On warm days, stands of azalea bushes exude a sweet and spicy fragrance. These shrubs in the rhododendron family are one of my favorite plants. The flowers are beautiful: large white trumpets have a splash of peachy orange on their upper lip, and a delicate array of long stamens. But the best thing about western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) is their smell: it is the epitome of Californian summers. These shrubs prefer to grow on stream banks, and their pungent aroma is embedded in childhood memories of swimming holes and rock hopping. Even the leaves–pale green and slightly sticky–have their own fragrance. It’s a lovely thing. In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir said everybody must like this “charming shrub” not only for itself, but “also for the shady alders and willows, ferny meadows, and living water associated with it”.
Western azalea also grows in marshy flats, and I spotted the one photographed here at the Potrero Meadow picnic area. I have only seen azaleas blooming in late spring and early summer, but the Marin Flora says there are some plants near Rattlesnake Camp that have flowers almost all year round–a treat worth keeping an eye out for.