Friday 23 July 2021

Back to Basics: Lilies, Lotuses, and Lanterns in Japan

Back in March 2017, this blog started as a place to share the things I see when out and about; as the header implies, it began with a strong nature focus and posts were short and frequent. Today, more than 200 posts and some 128,000 views later, the posts are much longer but less frequent (once a month); the content has also taken a much more culture and society turn than originally intended. With this in mind, I'm going "back to basics" and today am going to introduce the wonderful and extremely colourful array of flowers which I enjoyed during my daily dog walks during Japan's rainy season (yes, rain, shine, or typhoon Jaz insists we go out!).

Clockwise from top left: African Lilies (アガパンサス), Barbados Lily (白筋アマリリス), Flame Lily (グロリオサ), Madonna Lily (マドンナリリー), Orange Daylily (ワスレグサ), and Tiger Lily (オニユリ)

The first images are of lilies, those large trumpet-shaped colourful flowers which catch the eye at this time of year. Delightful to observe, comparing the English and Japanese names is also rather interesting. For example, the Orange Daylily is so-called because it only flowers for one day so the Japanese name wasuregusa (literally "forgotten plant") is no surprise! I noticed hundreds of tiny white aphids on the stems of these lilies (inset), aphids which eventually turned orange (like the lily) and sprouted wings. How strange!

(L to R) Indian or Sacred Lotus bud, flower, flower with stamen visible, and dried seed cup

Speaking of lilies, the water lily is revered in Japan (reflected in Japanophile Monet's many Water Lily and Japanese Bridge paintings). A few of my neighbours grow these amazing plants - more accurately known as Indian/Sacred Lotus or Hasu in Japanese - in large pots of water since it is obviously aquatic (the minimum water depth is about 30cm). The lotus root (renkon) - a crunchy, starchy, slightly sweet potato with holes - is a popular food in Japan, apparently making up about 1% of all vegetables consumed! One of the most beautiful sites to view these plants is Shinobazu Pond in the south of Ueno Park; in the summer, the surface of the pond is almost completely covered!

Another plant of note at this time of year is known as Asian (or Chinese) Lizard's Tail (ハンゲショウ) so called because each flower spike resembles a reptile's tail (?). This is actually a herb - in the past it has been used to treat inflammation - and can grow more than one metre high. The Japanese name Hangeshō can be written as either 半夏生 or 半化粧, the latter literally meaning "half make-up" reflecting the way the leaves appear to be painted half-white, as if someone had taken a white make-up brush to them but never finished the job. 

To finish off on a seasonal note, our final example is the Chinese Lantern (ホウズキ), also called the Devil's Lantern (鬼灯), a flowering plant with large bright red and orange airy husks covering its fruit. In the past, elementary school students would "pop" the balloon-like husks and gather the mini-tomato like fruit inside. As pictured, these lantern-like plants appear in shops in the run up to the holiday of Obon (August 13-16 this year), a key holiday when Japanese honour their ancestors who are said to briefly return to the world guided by lanterns - real or plant-based - hung in front of houses. Then, at the end of the holiday, the lanterns (or Devil's Lantern) are placed into rivers to guide their ancestors back to the underworld. A market/summer festival dedicated to the plant known as Hōzuki-ichi (ほうずき市)is held every year on July 9th and 10th near Senso Temple (浅草寺) in Asakusa.