Western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) is an erect, multi-stemmed, loosely branched shrub that grows up to 10 feet in height. A native member of the Heath Family, western azalea grows in the moist coniferous forests of California and Oregon up to 7,000 feet.
The deciduous leaves are simple, rather thin ellipses. The upper leaf surfaces are green and hairless while the lower sides are light green and may be covered in fine hairs. The margins of the alternate leaves have minute hairs. The foliage displays considerable variability.
The western azalea inflorescence is a corymb (flower cluster where the outer flowers open first) of white or pinkish flowers. The funnel-shaped corolla has five petals, one of which may have a yellow blotch. There are five exserted stamens. The buds of this fragrant flower are egg-shaped with red overlapping scales. Western azalea fruits are woody brown capsules.
After fires or cutting, western azalea vigorously sprouts. It is also widely planted as a landscape shrub.
Western azalea foliage is toxic to livestock and humans. Even western azalea honey is toxic.
Rhododendron, the genus designation, means “rose tree” in Greek. (“rhodos” = rose and “dendron” = tree). “Western” is the meaning of the species name. Other common names for R occidentale are Pacific azalea, sheep laurel, mountain laurel and California azalea. Western azalea is not related to the true laurels. There are several other shrubs which have “laurel” in their colloquial names, so it would actually be best to not use common names with laurel in them for R occidentale.
These beautiful flowers were photographed either in July along the North Shore Trail at Castle Lake in the Trinity National Forest (Siskiyou County CA) or in May on the Myrtle Creek Botanical Trail in the Six Rivers National Recreation Area (Del Norte County CA).