Plant Spotlight: The Pinkster Azalea - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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Plant Spotlight: The Pinkster Azalea

As I write this profile of the pinkster azalea, the Pinkster festival is just behind us.

The pinkster azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), also known as the pinxterbloom azalea, pink azalea, or pinxter flower, is one of numerous vivid azaleas native to North America. This deciduous understory shrub, which belongs to the Ericaceae or blueberry family, grows in dappled woodlands from southern New England into the Southeast.

The pinkster azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) blooming at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo by Blanca Begert.

When I first learned about this native azalea from NYC-based botanist Marielle Anzelone, I immediately thought of the cultural celebration, which takes place in late spring. I wondered if there might be a connection.

The Flower and the Festival

Phenologically, there is a link between the festival and the flower. Pinkster, or Pinksteren (meaning Pentecost), was historically a Dutch Christian holiday that celebrated the Pentecost, which takes place 50 days after Easter. This falls roughly within the flowering period of R. periclymenoides, which blooms here between April and May.

The pinkster azalea blooming at the Garden on May 16, 2018. Photo by Blanca Begert.

Dutch settlers brought Pinkster to the region now called New York in the 17th century, where it eventually became known as an African celebration, as local historian Lavada Nahon explained in a recent discussion of the Pinkster legacy. Today, Pinkster is considered the oldest African American holiday. 

Many of the people who were kidnapped, enslaved, and brought to the Dutch colony of New Netherland were from Congo and Angola, and were already Christian, Nahon noted. They celebrated Pentecost, and the rare seasonal time off allowed to them, in Pinkster gatherings with other enslaved and free Africans—“in their own style, using their instruments, their foods, their gatherings.”

Three men in period costumes play the banjo, the fiddle, and the African drum in front of a brown shingled house with a red and yellow Car Wash sign in the background.
Musicians Chief Baba Neil Clarke, O.H. Prince, and Ayodele Maakheru play an improvised set using traditional instruments at a Pinkster celebration hosted by the Wyckoff House Museum and the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum. Image via screenshot / YouTube.

Flowers are woven into this history. In the Dutch celebration, white children were draped with flowers and called “pinksterbloemetje” or “pinkster flower,” according to The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo by Jeroen Dewulf. This phrase persisted in the common name of R. periclymenoides, which became one of a few different flowers associated with Pinkster here (the blue flag, or Iris versicolor, was also known as a “pinkster bloom”). 

Capitol Hill in Albany was said to be covered in “pinxter flowers” during early Pinkster celebrations. Dewulf notes that the next colonial power, Britain, referred to the Pinkster festival’s flower as the “pink azalea," and the pinkster azalea is referenced today as the “official Pinkster bloom.”

“Various wild flowers were known as Pinkster blossoms,” reads a 1908 article from Brooklyn newspaper The Standard Union, “but the beautiful wild azalea, which blooms plentifully on Long Island in May, was, and is, universally known as the Pinkster flower, or Pinkster bloom, and it is still called by the old Dutch residents Pinkster blummachee.” 

Pinkster was banned by Albany lawmakers in 1811 amid enslaver fears of rebellion. But revivals have become popular in recent decades, and took place this spring at the Lefferts Historic House, Van Cortlandt Park, and other locations around New York City.

Identifying the Pinkster

The pinkster is one of the first of the native azaleas to flower in spring, blooming before its bright-green oblong leaves emerge.

The vibrancy of the pinkster bloom does not come across in herbarium specimens. (Note: I have not seen this plant in the wild.) North Carolina Extension describes the flowers as “clusters of soft pink (often cotton candy pink) to white to lavender, slightly fragrant, funnel-shaped flowers,” each with five curved stamens and five petals.

