Jekyll and Hydrangea

Well, the Bureau of Meteorology officially declared the rainy season as having started on June 9th for Eastern Japan.  We had a cool (under 20℃) and persistent rain for the whole day, and it looks like lots of humid weather, warm to hot temperatures, and plenty of rain over the next few weeks.


A lot of flowers are heavily punished by the rain, and the April and May flowers have largely withered, or been pulverized.

While knotweeds and grasses thrive, and the garden turns threatens to turn into a jungle without regular weeding (this was the same patch that was a frozen tundra just four months ago), there is little to add variety to grey skies and green vines.  Except, that is, for June’s mightiest flower, the hydrangea.


The most common member of the hydrangea family found in Japanese gardens is the bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), also known by other common names such as French hydrangea, lacecap hydrangea, mophead hydrangea, penny mac and hortensia, often depending on the subspecies or cultivar.  Laceheads, for example, are probably the original form, and have a ring of larger sterile flowers surrounding a cluster of smaller fertile ones.  Some believe this to be a survival strategy – sacrificing the fertility of some flowers in order to make the cluster more attractive to potential pollinators.  In the case of mopheads, all the flowers are the same size and appear in a ball – and are sterile.

A lacehead-type hydrangea, the original form.

“I don’t mind the rain” – one of the few flowers left standing proud after a heavy shower.


The Japanese name for hydrangeas is ajisai (紫陽花).  The pronunciation is said to be a corruption of the word azusai, (集真藍), meaning “a collection of indigo-coloured things”, while the Chinese characters literally mean “purple sun flower”, but originally applied to a different plant.  The normal pronunciation of the character combination gives us shiyoka, which, although obscure, is also used.  Another name is shichihenge (七変化), which refers to something having multiple forms.  Yet another name is hassenka (八仙花).

 Hydrangeas are well-known for their colour to be influenced by soil pH, although the word influenced is pivotal.  Other factors include nutrient levels (especially aluminium), blossom age, and individual cultivars.  A row of plants next to each other can produce the range of colours from white to pink to blue to a deep purple.  [Cue “Smoke on the Water”]

Brilliant blue.

In the pink…

A rainbow of colours in neighbouring plants. There’s more than just pH involved.

Apart from their aesthetic appeal, hydrangeas have one other use.  Despite the leaves of the plant being toxic to humans, goats and cows, a tea-like infusion can be made from the leaves of Hydrangea macrophylla var. thunbergii.  Apparently sweet (I haven’t tried it), the infusion is called amacha (甘茶) – literally “sweet tea” – and the name is also applied to the plant itself.  The tea is used in celebrations for Buddha’s birthday on April 8th, in which it is poured over small statuettes of Buddha.

The infusion is also said to act as an insect repellent.  I’ll have to take their word for it.

A Wikipedia image of a statuette of Buddha bathed in amacha.

Amacha on Amazon… you can buy it in tea bags!


The association between June and hydrangeas is a strong one.  One of the most common visual themes is snails on a hydrangea leaf in the rain.  While snails do little to change the dreariness of the weather, the hydrangeas add some colour.

Another lacehead. The bright flowers around the outside are sterile.


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2 Responses to Jekyll and Hydrangea

  1. Goat says:

    Nice post. I have fond memories of wild hydrangias on th lower slopes of Mt Takao. Strange for me that so far I haven’t noticed any over here in Korea.

    At first I thought your post title might be a pun on Gertrude Jekyll, the famous garden designer who I believe liked to use the odd hydrangea in her gardens. But that would have been a double pun, extreme even by your standards.

    Poisonous to goats, eh?

    • wildinjapan says:

      Unfortuantely, I was not aware of one Gertrude Jekyll. I thought the way hydrangeas change was sufficient justification of the title. Thanks for the info!
      Keep your eyes open, although the macropylla is not native to your part of the world. Looks like most of the ones native to Korea don’t have clusters of flowers.
      Happy hunting!

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