is a great shrub.

Magenta flowers and semievergreen leaves

But, as I alluded earlier, it does have a few small drawbacks.

For me, one is the color of its blooms. The pinkish-purple is a pretty color by itself but it doesn't fit in well with the rest of the spring garden. (Usually daffodils are blooming at the same time, Yellow and this shade of magenta are not a happy combination.)

Still, the flowers are very attractive, and I just discovered a pretty soft-pink cultivar from Conard-Pyle. It's called Sweet 16. Hmmm, maybe I'm going to have to reconsider.

The other fault of poukhanense -- and this is a personal prejudice -- is that this shrub is called an evergreen, but it's generally semievergreen. That means that if it's in a prominent location in your yard, it isn't going to look like much from November until it blooms.

In Boston, where there isn't a wide a choice of broadleaf evergreens, that isn't really a problem. But in warmer areas of the country, say, Zones 6 and 7, there are many shrubs that do stay green all winter. And a number of those have a more compact growth habit, as contrasted to poukhanense's looser, more rangy one.

But if you have moist acid soil and a shady or partially shady spot and are looking for a hardy flowering shrub that truly welcomes spring in a colorful way, poukhanense is well worth considering.

And I hope you do plant one or two. Although I haven't convinced myself to grow one yet, I love to enjoy those that everyone else grows!


To read more about gardening, see the Monitor's main gardening page and check out previous posts in Diggin' It. Both of these have changed URLs, so we hope you'll bookmark them and return. Want to be notified when there's something new in our gardening section? Sign up for our RSS feed. Also check out Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. The theme of our current Flickr photo contest is "Welcome, spring."

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