Monday, May 16, 2011

Sentimental Flower

Growing up with a gardener in love with plants for a dad, I picked up a bit of knowledge about trees and flowers over the years. While this has never really developed into a personal interest in gardening, I have always enjoyed trying to identify the plants around me, especially trees and flowers.
When I was younger and spending my time in the forests around the Olympic Mountains in Washington State, I learned to recognize (generally) what types of plants make up a Pacific Northwest forest. Over my last few years walking through the vastly different forests of Japan, I've tried to learn a few of the plants here as well, this time, learning them in English and Japanese.
Over the Golden Week holidays in May, I went to Gokurakuji Shrine in the mountains just north of Saeki Ward in Hiroshima City. From the parking area there is a short, 10 minute walk through the forest leading up to the shrine. Guarding the entrance to this trail were two wizened camphor trees, one looking as if it had been wracked with disease or some other calamity, its trunk split in half and hollow, but somehow still supporting its heavy, tangled limbs. The trail went up through a forest made up of mostly sugi trees (cryptomeria) with kusunoki (camphor), and tsubaki (camellia) interspersed throughout.
But what really surprised me was seeing shakunage--rhododendrons.

Growing up, my dad always had rhodys of all hues growing around our yard, and running through the woods near my house, I remember seeing the wild rhodys deep in the forest, growing in massive tree-like bushes sometimes 25 feet tall. For whatever reason-- the association with my dad's love of the plants, or perhaps its status as the official flower of my hometown and the theme of the summer festival-- those massive rhodys always seemed special, and finding one somewhere deep in the forest always seemed somehow sacred.

Azaleas, a relative of the rhododendron, are quite common in Japan and you can see them almost everywhere. But in 8 years in Japan, I have hardly ever seen rhodys, and never in the wild. So I was very surprised to find these ones here along this short hike.
Seeing the first one, I thought to myself "Dad'll find this interesting; Let's get a picture." and snapped a shot of a smallish one along the side of the trail. But as I got up to the shrine itself and looked back down the trail, I was taking in the scene and noting what trees I was seeing when it struck me that the tree right in front of me, stretching close to 60 or 70 feet in the air with a trunk a foot thick, was actually a rhody! I had never seen one even half as large, or looking so distinctly like a tree, that I got excited and couldn't wait to give Dad a call and tell him all about it.

Sometimes it's funny, the things that can surprise you. I wouldn't say I particularly like rhodys, or even that that specific rhody itself surprised me. But on a day in May, half the globe and 20 years away, I found myself again as that wonder-filled child exploring the world around him, and then running off to tell his dad all about it.

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