The Pacific Coast area has only one native azalea which is famous not only for its fragrance and beauty, but also as being very difficult to grow.
Unlike our native rhododendron R. macrophyllum, R. occidentale is considered to be an azalea or azaleadendron. Both plants have a tendency to grow in thickets and become fairly tall. Unlike R. macrophyllum, R. occidentale is a deciduous azaleadendron and drops all of its leaves in the winter.
Colorful and fragrant blooms
The fantastic, often fragrant blooms, appear when the leaves emerge. Imagine 6-12 five multicolored florets clustered into trusses measuring up to 5-6 inches wide covering a large shrub.
These florets typically flaunt white, orange, yellow, pink or red, with flares, stripes, blotches, and frilly lobes that are deliciously fragrant.
The flower and plant diversity reach a peak in the southern Oregon/northern California region spawning creating several unusual, recognized natural selections. This plant is also unusual because it will grow in serpentine soils (which are more base in pH). They are often used for southern coast restoration projects.
R. occidentale was used to develop fragrance and diversity in many other deciduous hybrid azaleas (such as Exbury hybrids). To see or smell a local example on campus check the southwest corner of Nash; southeast of Gilkey Hall at intersection of sidewalks in late April and May.
Where to look
Look for plants growing on the hillsides along Highway 101 from Newport to southern California. Fragrance will also give their locations away.
While it easily grows here, it will not on the East Coast. No one quite understands why it will not grow well there, especially since the bulk of native azealeas grow there.
It is possible to view a major natural cluster at the Azalea State Reserve just south of the Oregon-California border (see https://www.stateparks.com/azalea_state_reserve_in_california.html) near to Highway 101. There are several campgrounds, parks, reserves, etc. nearby.
Brookings, just north of this area in Oregon, features an annual Azalea festival. Check out occidentale at the Brookings City Park May 22-25, 2020. The festival includes many activities such as art shows, plant sales, seafood feeds, cruise ins, breweries, much and more! (see http://azaleafestivalbrookings.com/ )
For more information see OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Horticulture, Landscaping Plants at https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/rhododendron-occidentale and the Azalea Society of America at https://www.azaleas.org/view-azalea/?id=9318. Photo of R. occidentale by Don Hyatt, http://donaldhyatt.com/ used with permission.