Flowers have a very high importance in the Japanese culture. Most of us eared about Cherry blossom. Indeed, each flower is a symbol and has a meaning. Featuring beauty, force, resilience, longevity, delicacy, …
There are also often floral compositions on ceramics or fabrics, linked with the seasons, et mixing flowers, herbs, leaves, branches, bushes or shrubs. And their story telling is very interesting.
Cherry Blossom: Sakura
The symbol of Japan.
It expresses beauty, sweetness, gentleness, and its short life symbolizes the ephemeral nature of beauty.
The specificity of sakuras is to be blown by the wind during full bloom. They don’t wilt, and die beautiful. What explains how those flowers are also linked with Bushido, the moral code of Samourais.
Imported from China, this noble flower fascinated the imperial family, till becoming the symbol of the empire.
in Japan, the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum is the highest order. The imperial throne is called the throne of Chrysanthemum.
This flower is on coins, passports, …
It symbolizes longevity. When white, it’s purity, truth.
In Japan, it’s considered as the queen of the flowers.
With its beauty at the end of a rigid and straight stalk, it means courage and honnor.
Chinese Plum / Japanese Apricot: Ume
Like Japanese Cherry, it belongs to Prunus specy.
Its blooming start at the beginning of the year, and its flowers may appear under snow.
Its flowers are pink or white, close to Sakura’s, with rounder and shorter petals.
They express elegance, fidelity, longevity.
Easily recognizable with its yellow heart and stamens, its meaning varies with color. Its blooming announces the arrival of spring.
Red, it’s about love.
Yellow, it’s about nostalgia.
White, it’s means waiting.
Dianthus / Carnations: Nadeshiko and Kaneshon
This specie of flowers is very vast, and includes very different varieties.
Carnation is Kaneshon (on top); it is linked with love, namely maternal love.
Nadeshiko is a part of Dianthus. It has no specific meaning but is linked with the representation of the ideal Japanese woman: Yamato nadeshiko (Yamato was the region of the old capital city: Nara, and now refers to historic Japan), together beautiful, kind and strong.
Japanese Iris: Shoubu (ou hanashoubu)
You recognize it with its 3 falling leaves.
It has no specific meaning.
Hokusai made a famous woodblock print (iris and locust), which later also inspired Van Gogh.
Lastly, there are different species of iris, with other names (Ayame, Kakitsubata), which differ in their shape of leaves, or blooming period.
Not the most famous, though present in Europe and America, this tree comes from China, where it was linked with Phoenix and Empress, and used for its wood.
In Japan, it is planted when a girl is born (from which the surname princess tree). And when she is ready for marriage, tree is cut and its excellent wood is used to make objects that will be part of her wory. Beyond this custom, paulownia is also present on a great decoration: Order of the Rising Sun. It is the 2nd most important in Japan, after the Order of the Chrysanthemum, only for kings, emperors and heads of state.
Often represented as a flower over 3 leaves.
Ipomea / Morning glory: Asagao
It is a kind of bindweed.
Asagao means morning face. Ipomea opens in the morning, and closes in the evening.
This flower has no specific meaning.
TREES / SHRUBS / GRASSES
Pine is very meaningful in Japan. Here are few examples among others.
It’s used at new year (kadomatsu) pour decorate entrance doors, like an auspice of prosperity.
In the Shinto beliefs, the Kamis (gods and goddesses) come down from heaven on pine branches.
Pines are used to delimit temples, push back negative energies and bad spirits.
Because of its lifetime and resistance, it’s also naturally associated with longevity.
Pine Needles: Matsuba
Like for pine above, they evoke longevity, resistance.
Bamboo: Take, and its leaves: Sasanoha
Bamboo is very important in Japan, since used in multiple ways in daily life, for years.
It grows fast, and thus means prosperity.
Because of its natural features, it represents together strength, adaptability, flexibility, longevity, resistance.
The leaves (Sasa specy) are associated with quietness.
Heavenly – Sacred Bamboo / Nandina : Nanten
In spite of its surname, this plant has no relationship with bamboo. It has white flowers and red berries, and is often used in Japanese gardens or for Ikebana.
Planted near home or entrance, it has a protective role. Phonetically, nanten also means “problem with positive issue”.
It is a legume, like peas. Japanese were eating its sees, and brewing its leaves.
This plant is probably the most present in Japanese poetry during Middle ages (re. l”Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”: Manyoshu- which compiles more than 4,000 poems written during the 4th and 8th centuries.
It has no specific meaning but is very linked with autumn and its emotions.
Silvergrass / Miscanthus: Susuki or Obana
This is grass with seeds, like wheat. It has a long stam, with, at the end, like an ponytail, dancing with wind.
Historically, it was mainly used to make roofs, or feed the cattle.
Japanese like its simplicity and elegance. It is a part of autumn landscapes and is a very important decoration during the fullmoon festival (susuki), at mid-autumn.
It is a kind of local mandarine. Its evergreen leaves evoke longevity.
The 3 friends of winter: Shōchikubai
The pine (tenacity / longevity), bamboo (force / resilience), and prunus mume -which blooms at the end of the winter – (beauty / happiness / hope) are often represented together. They figure out the qualities needed to overcome the hard times (winter) before blooming again in spring.
They are often associated with the wishes for the new year.
The Autumn plants: Akikusa
In Japanese culture, there is something called mono na aware …. the deep emotion that we can feel in front of genuine beauty … during an instant, since everything is ephemeral.
Autumn is a season that expresses this beauty with a certain certain nostalgy.
There is also a group of the 7 autumn plants (Aki No Nanakusa), admired for centuries, which include lespedeza, silvergress, pueraria (another grass), dianthus (like carnations), patrinia (an honeysuckle with yellow flowers), Eupatorium, and finally ipomea or campanula. I talk about it in my article about autumn.
The leaves in the wind: Fukiyose
Litt. gone with the wind. Traditionally linked with autumn, and with gingko leaves.