We are fully into May, with the spring growth changing from light to dark green, and the tea harvest underway.
I have mentioned “May sickness” (Gogatsubyo) previously, and I think that this year I’m suffering from it!
I tend to wake up with the sunrise, which is now sufficiently early enough to disturb my sleep before five in the morning. The “Golden Week” long weekend also took its toll with late nights and early mornings.
Last year I wanted to write about the wisteria, but the flowering period is very short and I actually missed out on getting any decent shots. This year, I was better prepared – but only just.
Wisteria is actually a genus of plants, legumes to be exact – making them close relatives of the beans. They may appear like trees, but are actually woody vines and are typically found climbing walls, trellises or trees.
The genus is called fuji (藤) in Japanese – not at all related to the famous mountain – but this name also applies specifically to the Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda). Fortunately, the Japanese wisteria also goes by the name Noda fuji (野田藤) to help avoid confusion. The other major wisteria species endemic to Japan is the silky wisteria (Wisteria brachybotrys) or yamafuji (山藤).
Both these plants are very similar, but can be distinguished by the direction that they twist and twine – floribunda wraps in a clockwise direction while brachybotrys twines in the opposite direction.
At the end of April and beginning of May, these wisteria species produce long racemes which burst into huge trails of purple-indigo (or occasionally white) flowers. On a trip to the countryside last year the forest hills were tinted purple with masses of wisteria flowers. [cue “Purple Haze”]
Given that the 140-plus year old hasama-no-fuji at Ashikaga Flower Park covers over 1000 m2, it is not hard to imagine the effect of hundreds of flowering plants.
Encounters with wisteria along my work route have included trellised plants, tree-like stand-alone plants, bonsai, and a large vine spreading from its supporting tree to nearby power lines.
Unfortunately, photographing most of these would have meant a very visible ethnic minority sticking his mobile phone deep into other people’s yards… never a good idea.
Actually, my relationship with wisteria goes back nearly 25 years. However, it was not with a real plant, but the imitation flowers held by the “fuji musume” (wisteria maiden) doll my school gave me.
Wisteria have played a part in Japanese lifestyles for centuries. The woody stems can be woven into chairs or baskets. New shoots, flowers and seeds are occasionally eaten (the flowers may be battered and deep fried, and the seeds were once prized as a treat). Parts of the roots were used in traditional medicine, although much of the English-language writing suggests most parts of the plant are toxic)
Wisteria were a common theme in literature and art, and several forms were used in Japanese heraldry.
But the most common encounter with wisteria for most Japanese people is in surnames. While Suzuki and Sasaki constantly vie for the distinction of most-common surname, Sato (佐藤) constantly ranks at number three. Other common names with the wisteria ideogram include Kato, Ito, Saito, Shindo, Kudo, Fujita, Fujimoto and Fujiwara.
What surprised me was the number of eight and nine year-old children who were blissfully unaware of the wisteria.
“Open your eyes, kids! There’s a whole world out there!”
I’ll be following my own advice.