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THE “THINKING OF HOME” BUSH THE LEGACY OF AZALEAS
Well, Mardi Gras has come and gone, and we’ve staggered back to our homes. Now we can start the spring in earnest. These early, vernal days are the best part of the year by far, at least here in the Bayou State. Warm days, pleasant nights, crawfish boils, and most importantly, the azaleas will start to bloom. It’s a little like magic. These shrubs wake up in bolts of color, welcoming the springtime with vibrant pink, red, purple, and white. It’s a shame we only get to enjoy their majesty for a few brief weeks. Driving past garden rows full of these flowers is one of the many joys of the season. It’s no wonder Southern Living named azaleas the South’s favorite shrubs. “THESE FLOWERING SHRUBS MEANT DIFFERENT THINGS TO VARIOUS CULTURES THROUGHOUT HISTORY. THEY HAVE SYMBOLIZED BEAUTY, WOMANHOOD, AND EVEN DEATH. ” In many ways, azaleas are a symbol of our heritage, nature’s antebellum dress. Most gardeners will tell you how accommodating a plant they are, growing in the many soils and climates that make up our landscape. Unlike their northern rhododendron cousins, they’ve adapted to our sweltering summers and sporadic winters. After working away all year, quiet and unassuming, they burst into jubilant colors, as if putting on their own Mardi Gras. The azalea is such a ubiquitous symbol of the South, it may surprise some readers that they are celebrated half a world away. In both Japan and Korea, azalea festivals are held each year to commemorate their blooming. The largest of these festivals, held in Bunkyo, Japan, boasts over 50,000 azalea plants!
These flowering shrubs meant different things to various cultures throughout history. They have symbolized beauty, womanhood, and even death. At one point, the toxicity of the plant was infamous — so much so that sending an azalea in a black vase used to be seen as a death threat. How times have changed.
But perhaps the interpretation of azaleas we Southerners would most relate to came out of feudal China. The shrubs were immortalized as far back as the 8th century
by a poet named Du Fu, who named them the “thinking of home” bush. He once wrote “[Azalea], my dear, / You make me think of home. / Of luxurious days spent pondering your beauty. / Of the scent of spring that lingers around your roots.” Those of us who have spent the spring up north can surely empathize with this nostalgia. Nothing makes you more homesick than a spring without azaleas. These bushes have meant many things to many different people over the course of human history, but to us, they mean home.
–Cra ig Jon e s
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