Satsukis are the last azaleas of summer. Satsuki is a popular name for girls. Stunning satsuki below. 


NATURE IN SHORT / Japan a paradise for azalea and rhododendron lovers

Kevin Short / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

This year seems to be zooming ahead at breakneck speed. It seems like only yesterday I was listening intently for the first frog-song of the season, and now the early evening chorus is so loud it reaches up to my apartment on the 20th floor. The huge full moon that will rise right at sunset today marks the midpoint of the fifth month of the year under the traditional lunar calendar.

The weather these days is highly unstable. Often several days of rain and clouds are followed by a brief period of sunshine, called satsuki-bare, or “fifth-month clear skies.”

Satsuki is also the name given to a species of azalea (Rhododendron indicum) that blooms at this time of year. This short shrub, with small, solid pink flowers, grows wild in Kyushu and western Honshu, preferring rocky habitats along mountain streams.

Even the satsuki-bare blue skies, however, are totally unreliable. The skies may be empty when you set out in the morning, but quick as a viper they can turn dark and ominous. A brief deluge, often accompanied by thunder and lightning, is always on the side menu. On a long hike in the mountains or countryside ramble, there’s nothing to do but pull out your raingear and grin and bear it. Getting rained on is part of the job description for doing field work in Japan.

In the town and city, however, there’s always a coffee shop around to duck into. Fortunately, the satsuki azaleas are immensely popular as ornamentals, and nobody will mind if you pluck a branch or two for study and sketching while waiting out the downpour.

Japan is an incredible country for naturalists interested in azaleas and rhododendrons (both in Genus Rhododendron–azalea refers to species with narrow leaves, and rhododendron to those with thick, leathery leaves, called shakunage in Japanese). Several dozen native species are found here, inhabiting all types of environments, from coastal cliffs on up to alpine tundra. Many of these species are rare and indigenous to narrow areas, and they are very difficult to tell apart. For years I’ve wanted to make a special study of them, but have never been able to crack their secrets.

The satsuki, however, provides an excellent specimen for studying basic azalea flower structure. From a distance these flowers appear to have five separate petals, but up close it’s easy to see that the flower is actually composed of a single crown that is deeply cut into five segments. Azaleas are in the Heath Family, or Ericaceae, which they share with heath, blueberries, cranberries and many other tough shrubs with tiny lanternlike flowers. More than 3,000 species are known worldwide in this family, with more than 800 in the Genus Rhododendron alone.

Protruding from the satsuki’s crown are five long stamens and one even longer pistil. Even with the naked eye, the soft white hair on the flower stalk and sepals can be seen with the naked eye, but a good loupe is needed to pick out the hairs that line the edge of the leaves, and the one or two tiny holes at the top of the anther (the tip of the stamen). A close look shows white pollen oozing out of these holes.


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