What is it about yellow flowers that always inspires feelings of happiness and warmth? Perhaps it is hardly surprising given the associative relationship with the sun. The brightest of the chromatic colors, yellow suggests cheerful hope and clarity of spirit. Certainly I always feel this way when I come across displays of the yellow kerria rose (Kerria japonica) yamabuki at this time of the year. The literal translation of yamabuki is “mountain wind” which derives from the way the slender flower-laden branches sway in the wind. In nature it tends to grow on riverbanks and in valleys. Nowadays it is also cultivated. I tend to see it near my house on the banks of the Sosui canal that runs along the Philosopher’s Path in north eastern Kyoto. Green stalks grow in clusters reaching a height of almost 1.5 meters. In the single variety, yellow five-petalled flowers grow among new leaves. The fuller double variety seems to be more popular in residential gardens these days. Yamabuki has been celebrated in Japan since the 8th century when it appeared in the Man’ yō shu anthology with seventeen poems. Often the flower is depicted on the banks of a river accompanied by croaking frogs.
“The yellow kerria is probably blooming now, its reflection in the Kamanubi River where the frogs cry”.
In the Kokinshū waka poetry anthology of the Heian period (794-1185), the yamabuki continues to appear on the edge of the water where its flowers are reflected, as in the poem by Ki no Tsuruyaki.
“On the banks of the Yoshino River, the yellow kerria, blown by the wind, have scattered even on the water bottom.”
Ki no Tsuruyaki
Even in 19th century Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, we can see images by the famous Utagawa Hiroshige that combine yellow kerria, clear river water and croaking frogs. This has been an associative Spring cluster since the 8th century. In the ancient texts, the middle phase of a season is generally signaled traditionally by the appearance of insects, animals and then plants. In the middle phase of Spring, croaking frogs and returning wild geese are followed by yellow kerria.
Yamabuki was even represented in the way Heian aristocratic women wore their multi-layered kimonos. Traditionally there were twelve layers referred to as jūni-hitoe and each layer kasane of the robe had a specific color combination appropriate for each season. For the middle of Spring, the layer kasane influenced by the blooming of yamabuki had a light tan surface matched to a yellow interior.
The other yellow flower that I suddenly see in great profusion around the Kyoto environs at this time is not as classically historical in Japan. Originally from western and central China but introduced to Japan in 1720, the Yellow Banksian rose ki-mokko bara is an evergreen climbing shrub with delicate, usually thornless branches. The flowers are slightly fragrant and small, appearing in great clusters. In a country where all gardens are clipped within an inch of their lives, (I have been chastised in the past by my neighbors for my “jungle” like overgrown garden): what is so refreshing about the Yellow Banksian rose is that it is allowed to clamber all over entrances to apartment buildings and houses, sometimes reaching as high as the second or third storey. Perhaps this exuberant growth habit is permitted because it is delicate and easily pruned after flowering but its two weeks of blooming is truly glorious and really refreshes my spirit.
The description of the fourteenth micro-season refers to the migratory habits of wild geese and has been a seasonal marker of spring for more than a thousand years. Having arrived from Siberia in the autumn and stayed in Japan for the winter, the geese return to northern climes for the summer at this time. There is even a poetic phrase to connote their departure north: “kari no wakare”.