On a breezy day in March the whole garden smells of vanilla. I have a friend who says it smells of custard and another who says it smells of chocolate, so everyone seems to associate the smell with sweet food of some sort. But I think it is definitely vanilla. It is not just a faint, elusive whiff like that of violets. It really pervades the garden; the tiny yellow tufts of Azara microphylla pack a punch quite out of proportion to their very modest size.
The flowers are best viewed from underneath the branch. As you can see they are similar to those of Mimosa but much smaller. There are no petals, just little tufts of stamens which grow from between the axils of the leaves. The leaves are small; hence the name ‘microphylla’. They are glossy and arranged on the branches in a herringbone pattern a bit like those of Cotoneaster horizontalis, except the leaves are of unequal size. The tree is evergreen and so has a pleasing appearance all year round.
The tree comes from Chile where it is called rather endearingly ‘Chin-Chin’. We call it ‘Azara‘ after an eighteenth century Spanish naturalist: Felix de Azara. It can grow to about 20ft tall but I had one in a previous garden which was many years old and it was no taller than about 14 ft. It needs a sheltered position; my previous one was in the shelter of a woodland garden but now I grow it with the protection of a wall. The last two hard winters blackened some of the leaves but it recovered and it looks wonderful this year.
You can get a variegated one which is slower growing but I don’t know why you would want to when this one has such nice glossy leaves. If you love the smell of vanilla and have a sheltered spot then Azara microphylla is the tree to go for.