I was originally intending to write a piece to coincide with New Year’s Day, or more accurately, the Japanese period of celebrating the New Year, which pertains particularly to the first three days, but the period up to the 7th, matsu-no-uchi (松の内) – literally “inside the pine” – is still considered part of the New Year.
[caveat: certain regions or households may vary, with the matsu-no-uchi period extending as far as the 15th]
Unfortunately, things did not go to plan, partially because I was unable to find the subjects I wanted to photograph, partially because of the weather, and partially because of other commitments.
Notice how I used the word “unfortunately”, which comes from the root word “fortune”. This notion of fortune or good luck – engi (縁起) in Japanese – is actually a very important concept within the framework of Japanese New Year celebrations. It is generally believed that impurity must not be carried across to the New Year lest it invites misfortune, which is why most households and businesses have their biggest clean-up in the days leading up to the New Year.
In addition, some things are thought to be lucky or symbols of good luck, sometimes by their nature – e.g. the pine is particularly resistant to cold; sometimes by their form or shape – e.g. noodles are long, so there is a belief that eating them on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day will help ensure a long life; and sometimes by their name – e.g. the sea bream is called tai (鯛), and this sounds like the word medetai, which holds a number of connotations relating to good luck or happy occasions.
While I don’t take any of this seriously, I want to devote this post to plants which are used as symbols during the New Year, particularly the ones which bear red berries.
The first red berried plant we’ll look at got a brief mention in a previous post – the nandina, heavenly bamboo or sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica). The name nandina is a Latinization of the Japanese name nanten (南天), although general opinion is that it is native to China and was introduced here centuries ago.
Typically growing to around 2 metres tall, but occasionally reaching more than four metres, it is an attractive plant with lightly pink-tinged young leaves, but it is at its peak in winter when it produces bright red berries.
The nandina is used as New Year decoration, partially because of it the leaves and berries, and partially because the name nanten sounds similar to the expression “nan o tenzuru”, to “turn bad luck around”.
Another plant which is used as a decoration is the coral bush (Ardisia crenata), which also goes by the names coralberry, coralberry tree, hen’s-eyes, and spiceberry. In Japanese, it is known as manryo (万両), which literally means “ten thousand ryo” (a ryo is an old unit of money, the value of a small gold coin), and is prized for its bright red berries.
Coral bush appears in mild temperate climates in East Asia – the Kanto region being the northernmost extreme of its distribution in Japan – and grows to 70 -100 cm tall. The bush flowers in mid-summer, and the fruit begins to ripen around October, and lasts until February.
Some people have drawn parallels between the use of European holly at Christmas and the use of coral bush at Japanese New Year.
A superficially similar plant, Sarcandra glabra – sorry, there doesn’t appear to be a common name in English – is known as senryo (千両), literally “one thousand ryo” is also used, although it is not as highly prized as the former.
Incidentally, there are also plants known as hyakuryo (百両), juryo (十両), and ichiryo (一両), literally meaning “one hundred ryo”, “ten ryo” and “one ryo”, respectively. (The first two are also members of the genus Ardisia.)
I was recently introduced to another red-berried plant used in New Year decorations, the round leaf holly (Ilex rotunda). This one also has a lucky name in Japanese, kuroganemochi (黒鉄黐) – the latter part of the name sounds like “kanemochi”, meaning a rich person.
This is a tall tree, growing up to 10 metres in height, and it is often grown as a street tree.
Nandina, coral bush and similar plants are an important source of food for birds in winter, and the bright red berries seem to be a reproductive strategy – the birds are attracted to the fruit and spread the seeds via their droppings. I’ve had a couple of coral bush appear in my garden despite there being no other coral bush plants nearby.
The fruit of the coral bush appears to be quite bitter, and birds tend to avoid eating it if there is anything else available, whereas the more readily accessible (and more palatable?) nandina berries are eaten earlier. This may also be a strategy – the seed is spread at the end of winter to increase the chance of survival.
So successful is the distribution of seeds by birds that both coral bush and nandina are classed as noxious invasive species in parts of the USA.
In the coldness of winter and a landscape that is essentially flowerless – just the leaves of the evergreens and the brown deadness of deciduous trees – the coral bush and other red-berried plants provide a welcome change. And maybe a stroke of luck.
Many thanks to Misako for letting me use her lovely photos in this post.