Azaleas All Over Matsumoto: An Accidental Lesson in What Not to Eat
Hachibuse-yama isn’t the most popular or well-known mountain in Matsumoto, but it is one of my favorites for a few reasons. It’s close. On a clear day you can see Mt. Fuji along with countless other nearby peaks. And in June it turns orange.
As mentioned in previous posts, I’m not much of a flower guy. But the prospect of eventually leading tours up to this little-known treasure made me want to know something about the blossoms that explode all over this high-altitude garden. Digging in, I found these flowers have cousins all over the place – and are generally not to be eaten.
So let’s get floral.
Azaleas or Rhododendrons?
Credit my long-standing disinterest in the taxonomy of the plant kingdom for my initial confusion. Some sources referred to those orange blossoms as azaleas. Others called them rhododendrons. Someone, it seemed, was wrong. Turns out they were all correct – basically.
Azaleas are species of the genus rhododendron, in the family Ericaeae, which also includes blueberries and cranberries. Japanese azaleas are referred to as tsutsuji, often written in the simple katakana characters ツツジ. The orange version up on Hachibuse are called renge-tsutsuji, with renge meaning lotus – a nod to someone’s opinion that they resemble lotus flowers.
Tsutsuji hold a special place in Japanese culture. Tateyabashi in neighboring Gunma Prefecture is the home of Tsutsuji-ga-oka Park. Daikozenji Temple in Saga Prefecture holds an annual festival celebrating the blossoming of tsutsuji. Nezu Shrine in Tokyo puts on a similar flower-centric extravaganza.
Here in Matsumoto the celebration is in a way more subtle. But azaleas and rhododendrons can be seen all over town from the beginning of May, coloring the sidewalks and parks and riversides once the cherry blossoms have gone.
In June they make their way up to the higher altitudes of Hachibuse.
What’s the Difference?
At a glance, azaleas and rhododendrons can be difficult to tell apart – assuming you care. One easy (if possibly not 100% reliable) way to know what you are looking at is to take a close look at the stamen, those thin stem-like parts protruding from the center of the flower. Azaleas have five or six. Rhododendrons have eight or ten. There are other differences, but this is where my exposition ends. Feel free to dive into more fun on the subject at Gardenia.
Okay there’s actually one additional bit of trivia I feel compelled to share.
Rhododendrons, and in turn azaleas, contain cute little neurotoxins that, if ingested, can cause convulsions and breathing issues. Most species contain insignificant amounts of the stuff, but on the off-chance you have a habit of eating flowers, you’d do well to avoid rhododendrons.
If you happen to be visiting Nepal or Turkey you may come across something called “mad honey”, made from the honey of bees who feed on the nectar of the rhododendrons in those areas. Here in Japan, specifically up in the highlands of Utsukushi-ga-hara, the cows that graze are, I’ve read, able to knowingly or instinctively avoid eating the azaleas that grow plentifully. Meanwhile beekeepers in Japan are reportedly quite careful to avoid areas where rhododendrons are known to grow.
I highly recommend a hike up Hachibuse in June if you have the opportunity. But you don’t have to go all the way up there to get your fill of flowers. Around the castle, in Agata-no-mori Park, along the Metoba River and up and down various streets of downtown you can enjoy rhododendrons and azaleas in a variety of colors.
If it tickles your fancy, get up close and count the stamen to see whether you’re looking at azaleas or rhododendrons. Odds are you’ll find lots of the latter. Either way, they do a beautiful job of adding color to Matsumoto as the cherry blossoms disappear and spring turns to summer.