Everyone who comes and pays us a visit here at Chartwell will have their favourite part of the gardens, probably depending on what time of year they dropped in. For some it might be a walk in the woods or a mooch around the Kitchen Garden while for others the blooms within Lady Churchill’s Rose Garden or the views from the Top Terrace might be highlighted. But not many people will perhaps put forward the Azalea Banks which at this moment especially is a great shame. As you leave the driveway in front of the house via the far roadside corner and head down towards the Croquet Lawn, most peoples’ eyes will be drawn by the Croquet Lawn itself and the sweeping views of the Kent Weald beyond. But turn your head 90 degrees and you will see the part of the garden I’m talking about. The grassy banks don’t lead anywhere, apart from our dark and dingy long-term compost bays which are chained off from the public (don’t worry, you’re not missing much!) but a little amble around this area might just be worth your while.
Of course, the name ‘Azalea Bank’ itself throws up the old question, “what is the difference between a Rhododendron and an Azalea”? Well, all Azaleas are actually Rhododendrons BUT not all Rhododendrons are Azaleas. Confused? Rhododendron is a genus (a group of plants with shared characteristics) and Azaleas are a group within that genus, rather than forming a genus of their own. To clarify a little more, an Azalea has 5 stamens (pollen-producing reproductive organ of a flower) while other Rhododendrons have 10 or more. Furthermore, Azaleas are often smaller and may be deciduous or evergreen while other Rhododendrons are all evergreen. Either way, the Rhododendrons in the Azalea Bank beds are looking blooming marvelous right now as you will see above and below…
Stunning as they are though, it wasn’t these Rhodies that prompted me to write this particular blog entry. No, there is another plant in this area that is just as pretty, just as interesting and a lot less well known. The other day I was in the gardens with a visiting friend of mine, a gardener from nearby National Trust property Scotney Castle and he asked what the yellow flowered shrubs against the wall here were. And the answer was Azara serrata. Heard of it? If you have, well done! But if you haven’t I wouldn’t be surprised.
The name may sound like a Harry Potter spell, but these shrubs originally from the also lesser known Flacourtiaceae family but now re-housed in the Salicaceae family, come originally from Chile, not Hogwarts! Also known as the Saw-toothed Azara, these shrubs may look fairly innocuous for most of the year, but right now they are flowering their South American socks off, covered in masses of fragrant, intricate bright yellow blooms. In fact, the sweet chocolatey scent can be smelled from some distance away.
One of the few fully hardy South American shrubs, Azaras are in fact reasonably common in large collections of plants open to the public but virtually unheard of in private gardens. Which is a shame because after hot summers these shrubs can also have a show of round white berries to extend their season of interest. They prefer moist, fertile, humus-rich soil where possible and even grow with their roots permanently in water in their native Chile where they are called ‘Corcolén’ or ‘Aromo de Castilla’. They tolerate full sun but are equally happy in part or full shade, mimicking their woodland habitat of origin.
In 1794 the genus of Azara was named after Félix de Azara (1742 – 1821), a Spanish geographer and naturalist who did fieldwork in South America from 1781 to 1796. Azara serrata was discovered and named in the same year by Hipólito Ruiz López and José Antonio Pavón Jiménez who are jointly cited as the authors of many botanical names. Between 1779 and 1788 these Spanish botanists (together with the French botanist Joseph Dombey) visited Chile, Peru and other South American countries, discovering many new plants. Why not do some plant hunting of your own and come and discover us here at Chartwell soon…!