Micro-season 8

桃始笑 Momo hajimete saku :
First peach blossoms.

啓蟄 Keichitsu (Insects awaken): March 11-15

Even though my one hundred year old wooden house has no insulation or heating, as spring continues to emerge, I find myself emboldened to spend a greater amount of time on the engawa verandah sipping my morning coffee as the sun radiates through the sliding glass doors. I feel very much kindred with the famous 19th century novelist Natsume Sōseki who wrote:

“In this sunny spot, leaning against the balustrade, my hand supporting my cheek, motionless, I let my mind wander freely……Having remained seated behind the window pane day by day, I had thought it was still Winter, but Spring began to touch my heart.”

One of the beautiful flowering plants of this season that I have an extra special affinity for is Daphne odora known in Japanese as jinchōge. When I was a child growing up on the sunny dry coast of Western Australia, I designed a “native plant” garden from scratch for my parent’s newly built house in suburban Perth in the mid 1970s. It was at the time when Australians first became conscious of using drought resistant indigenous species that replicated the natural flora of the continent rather than to continue the colonial practice of trying to replicate a “European style temperate garden” in an inhospitable dry hot climate. My parents were completely onboard with this trend as it also promised less maintenance.

For two or three months, our family spent every weekend going out to the “Wildflower Nursery” which specialized in “waterwise” species that could be found in the surrounding bushland in nature. When the main garden was completed, my mother insisted on making a special trip to a small boutique nursery that specialized in smaller more delicate temperate plants. This went against the grain of the whole raison d’etre of our plantings to date so as a fledgling plantsman I was very curious about this mission. Its purpose was to remind Mum of her childhood growing up in the more temperate climate of Melbourne on the south east coast of Australia. Finally we found a tiny 15cm specimen, that out of flowering season looked incredibly modest and somewhat unprepossessing, especially for the inflated price that was being asked. Undeterred, my mother bought the baby plant and chose a spot so very carefully in the backyard under generous shade. Somewhat skeptical, I was willing to give my mother the benefit of the doubt and when after two coddled years of establishing the plant it finally bloomed, I became a convert.

Daphne odora: jinchoge

The pungent sweet fragrance was unlike anything I had ever smelled before. On the now 20cm high shrub that we had nursed to maturity, just a few small clusters of whitish/pink star shaped flowers yielded a perfume that was almost overwhelming. In Korea it is known as the “thousand mile scent” and indeed, one of the pleasures of taking a walk in my neighborhood at the moment is that one often comes across a waft of this distinctive scent well in advance of every seeing the plant itself. Being compact and relatively unassuming, it’s quite a popular plant in Japanese residential gardens and early to mid March is its definitive moment of glory.

White Daphne odora: shirobana jinchōge.

When I reminisce about how much care was lavished on Mum’s specimen over 40 years ago, with a somewhat modest reward in growth and blooms, it always seemed quite a miracle that this delicate thing even stayed alive from year to year given the harsh dryness of the Perth climate. Therefore when I first encountered the same species here in Kyoto some decades ago with common suburban specimens reaching 60 cm in height and with a mass of blooms, I was really intoxicated as I inhaled the heady fragrance. It was almost like walking into a perfume shop where a huge bottle of fragrance had spilled onto the floor by accident. This is exactly the kind of flower that is forbidden to be used in the tea ceremony as a decoration precisely because of its lack of subtlety. To be completely honest, sometimes strong unapologetic expressions of beauty are very welcome for this foreigner living in a culture that favors indirect and subtle nuance in almost any kind of communication.

This beautiful Spring flowering shrub was brought to Japan from China during the Muromachi period (1333-1600). It was introduced to Europe from China in 1771.

The traditional phrase that describes micro-season 8 suggests yet again that Spring is emerging. Like a showy younger sibling to the more responsible, early blooming plum blossom ume, the brighter colored (especially pink) blooms of peach blossom momo are indispensable as a display for Girl’s Festival in ikebana arrangements. Almost always depicted on the dais for Dolls Festival hina matsuri, they are a strong representation of femininity in Japan.