Tag Archives: plants

Underneath the Mistletoe

11 Oct

Hi blog.

No, I have not given up on Wild in Japan, I just haven’t had any noteworthy encounters as of late, I’ve been busy at work, the weather has been erratic (I’ve recently coined the term “roller coaster temperatures”), and laziness.  This will not do as WiJ celebrates its fourth anniversary, so I’m trying to overcome the inertia.

I have spotted a fruiting plant I would really like to blog about in someone’s garden, but that means getting permission to photograph it.  Time will tell

Going through some old photos, I found a couple of slightly grainy shots of mistletoe taken in January 2013 in Inariyama Park.   I remember I was going to blog about mistletoe, but I deemed the shots too grainy (trying to photograph a parasitic plant up a tall tree in strong morning light with only a phone will not get great results) and the material too lacking in interest.

OK, it’s a bit grainy, but you get the idea.

Part of the problem was that practically no-one I spoke to was even aware of mistletoe.  In Japan it simply doesn’t have the weight of collective cultural references behind it – no links to the ancient Greeks, Norse mythology, Celtic druids, witches, Christmas, Asterix comics – none of that.  I found a couple of references to traditional medicine, a some old poems, and little else.

The mistletoe variety seen locally is a subspecies of the common mistletoe (Viscum album subsp. coloratum), and usually goes by the name yadorigi (most commonly 宿木 or 寄生木, but I was able to find no fewer than six other ways of writing it in kanji!), and is also known as hoya or hoyo.

Their berries are loved by waxwings.

A cold winter morning, snow on the ground, blue skies and mistletoe on a branch. Does life get any better?

Mistletoe is, however, not loved by park management, and the offending plants had been removed when I later visited the park.

Now, to convince the local ladies that they’re supposed to kiss me if I’m standing under the mistletoe…

Heard But Not Seen and Victory Is Mine

9 May

Hi blog. 

You could be forgiven for thinking that I had given up Wild in Japan.  I’ll spare you the excuses, except the climatic ones.

April brought some shocking weather, especially after the glorious conditions we experienced at the end of March.

Temperatures plummeted to February averages, cloud and rain were the order of the day for a couple of weeks, and I had to drag out my winter jacket from storage.

It even snowed on April 8th!!

Not only was the weather miserable for most of the first three weeks of April, I was miserable and had no motivation to write anything. (A unilateral decision for me to quit all budo activities until further notice – notice which is unlikely to come for several years – didn’t help, either)  Nor was there anything to write about.


Finally, the weather warmed up, sunny days and cool – not cold – nights have the norm.  Glorious weather for cycling to work, with the wisterias coming into full bloom and the occasional call of the bush warbler.

 I’ve mentioned this bird before, and how it is usually heard and not seen.  I’ve paused and searched for the source of the call, but to no avail.

“One day, bush warblers.  One day.”


Then came Golden Week, and I was too busy doing family stuff to even think about wildlife (Activities during this time can be more taxing than actual work)

It was after I came home on May 5th that an idea for a post.


Every year, our kind elderly neighbours give us some leaves for one of the Children’s Day festivities, shobu-yu, a bath infused with certain leaves.

Leaves bundled for the bath.


One type of the leaves is readily identifiable as Japanese mugwort (Artemisia indica var. maximowiczii).  This plant has a plethora of common names in Japanese, the most significant being mochigusa (餅草), a reference to its use in mochi rice cakes; mogusa (艾) – the origin of the English “moxa”; and yomogi (蓬), the most common of its common names.

Close-up of the mugwort leaves.


The Japanese mugwort is known for its medicinal properties, but it is not considered necessary for shobu-yu.

Stumbled upon. A mugwort growing wild within the grounds of one of the schools I work at.


The vital leaf for shobu-yu is a complicated matter.  The leaf in question is the sweet flag (Acorus calamus var. angustatus), known as shobu (菖蒲) in Japanese.  The leaves of this plant not only have reputed medicinal properties, they bear a slight resemblance to sword blades (to cut through evil spirits) and the name shobu is a homophone for a word meaning martial spirit (尚武), or even an allusion to victory (勝負).

[Check boxes for 1) lucky shape and 2) fortunate homophone.]


That should be a simple matter, but nothing ever is.


You see, there are  two other plants with similar shaped leaves and similar names, just to confuse the situation.

