Sometimes it is a subtle thing that brings you back to a certain time and place in your life. All week I have been finding myself thinking of the New Jersey suburb of my youth, though it took me a while to figure out what brought my thoughts back to my hometown of Hazlet. Andromeda is to blame. Not the famed goddess of love and beauty who was left for the sea monster to consume, but Japanese Andromeda.
Japanese Andromeda is a plant ubiquitous in the suburbs of New Jersey and elsewhere in manicured yards across the country. It is a medium shrub that is a member of the plant genus Pieris. As an early bloomer, it is one of the first flowering plants seen blooming in yards in April. Depending on the variety, white or pink bell-shaped flowers hang in drooping clusters. The size and shape of these flowers are reminiscent of those of the native blueberry, which isn’t surprising since they are both in the Ericaceae, or heath plant family. Other relations, including rhododendrons and azaleas, are complementary and are often planted alongside varieties of Pieris.
Due to those early flowers and its year-round greenery, it is not surprising how popular this Asian plant has become here on the Island and across much of the country. Add to that is its high resistance to deer and its low maintenance, and it becomes a very sought-after suburban staple. Though, honestly, to my naturalist (and native-loving) eye, it seems out of place in the still gray April Island landscape.
Japanese Andromeda’s namesake does appeal to the romantic in me. The use of the name of the goddess likely refers to the sagging clusters of flowers that perhaps might be considered to resemble a chained and shapely woman awaiting her fate on the side of a mountain. We know that her story ends well with Perseus coming to her rescue.
The scientific genus of the shrub, Pieris, also has mythological meaning. Pieris is the name of the Greek King of Emathia and the patronymic of his nine daughters who were named after the Muses.
These maidens did not fare as well as Andromeda. The daughters boldly challenged the Muses to a singing contest. Of course the mortals lost. The Muses, angry at having their talent contested, turned the daughters into magpies.
Members of the genus Pieris are sometimes called fetterbush and lily of the valley shrub. Their Japanese name is aseki, which translates to “horse-drunk tea.” This is likely a reference to its known toxicity. The plant is poisonous and is known to ‘intoxicate’ domestic animals.
When I see the drooping white and pink bells of Japanese Andromeda, I will try to keep thoughts of my suburban homestead subdued and instead think of the sympathetic and passionate words of the English poet Sydney Thompson Dobell:
“Unbind Andromeda! She was not born
To stand & shiver in the northern blast,
Or fester on a foreign rock, or bear
Rude licence of the unrespective waves.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.