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Winter Tea Flowers

aki no no ni
sakitaru hana o
yubi orite
kaki kazoureba
nana kusa no hana.
hagi ga hana
obana kuzubana
nadeshiko no hana
ominaeshi
mata fujibakama
asagao no hana.
---------------------
Flowers blossoming
in autumn fields -
when I count them on my fingers
they then number seven
The flowers of bush clover,
eulalia, arrowroot,
pink, patrinia,
also, mistflower
and morning faces flower.
Yamanoue Okura (C. 660 - 733)
Manyoshu: 8:1537-8

 

Autumn brings with it a certain sadness at the passing of fair summer days and the coming of cold winter. It also brings a beauty celebrated throughout the world. Autumn is a time when mountains turn to magnificent crimson tapestries and cities glow in wonderful autumnal tints as days grow cooler. Autumn has long been particularly extolled in Japanese poetry, painting, and design.

The seven grasses of autumn (aki no nanakusa) were often mentioned in verses of the Manyoshu, the earliest collection of Japanese poetry and song. Images of autumn grasses in a later anthology of court poetry, the Kokinshu, illustrate the culture of Heian Japan [784 - 1185] in a way that could not be captured by painting. Powerful and concise language draws out the subtle nuances of life and love at the time, just as nature and flowers invoke the mutable seasons of interior emotion.

It is through Yamanoue Okura’s coupled verse above that the seven autumn grasses gained renowned. While it is uncertain who grouped these grasses together for the first time, they have indeed become deeply rooted in Japan’s daily life and history. Their presence in the gardens of the Heian aristocracy may well have been a great source of poetic inspiration, and still today grace gardens and fields.

The first mentioned bush clover (hagi or Lespedeza japonica) appears over one hundred times in the Manyoshu, making it the most well known of the autumn grasses. A deciduous shrub of the pea family, bush clover can be found growing wild in fields and mountains in Japan. Although most of the seven grasses were not eaten, in olden times the seeds of hagi were ground and mixed with rice gruel, while the leaves were used as a substitute for tea. The arch of its long, overhanging branches laden with reddish-purple flowers and swaying in the wind makes an indelible impression. The delicate flowers scatter as soon as crisp autumn breezes begin. In The Tale of Genji, an early eleventh century novel which has been called the greatest work in Japanese literature, as Genji’s wife Murasaki lies on her deathbed, she is visited by Genji and his daughter, the empress. Their thoughts move to the hagi growing in Murasaki’s garden as they make final farewells. A corresponding scene in a 12th century Illustrated Tale of Genji handscroll shows Genji, Murasaki, and the empress in a room on the right of the picture while hagi petals float away with the wind on the left.

The second named susuki (eulalia or Miscanthus sinensis) is sometimes called obana or ‘tail flower’ because its feathery white flower looks like an animal’s tail when it blooms in early autumn. A well known Zen phrase describes this scene, “A white horse enters a tail flower field (hakuba roka ni iru). From a distance the two are indistinguishable, yet the white horse remains the white horse, the tail flower, tail flower--an illustration of the Zen paradox of not one, not two. Closely associated with the autumn moon, the silver tassels of susuki tossing in the wind have become inseparable from the ambiance of the moonlit sky. Growing to heights of sixty inches or more, this perennial herb of the Graminae family grows wild on the hills and fields of Japan and other East Asian countries. The well known poetic reference to the Plains of Musashi or Musashino conjures images of a vast distance overgrown with plumes of susuki as far as the eye can see.

The only one of the seven grasses used in cooking is arrowroot (kuzu, Pueraria lobata). Its root is pounded, and the white starch that remains is dried, powdered, and used as a thickening agent in many styles of cooking. A summer sweet made from very thick kuzu is often served in chanoyu. The kuzu plant is a perennial, herbaceous, climbing vine of the pea family. It clusters thickly at forest edges, producing reddish-purple flowers shaped like butterflies. However it was the leaves of the plant most often noted by poets and painters during the Heian period. Thick and green on top, the underside is pale white. The beauty of arrowroot leaves blowing in the wind was thought to be sublimely white and pretty by Sei Shonagon, author of the 11th century classic, The Pillow Book. The melancholy of its fluttering leaves was also used to great expressive effect in the Shrine in the Field (Nonomiya) chapter of The Tale of Genji, as a woman whom Genji had loved separates herself from the world.

Nadeshiko (Dianthus superbus, commonly called pink) is sometimes referred to as wild carnation because it looks like a delicate relation of florists’ carnations. Small fringed petals, five in number, cluster on thin stems. Usually pink in color, white varieties also exist. In Japanese the name literally means “an affectionate touch for a child,” indicating how endearing this flower is. The Manyoshu treats dianthus as both a summer and an autumn flower, but later it appears almost exclusively in mid to late summer context. Several varieties of nadeshiko may be found along riverbanks, on fields of eulalia, by the ocean shore, and along bluffs. Another frequent poetic reference for dianthus is tokonatsu, although it has a more romantic connotation.

Ominaeshi (Patrinia scabiosaefolia, patrinia), is a perennial herb that grows in sunny fields of eulalia and mountainous areas extending from Japan to Korea, China, and Eastern Siberia. Sometimes referred to as “maiden flower,” the tall stems of the ominaeshi fan out symmetrically at the top, bearing tiny five-petaled flowers that resemble miniature parasols. In classic Japanese literature, the flower’s gentle appearance was likened to a beautiful woman and again has romantic overtones.

Fujibakama (Eupatorium fortunei, hemp agrimony or mistflower), has tiny white blossoms tinged with purple atop long stems. Originating in China, it has been cultivated in Japan and can be found along the upper ground of riverbanks. With some similarities in appearance to ominaeshi, fujibakama has a subtle fragrance, and the dried plant was worn as a medicinal sachet. The literal translation is “purple trousers.” Therefore reference to the flower in poetry usually connotes a man rather than a woman. Many Kokinshu poems about fujibakama allude to its fragrance being the only momento left of a departed lover.

The last named of the autumn grasses is asagao. Literally this translates as ‘morning face’ which in its modern meaning designates the morning glory plant (Ipomaea purpurea). This creeping plant with trumpet-shaped blossoms was brought from the Nepalese Himalayas into China, and then to Heian Japan. Its early cultivation in Japan failed, but later flourished as the story about Sen Rikyu and the morning glory garden proves. Rikyu’s canonical use of morning glories in the tearoom has prompted all later generations to refrain from imitation and to enjoy their morning glories in the garden.

 

 

In Okura’s Manyoshu poem on the seven grasses, as well as in other Heian literature, the word ‘asagao’ in all likelihood refers to the kikyo (Platycodon grandifilorum, Chinese bellflower or balloon flower). This late summer and early autumn flower has five-pointed, purple trumpet-shaped blossoms, and can be found growing wild in grassy mountain highlands and in other temperate areas. Other garden varieties of kikyo include white, pink, and variegated hues.

A notable absence in the seven autumn grasses is kiku (Chrysanthemum sinensis Makino, chrysanthemum), but this flower is celebrated in its own right at the festival of the ninth day of the ninth month Choyo no sekku. The plant was not native to Japan and references to it were found first in poetry written in Chinese by Japanese court scholars. Thus it does not appear in the Manyoshu anthology of Japanese poetry and song, However chrysanthemum became an important motif in painting, literature, and other works of art from the Heian period to the present day.

The capacity of the autumn grasses for inspiring deep emotion among people in olden days may be viewed through their composite nature of beauty tinged with sadness. More than flowers of any other season, autumn grasses washed by rain and bent in the wind attain a beauty unsurpassed, and this is the beauty of chabana.

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