One of these plants is the Japanese iris (Iris ensata var. ensata) which goes by the Japanese name hanashobu (花菖蒲) – literally “flowering shobu”.

The other culprit is the Siberian iris (Iris sanguinea), which goes by the local name ayame, which can be written in kanji as 文目, but is more commonly rendered as 菖蒲 – the same as shobu!

As a result, a lot of people think that shobu-yu is a bath with iris leaves… I admit that I was included in this group until very recently…

I realised that I needed to talk to my neighbours about the identity of the leaves… given that they have no pond, sweet flag seemed to be out of the question… leading me to suspect one other plant… 


The plant in question is the Japanese sweet flag (Acorus gramineus), alias Japanese rush, alias dwarf sedge.  Its local name is sekisho (石菖), a reference to it being a flag with a tendency to grow on or around rocks.  While this plant prefers to grow in water, it will survive (but not flower) on “dry” land.  It also has medicinal properties similar to the sweet flag, as well as the sweet smell.


Shobu-yu – bath of champions!


17 May





Hi blog.
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.

The sign I was watching out for.

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.

New flowers on a trellised wisteria.

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.

The Hasama-no-fuji. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

“Why bother with a trellis when power lines are free?”

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.

These were outside a wall…

A closer view of those flowers.

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.

A “sagari-fuji” hereldric design. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.








False Strawberry Fields Forever

21 May

Riding home from work a little before sunset, and enjoying the recently-turned warm-on-a-regular-basis weather, I find myself passing through taro gardens, recently harvested and ready-to-be-harvested tea fields, and patches of roadside wood and devastation.

Tea harvester at sunset.

Before… woods on the roadside.

…and after. (Actually, it is immediately adjacent to the previous photo, but it should give you an idea of Japan’s appetite for construction)

On the opposite side of the minor road I’m using I spot a single red, err, spot.  Hoping that this is going to be worth my time, I slam on my brakes, spin around, and get ready to photograph.

I locate the red fruit.  It turns out to be a raspberry.  Oh, well.

A raspberry – not what I was looking for.

I was hoping it was something else.  Which I find about a week later, less than a kilometre away…

I know the Japanese name, just not the English name.


It has trefoil leaves like a strawberry.  It produces flowers like a strawberry.  It has red fruit growing on long stalks like a strawberry.  It is even related to a strawberry.  But it is not a strawberry.


Leaves, runners, fruit… but all is not as it seems…


The plant in question is known locally as hebiichigo (蛇苺), literally “snake strawberry”.  There doesn’t appear to be an English common name for Potentilla hebiichigo, although the names mock strawberry, Gurbir, Indian strawberry or false strawberry are applied to the closely related and very similar Potentilla indica.  The latter is known as yabuhebiichigo (藪蛇苺). 

The two are very difficult to distinguish without flowers – the former develops five-petaled flowers, while the latter produces flowers with six petals.

Hebiichigo tends to produce slightly rounder leaves that are lighter in colour, and it prefers more open areas.  So it is most likely that the plants on my commute are indica.

Live and learn.


The fruit here is large and slightly glossy, and the leaves a darker shade and slightly pointed. This plant is probably indica.


Taken at a different location, this plant has a smaller, duller fruit and rounder leaves (not visible here). Most likely, this is the hebiichigo.


Both of these plants have been the victims of nomenclature wars, and are sometimes found under the genus Duchesnea.


Another local folk name for the plant is dokuichigo (毒苺), literally “poison strawberry”, and there is a folk belief that the fruit of the plant is poisonous.  In fact, the fruit is not harmful at all, it apparently – I haven’t tested this – is merely lacking in taste.

Yet another folk name is kuchinawaichigo, in which the “kuchinawa” is an old name for snake – apparently it refers to a rotting rope.

The common name is related to a folk belief that snakes ate the fruit, or that they would lie in wait under to plant to attack small animals that came to feed on the fruit.


This is a fairly attractive plant, and it is sometimes cultivated for its bright yellow flowers as well as the red fruit.  It is also used in traditional folk medicine to treat fevers and haemorrhoids.

A workmate tells me that as a child she was given a treatment of false strawberries steeped in alcohol for eczema.

I have also found references to false strawberry liqueurs on the Internet.

