The king of climbing plants in Japanese gardens is the wisteria fuji. During late April through early May, wild wisteria blooms profusely in mountains across Japan. In temples and residential gardens, wisterias are trained on large wooden frames fuji-dana . Even in tiny gardens, it is not unusual to see wisteria gracefully hanging over the entrance gate or as a cultivated bonsai specimen in a pot. Some wisterias live to a ripe old age. This week I had the privilege of enjoying a magnificent 200 year old specimen at the UNESCO World Heritage listed Byodo-in temple in Uji. The display of the meter long cascades of lavender colored flowers is mesmerisingly feminine. So it comes as no surprise that the famous Heian period courtier Sei Shonagon, author of “The Pillow Book” loved wisteria. Among her list of “splendid things”, she praised “Long flowering branches of beautifully colored wisteria entwined about a pine tree”. As an aristocratic woman of the period, Sei Shonagon would of course been highly sensitive to wearing the correct layer kasane of her multi-layered kimono at the appropriate time and occasion. For the middle period of Spring, it was de rigeur to wear a wisteria fuji layer that featured a light lavender colored surface matched to a dark green interior.
Wisteria also has a noble association with one of Japan’s most famous literary works “The Tale of Genji”. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Imperial court in the late Heian period (794-1185), the work is also known as “The Story of Purple” due to many references to wisteria flowers and other purple elements throughout the story. Purple “murasaki” in Japanese, is one of the shigoku-iro colors that the Heian high court officials had to wear on formal occasions. The color has long been a symbol of nobility.
In the medieval Muromachi period (1393-1568), plants such as wisteria became personified in Noh plays. The numerous spirits of nature in these plays represent the continuation of a long tradition of waka poetry, in which nature is also personified or treated as a companion. There is a very famous Noh play that dramatizes a legend about wisteria derived from its status in a waka poem. In “Fuji”, a traveller visits a place made famous for wisteria by the Heian period poet Ōtomo no Yakamochi (718-78?). When the traveller recites a poem on wisteria, a local woman is critical of the poem and recites two other poems about the famous wisteria that she deems superior. In the second half of the play, the woman appears as the spirit of the wisteria and praises both the Lotus Sutra and the wisteria. Thus, “Fuji” pays homage to the rich cultural history of wisteria, drawing on its classical associations such as its relation to the pine and the significance of the color lavender.
The other day when I was at Byodo-in during the late afternoon, I was also fortunate to see the wisteria’s long flower clusters swaying in the breeze. This effect is heightened when the wisteria is trained on horizontal trellises. Fuji-nami which literally means “wisteria waves” is a metaphorical phrase likening the swaying motion to the undulations of ocean waves. Although people still use the term today, fuji-nami has a literary history that spans over 1000 years , dating back to the Heian period anthology Man’ yō shu and before. Even in the world of the tea ceremony, the term fuji-nami, also translated as “billowing wisteria” is used as a poetic name for tea containers. Heavily laden with images and associations, Japanese people have used the word fuji-nami with its rich nuances since ancient times. As I stood at Byodo-in, the flowers gently swaying in the breeze, really did strike a lofty, noble air. From a poem in the Shin Kokinshū anthology of Imperial waka poetry compiled in the medieval period:
“kakute koso/mimaku-hoshikere/yorozu-yo o/kakete shinoberu/fuji-nami no hana”
“I hope to see the scene of gorgeous blooming wisteria just as it has been for generations”.
Not only was I lucky to see fuji-nami in action at the temple that day but I was also informed that the meter long “racemes or inflorescences (as they are technically know) were due to be cut the following day. The long growths would be shortened to 15cm from the main framework. This is the first of two prunings a year, that are needed to manage a wisteria and most importantly encourage flowering in the following year.
Of course the quintessential image of wisteria flowers are a rich lavender purple in color, but I do see from time to time a white flowered variety. They are a much more recent addition to Japanese horticulture having first been cultivated as recently as about 100 years ago, but are notable for their large petals and rich fragrance.
The sixteenth micro-season also ushers in the next of the twenty four seasonal points known as kokū. This seasonal point marks the fact that rain helps to breed hundreds of kinds of grain, acknowledging that April sees a lot of rain. To show the progress of Spring, even waterside plants like reeds are beginning to show buds and shoots, hence the description: “the first reeds grow”.