Micro-season 13

玄鳥至 Tsubame kitaru :
Swallows return.

清明 Seimei (Pure and clear) April 5-9

Now that the cherry blossoms have well and truly passed, a cavalcade of flowering plants start to flourish. What I am noticing in larger scale gardens like the Imperial Palace and the Kyoto Botanical Gardens are two varieties of tall, deciduous Magnolia with exquisitely large lily shaped flowers. The deep pink variety mokuren blooms before the foliage appears and the effect is akin to a tree full of butterflies. Surprisingly, it has been used in Chinese herbal medicine for more than 2000 years. It yields a pungent, warming sedative herb used to lower blood pressure, relieve pain and for its anti-fungal effect. Each flower typically has six petals. There is also a white variety haku mokuren which is also fragrant and is even more visually stunning enmasse with the tree appearing to be full of flickering white candles. Both the pink and white varieties are somewhat fragrant and so are not thought to be suitable as decorations for a small tearoom.

Mokuren: Purple Magnolia

In many smaller scale residential gardens, I have also seen an evergreen shrub/small tree which is known as “lily-of-the-valley bush” or Japanese pieris asebi. The flowers are either white or dark pink and are elegantly gathered together in panicles up to 15cm long, looking like tiny brandy glasses. When established, the wood is used to make charcoal and selected branches are used as alcove posts tokobashira in traditional tearooms. The plant is poisonous and has a long history as it is mentioned in the 8th century poetry anthology Man’yō shu.

Asebi: White Japanese pieris
Asebi: Pink Japanese pieris

Also seen here and there particularly along small canals and alongside the Kamo river in Kyoto are the fresh green leaves of the Weeping Willow tree yanagi. In the Heian period (794-1185), in the Kokinshū (First Imperial waka poetry anthology, spring is heralded by the buds of the green willow and these buds aoyanagi which turn into flowers in the Spring symbolize new life. A waka poem from the Edo period (1600-1868) reads:

“Is it the color of the wind that comes with the Spring- the threads of the green willow are dyed greener with each passing day.”

Thus we can see that the fresh green Willow with its thin new branches bending in the wind, has long evoked the coming of Spring.

Aoyanagi: Fresh green Willow

The beginning of April from around the 5th announces another of the 24 seasonal points known as Seimei. It is said that the air has become clear and pure and the sky is bright at this time. The association for the thirteenth micro-season is when the swallows tsubame return. As one of approximately 350 species of wild bird in Japan, swallows have always featured as characters in medieval popular tales but tend to be absent in Imperial waka poetry anthologies. Therefore swallows are categorized as “commoner or popular” rather than “classical” birds. In fact, swallows tsubame are associated with familial love. Making its nest on house eaves and roof ridges, it was known for its ability to reproduce quickly (it mates twice and sometimes even three times in the summer). The swallow was also thought to be faithful to its mate (spending each year with the same partner) and to take care of its young. Thus it became a symbol of marital and familial harmony.