The Other Flowers

3 Apr

April is upon us – the beginning of a new financial and academic year, and for me, a change of schools.

Entrance ceremony is on April 8th this year, but the early arrival of the cherry blossoms and the amount of rain we can expect between now and then will almost ensure there will be almost no blossom on this day when cherry blossom’s attendance is mandatory…

But, I beg you, spare a thought for the other flowers.

I’ve recently covered magnolias, but it was the change of work places that made me take more notice of another spring flower, the dogtooth violet, trout lily or katakuri.

A patch of dogtooth violets near Inariyama Park, Sayama.

The dogtooth violet (Erythronium japonicum) is a member of the lily family, and is native to Japan as well as parts of China, Russia and Korea.  It is the only member of the genus Erythronium native to Japan.

Typically known as katakuri (片栗), it was once known by the name katakago (堅香子).  It is also known as the Spring ephemeral.

It grows at a variety of altitudes from plains to 2000 metre class mountains.  It shows a clear preference for broad-leafed deciduous forest environments, but can be found in conifer forests too.

A closer view of the same patch.  This area is fenced off and protected by the local neighbourhood.

The plant is estimated to live for between forty to fifty years, and it generally takes seven to eight years for a plant to grow from bulb to flowering age.  In addition to germinating from bulbs, they can also grow from seeds, which are spread by ants.

Unfortunately, the dogtooth violet is vulnerable to loss due to the usual reasons – urban encroachment on its environment and poaching of the plant.

A single dogtooth violet flower. These are in fact true lilies.

Dogtooth violet was once important as a source of starch, known as katakuriko (片栗粉) – literally “katakuri powder” – extracted from the bulbs.  Fortunately, this has been almost entirely replaced with starch from potatoes or taro, but still retains the katakuri name.  Although the aim of some of today’s “poaching” is possibly this hard-to-get commodity, it is only a small fraction of the damage done by collectors or even just people trouncing around off the beaten track and crushing everything underfoot.  Like I said, the usual suspects.

My first encounter with this flower was during a little walk out in the Chichibu-Okutama area (exactly where has escaped me) around 1999 or 2000.  Perhaps somewhere I still have an old snapshot.

More recently, I was delighted to discover a patch growing on my work route two years ago.  Unfortunately, my recent change of schools means I will no longer pass this violet delight in the late March to early June period.  It also means the photos for this post are older ones taken with my old mobile phone…  Sorry about that, Chief.

While my new commute route does not include any dogtooth violet flowers, it does take me through a small copse, tea fields, and past a section of forest.  Where the wild things are.

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.

Jekyll and Hydrangea

13 Jun

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 orginal 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.


Wintersweet memories

27 Jan

I have been mentioning the cold weather recently on Wild in Japan – by the way, it’s freezing as I write this – and this does play a role in the frequency, or lack thereof – of my posts.

Winter is supposed to be the best time for spotting birds – the lack of foliage on trees makes them easier to spot, and they have to take more risks to get food.  But as for actually getting photos of them…


There are plenty of evergreen plants here too, and clear sunny days create the illusion that everything could spring to life at any moment.  Unfortunately, cloud cover and rain just make the place seem miserable.


At this time of year, when the temperature outside and the temperature inside my fridge converge, two flowers come into their own.  I’ve already covered one – the camellia – in a previous post.  The other is the wintersweet.


Late afternoon, just after a sun-shower. The flowers provide a splash of contrast against the greens and greys.

The wintersweet (several plants of the genus Chimonanthus, particularly Chimonanthus praecox, or Japanese allspice) are known locally as robai (蝋梅, 蠟梅, 臘梅 or 唐梅).

Indigenous to China, they played an important role for Chinese New Year celebrations, being the few plants to blossom at that time of year.


Blossoms past their prime just after a sun-shower. What they lack in aesthetic appeal, they more than make up in fragrance.

In Japan, their role was less important, but they remain a popular park and garden plant, partially for being a winter-blossoming tree, and partially for the rich, sweet fragrance the blossom releases.  This is one time I wish I could share smells over the internet.


Smell this! Bright yellow wintersweet blossom.

Mt. Hodo in Nagatoro is famous for its wintersweet trees, but Tokorozawa’s Kokukoen also boasts a small wintersweet garden.  A great way to excite the senses on a clean winter’s day.

A tree in blossom, with the remains of the snowfall from two days before.

