Tag Archives: holly

A Berry Nice Stroke of Luck

13 Jan

Hi blog.


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.

Nandina with bright red berries.  The older leaves are a darker shade of green.  Looking at the top right, you can see where birds have been feeding on the berries.

A close up of some nandina berries and younger leaves.

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 bearing its berries. The fruit is under the leaves, making it harder for birds to feed on it.

An Edo era koban coin valued at one ryo. Photo taken from Wikipedia, because I don’t own any nice stuff like this…

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.


The plant known as senryo. The berries are located above the leaves, making it easier for birds to feed on them.


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.


The leaves and fruit of the round leaf holly.


The round leaf holly 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.


Nandina and senryo add some colour to this cut flower display. Many thanks to Misako for this and most of the other photos in this post.



Many thanks to Misako for letting me use her lovely photos in this post.



Deck the Halls with Boughs of … False Holly?

18 Dec

Winter is well and truly upon us, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Wild in Japan had hibernated.  Mind you, with fridge-like temperatures  in my room when it’s time to get up, frost on the ground, and the occasional frozen puddle on my way to work, hibernation does not sound such a bad idea.

A neglected persimon tree on a cold morning.

Also, hibernation would mean avoiding the Japanese version of Christmas.

If you’re from the western world, Christmas is probably 90% commercial, with the remaining 10% being a mixture of “goodwill to men”, religious feelings, thoughts going to family and friends, and all that warm and gooey stuff.  Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the Japanese about that 10%…

To make matters worse, the Japanese have lots of misconceptions about the traditions they are trying to imitate.  Many people believe that Christmas is December 24th, and that it is a time for couples to go on romantic dates.  WHAM!’s “Last Christmas” is broadcast as a Christmas song (I don’t even think it should be counted as a song!)  Chicken is considered a traditional Christmas dish, and KFC makes a killing at this time of year.  And the Japanese concept of a Christmas cake is a normal sponge cake, decorated a little differently (and with the price increased accordingly) 

Finger lickin’ Christmas… The “traditional” Christmas dinner in Japan.

So, what better time than now to introduce false holly?


Mention holly, and most people conjure up images of European holly, AKA common holly, English holly, Christ’s thorn or Christmas holly (Ilex aquifolium), which is the type species of the entire genus of hollies (estimated at between 400 and 600 species).  Not all of these have the spiky leaves of European holly or even serrated leaves.  Nor do all of them produce those red berries.  In fact, the genus includes both evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers, with a range from the tropics to cold temperate climes.

Some hollies, such as Japanese holly or box-leaved holly (Ilex crenata) and the tarajo holly (Ilex latifolia) are indigenous to Japan, but none of them look particularly like European holly.


Enter convergence.


Japan is home to a plant which looks as if someone tried to mimic European holly, but was only as successful as the one who tried to mimic Christmas.  The plant is the false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus).

It looks like holly, doesn’t it? Young false holly leaves.

The false holly is known locally as hiiragi (柊 or less commonly疼木 or 柊木).  The characters used to write the name are interesting as the first and third ones contain the radical “tree” plus “winter”, whereas the second one contains “tree” and “hurt”, no doubt a reference to the spiky leaves.

A close-up of those spiky leaves.

Although the shape of the leaves is similar, probably with the common objective of deterring larger herbivores, false holly leaves are arranged in an opposite pattern, as opposed to the European holly’s alternate pattern.  The fruit is dark purple and appears in summer.


Growing between two and eight metres in height, false holly has found uses as the preferred wood for stone-cutting tools, but more often as a hedge plant.  It grows taller than tea or azalea – the two other major hedge plants – and the spiky leaves act as an extra deterrent to intruders.  I see a number of these on my way to and from work every day.

A hedge in development. Pruning the top branches encourages the growth of spikier leaves.

Another veiw of the same developing hedge. It doesn’t look terribly formidable yet…

A fully-developed hedge. At over 150 cm tall on a raised bank, this hedge would stop all but the most determined intruders.

In addition to the practical use, false holly plays a part in cosmology.  It is said to deter demons from entering a house, especially when planted in the north-east in conjunction with sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica), or nanten (南天), planted in the south-west.

It is also used in Setsubun celebrations (the lunar calendar New Year’s Eve), with leaves nailed to the gate with the head of a sardine head.  This “decoration” is known as hiiragiiwashi (柊鰯), which is simply the names of the plant and the fish put together.  The smell of the sardine head is said to either drive demons away, or attract them to the false holly leaves, which stick in their eyes and  blind them.  This site has a lot of information on the subject (in Japanese)


In the Kojiki, Prince Yamato Takeru is said to have been given a false holly eight-span spear, hiiragi no yatsuhiro hoko (比比羅木之八尋矛).  Some commenters argue that the hiiragi part of the name was a description of the blade’s shape; others claim that the shaft was false holly; and others suggest the name reflects its demon-conquering powers.  Whatever the reason, between the grass-cutting sword and the eight-span spear, Takeru had some nice toys.


The false holly may be a poor substitute for European holly at Christmas, but it is a plant that should be admired in its own right and not be compared to others.

Young false holly plants of the “Goshiki” cultivar on sale at a florist.

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