A small brown pressed flower against a tan background with the label
A Rhododendron periclymenoides specimen (then known as Rhododendron nudiflorum) collected from Staten Island in April 1877. Image courtesy of Staten Island Museum.
An upright branching woody shrub with a cascade of pink flowers against a green forested background.
Rhododendron periclymenoides growing in the wild in Virginia, pictured here in early May. It has an open, upright habit and drops its leaves in winter. Photo by Mrs. Gemstone / Flickr.
A tubular pink flower with one open bloom and five long thin sloped stamens and several closed blooms against a black background.
Like other azaleas, the pinkster azalea’s tubular blooms each have five curved stamens. Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

Rhododendron periclymenoides has many common names, two of which—wild-honeysuckle and purple-honeysuckle—might help you identify it. It’s said that the flowers of the pinkster azalea resemble those of Lonicera periclymenum, or the European honeysuckle.

So what makes R. periclymenoides an azalea? Azaleas are a subcategory of rhododendrons. One way to distinguish the two is by the number of stamens (the male reproductive part of a flower). A rhododendron flower has ten stamens, while the flower of an azalea has five.

Henry David Thoreau coveted the pinkster azalea (or “pinxter-flower”), writes Allison Cusick of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. In late May of 1853, Thoreau sought out a local hunter named George Melvin to find the flowers, which he picked from along the Assabet River in Massachusetts. The specimen is now part of the Harvard University Herbaria.

Five pressed plant specimens in shades of brown against an off-white background.
Thoreau’s pinxter-flower specimen. Image via Harvard University Herbaria / Flickr.

Local Ecology

In the wild, the pinkster azalea can be found growing near plants like mountain-laurel (Kalmia latifolia), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). In 1985, it was announced as the official wildflower of Staten Island in the Staten Island Advance. (At the time, it was known as Rhododendron nudiflorum.)

In an article about the winning flower, Staten Islander Beatrice Hermasen recalled “fond memories of all the wooded areas beautiful with the spring blooming of the pink azaleas.”

A black and white newspaper column title reads
A 1985 article from the Staten Island Advance.

The pinkster azalea is said to attract bees, hummingbirds, and swallowtail butterflies. A gall midge, Dasineura praecox, deposits its eggs in the flower buds of the azalea. Exobasidium azaleae, a fungus, can cause apple-shaped galls on the plant’s leaves. These “apples” are reportedly edible. Kathie Hodge, a mycologist at Cornell University, describes the apple-like plant tissue as “big and juicy and a little sweet.”

Hodge adds an asterisk, however—rhododendrons are notoriously poisonous. Many plants in the Ericaceae family produce grayanotoxins, which can affect the cardiovascular and nervous systems when ingested.

Growing the Pinkster

The pinkster azalea is a favorite of Will Lenihan, Native Flora gardener at BBG (and Staten Islander). It’s a little picky about where it grows, however, and he doesn’t recommend it as a reliable urban shrub.

“I would love to see more people experiment with cultivating it, but you have to accept that it might die fairly easily in the wrong spot,” says Lenihan.

Your best shot at growing it is on a moist but well-draining, east-facing slope that gets morning sun but is protected from too much direct afternoon sun, with a lot of acidic organic material in the soil.

Pinkster azalea buds in the Water Garden. Photo by Blanca Begert.

At Brooklyn Botanic Garden, R. periclymenoides can be found in the Native Flora Garden and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Water Garden. To see this plant growing in the wild in New York City, check out High Rock Park and Blue Heron Park in Staten Island.


Pinkster’s Legacy: A Zoom Discussion with Lavada Nahon and Chief Baba Neil Clark, Van Cortlandt Park Alliance

The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America's Dutch-Owned Slaves, by Jeroen Dewulf

Towards Broader Adaptability of North American Deciduous Azaleas, Arnoldia, Arnold Arboretum

Wildflower in Focus: Pinxter Flower, Maryland Native Plant Society

Rhododendron periclymenoides, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Native Azaleas, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Georgia Silvera Seamans is an urban and community forester. She is the founder of Local Nature Lab and a member of #BlackBotanistsWeek.

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Image, top of page: Blanca Begert