Fruits of my labours

21 Oct

Autumn is well and truly here, and the cold, cold winter is just around the corner.  Leaves are changing colour in the mountains – most noticeably the reds of the maples and the yellow ginkgos.

Ginkgo leaf – official symbol of Tokyo Metropolis

An early Chinese import, the ginkgo is a popular street tree but also enjoys special status around shrines and temples.  It is also the official tree of Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures (its leaf is part of the official Tokyo Prefectural symbol), as well as being the official tree of some 33 cities – including Tokorozawa – in addition to Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward and Nagoya’s Naka Ward, 20 towns and four villages.

I was first introduced to this tree during a high school biology field trip the Adelaide Botanical

Manhole cover in Tokorozawa showing city symbols, including ginkgo leaves

Gardens.  The Chinese maidenhair tree, as it was known to us, is a fossil tree with distinct male and female trees.

The Japanese name is icho, but it was known as ginkyo in older times.  The name icho is thought to derive from the Chinese yājiǎo (“duck foot”), a description of the shape of the leaf, while ginkyo is a possible reading of the characters (銀杏).  This can be confusing, as the name of the edible fruit kernel is, although written identically, pronounced “ginnan”.

The ginnan is indispensable in certain dishes, but obtaining them is laborious, mostly because the flesh of the ginkgo fruit, which must be removed, has a horrible smell.  So horrible that almost no animals eat it.  (The badger is said to be an exception)

“What’s that smell?” Ginkgo fruit rotting on the ground.  The flesh of the ginkgo fruit can iritate human skin, and must be removed from the nut.

Fruits that are important along the food chain include persimmons, pomegranates, chestnuts and Japanese horse chestnuts, and, of course, acorns.


Pomegranates in a garden near my house

Persimmons, or kaki (), are another early Chinese import, and are found in many suburban gardens.  My own garden boasts a sweet persimmon tree.  These were more important in days gone by and children had little access to sweets – many TV shows set in earlier times depict kids stealing from their neighbour’s persimmon tree.  A variation of this theme has the thief biting into the fruit only to discover that it is an astringentpersimmon.

Persimmons from my tree

Sweet and astringent persimmons – amagaki (甘柿) and shibugaki (渋柿) respectively – generally can be distinguished by sight – the most important sweet cultivars tend to be flat-ish and take on an almost square profile, while the most common astringent ones are more bulb-shaped.  This is only a rough guide, so beware of biting into an unidentified persimmon!  I’ve felt my tongue go numb from sinking my teeth into the wrong kind!

You may be thinking, “So why bother with astringent ones if you can’t eat them?”  Well, you can.  They can be treated with carbon dioxide, or soaked in shochu to remove the stringency.  But they are at their best as dried persimmons (hoshikaki – 干し柿).  The persimmons are peeled but the stalk left on, and hung up in a cool, dry place.  The winters of Eastern Japan are notoriously dry and quickly sap the moisture from the persimmon.  The result is a soft dried fruit with a pleasant taste.

Astringent persimmons also have uses in dyeing and paper.  The dye made from the fruit turns cloth a light brown colour, and it is also used to improve the water resistance of Japanese paper, particularly in umbrella making.

Persimmons are a favourite of birds, monkeys, deer, tanuki, wild pigs and bears.  Unfortunately, the ageing and depopulated country side means more persimmon trees are left unattended, attracting these animals into the small human settlements.  It is usually only a matter of time before a wild pig or a bear injures someone and the offending animal is killed.

The persimmon plays an important role in the children’s story The Feud of the Monkey and the Crabs.


Another seasonal favourite is the chestnut or kuri ().  This is a Japanese native, and hikers may be lucky enough to find one in the wild.  The nuts of the wild variety are small but sweet.  The husks are prickly and need to be handled with care.  Some people burn the husks to roast the nuts inside, although boiling and roasting over hot stones are the more common ways of cooking the nuts.  A popular autumn dish is kuri-gohan – chestnuts (with a few ginkgo nuts) boiled in white rice.

Unripened chestnut husks

Chestnuts with husk opening

The nuts are a favourite of wild pigs.

Chestnut in the open husk or urchin

The chestnut is one of the avenging characters in the afore-mentioned The Feud of the Monkey and the Crabs.


Next time – going nuts!

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