The ‘secret flowers’ that live for half a millennium, and bloom like nothing else on earth

Mark Griffiths is staggered by the ancient azaleas of Noto which date back to the era of the Shoguns.

‘Have a look at these,’ said Yoko. A contact in Japan had just emailed her some photographs of farmsteads, temple precincts and private gardens. All appeared to be scenes from an era long-past, yet the pictures were recent. The effect was strange, as if the photographer had been time-travelling, and it was heightened by the azaleas that dominated each image.

These ranged from impressive trees with gnarled black boughs to immense shrubs with domed crowns atop forests of sinuous stems. They were the largest evergreen azaleas that I’d ever seen — and the most vivid. Incandescent blooms covered them completely. In some, the flowers were in a salmon as soft as a bullfinch’s breast; in others, they ran cool in wisteria mauve.

Greatest of all, to my eyes, were the examples in that special Japanese red, the red of the cloth traditionally spread for cherry blossom-viewing picnics and of lacquer and parasols and printed seals and the crowns of cranes dancing in snow and, of course, the rising sun.

‘The pictures were taken in Noto,’ Yoko explained, ‘a peninsula on the coast of the Sea of Japan in Ishikawa Prefecture. It’s very remote and little has changed there over time. Its culture has continued as if in isolation. Noto, you could say, is a kind of Shangri-La.’

“They adorned the grounds of the Shogun’s castle and the gardens of high-ranking samurai”

The azaleas play a vital role in that culture. Outside the peninsula, they’re described as Hika ‘secret flowers’, and thought to be closely guarded and unobtainable, but it’s only their remoteness that has made them seem so. In Noto, they’re celebrated and shared in festivals, flower shows and garden open days, and local government has established a non-profit organisation (NPO) to conserve, propagate and promote them.

Curiosity ablaze, we made contact with the NPO’s director, Shigetoshi Masada — who also provided the pictures on this page. From him, we learnt that more than 500 centenarian azaleas flourish in the time-forgotten gardens of this far-away peninsula. Of these, many are at least 300 years old and several have passed their half-millennium.

They belong to a group of cultivars called Kirishima-tsutsuji (‘Kirishima azaleas’), as in Kirishima, the volcanic massif on Japan’s southern island, Kyushu, that is still home to their wild ancestors: Rhododendron kiusianum, R. kaempferi and naturally occurring hybrids of those two species.

In the late 17th century, Kirishima cultivars burgeoned in popularity, especially in Edo, where they adorned the grounds of the Shogun’s castle and the gardens of high-ranking samurai. Then, after the fall of the Shogunate, they crashed out of favour. As Edo became Tokyo, urban development devoured these darlings of the ancien régime, together with the gardens they glorified. These days, old Kirishima-tsutsuji are rare — and missed.

This alone would make Noto a unique sanctuary. Recently, however, botanists have found differences between some of the peninsula’s plants and Kirishima azaleas elsewhere. The former’s size, elegance and brilliance are not, it seems, entirely due to age and environment.

In this light, they’re now seen as distinct and called Noto-Kirishima-tsutsuji, and rightly — no other azaleas, perhaps no other hardy flowering shrubs, could match these gorgeous giants.

‘It’s extraordinary,’ I blurted sometime in early 2018, ‘they’ve never been introduced to the West.’ ‘The West?’ Yoko retorted, ‘They’ve hardly been outside Noto, let alone Japan.’ Clearly, it was time to put that right.

“There ensued panics and problems, hundreds of emails and phone calls, negotiations with the two nations’ plant health authorities and a wait on customs clearance that made me feel like George Smiley at Checkpoint Charlie”

We formed a plan with the NPO to introduce Noto-Kirishima-tsutsuji to Britain in a way that would preserve their identity and provenance (by no means a given when Japanese cultivars go West) and, at least at first, be non-commercial.

For their first home-from-home, Exbury Gardens in Hampshire would always have been the ideal choice, but all the more so in 2019, the centenary of its founding. With wonderful generosity, two of its founder’s grandchildren, Charlotte and Lionel de Rothschild, agreed to welcome the azaleas and support the project. Visits followed: first, from Masanori Tanimoto, the governor of Ishikawa Prefecture; second, from NPO stalwarts led by Kazushige Mochiki, the mayor of Noto Town. Friendships were formed and an Anglo-Japanese plant pipeline laid.

There ensued sundry panics and problems, hundreds of emails and phone calls, negotiations with the two nations’ plant health authorities and a wait on customs clearance that made me feel like George Smiley at Checkpoint Charlie. But they made it. Last December, I opened the first consignment of 100 rooted cuttings, 10 plants each of 10 Noto-Kirishima cultivars.

It will be a while before these nurslings are planted out at Exbury, but they’re in Britain at last and our brothers in Noto say they’re already preparing hundreds more to come.