Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Tea & Azaleas
About a year ago, I visited an old friend who had invited me over to see her azaleas and rhododendrons (which she grows and sells) and really grew to appreciate the flowers more than ever. That afternoon, I stopped by Hastings and found on the clearance rack a wonderful British book by Jane Brown titled "Tales of the Rose Tree: Ravishing Rhododendrons and Their Travels Around the World." I can't explain quite why I was so drawn to this book, I just knew I had to read it, if for no other reason to help me understand the difference between rhododendrons and azaleas. From the book: "All azaleas are rhododendrons." (So what's the difference? The UGA Extension Service explains, "All azaleas are rhododendrons, and both are in the genus Rhododendron. The term 'rhododendron,' however, is commonly used to refer to the group of plants usually with large, leathery, evergreen foliage, while 'azalea' refers to those with smaller, thinner leaves.")
I began to have an "aha" moment when I read this: "Old as they are, rhododendrons are descended from the more ancient magnolia (Magnoliaceae) and tea (Theaceae) families and so have ancestral connections to the tulip trees (linodendron), camellias, stewartias and the franklinia." Now isn't that a new reason to appreciate our southern azaleas! Writing about the early plant collectors, Brown mentions the famous "Wardian case" that came into use in the 1830s and "revolutionized the transport of plants." Brown says that "all this was not, of course, for the Chinese azaleas, but for serious economic crops such as tea and cotton. John Reeves, as keen a gardener as he was a progressive tea inspector, suggested to his friends in the Horticultural Society that a collector should be sent to China, ostensibly to look into tea planting but also one with a good eye for garden plants." So I don't think it's a stretch to say we can at least partly thank tea for our enjoyment of azaleas in springtime! These soft red ones are in bloom at my house.
I was so in love with azaleas and rhododendrons last spring, I used an eBay gift card from DH to buy this cup and saucer bearing their likeness. Roses are normally my favorite flower on teawares, but once I learned the connection between tea and azaleas, I thought it needed to be honored with a teacup!