When is a weed not a weed? Perhaps when it has a respected efficacy for healing…afterall, just a flip in perspective can reframe the familiar to create new meaning. Everywhere I go at the moment I encounter drifts of what appears to me, as the most elegant of little white flowers framed by the deepest green/purple heart shaped leaves. Lizard’s Tail/Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata): dokudami has an almost cheerful insouciance that on first glance would seem to make it completely appropriate as a delicate chabana tea ceremony flower arrangement piece. Certainly it is ubiquitous in the lead up to the rainy season. It can fill the cracks in empty parking lots and almost every available spare space in a garden bed where previously there might have been nothing. For most Japanese, it is considered to be a nuisance. I heard one friend describe it as “a bane that needs constant removal for the next four months”. That description sounds pretty “weedlike” to me. Certainly it has vigorous rhizome like roots. Apparently it was the first plant to reappear after the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945! Dokudami begins to bloom in late May and continues all throughout the summer. It is a herb that seems to grow particularly well in damp soil. Perhaps part of the negative reaction to dokudami is the unforgettably fishy mint “medicinal” smell that transfers to your fingers if you touch it. However, once you get past the shock of the unexpected “fragrance”, you can start to reframe your impression of this plant by discovering its myriad uses as a herb for healing. In many East Asian countries it has been used traditionally a panacea for various ailments as well as a beauty aid for skin. This explains why an alternative name for it in Japanese is ju-yaku 十役 which might be translated as “ten medicines in one”. The commonly used Japanese name dokudami derives from the characters: 毒 (poison) and 濃 (to stop), so literally this is the “poison stopping” plant. Besides containing a lot of essential vitamins and minerals- the tea made from this plant is said to have anti-microbial and disinfectant properties, many Japanese also believe it slows down aging and beautifies skin. Additionally, the juice from a fresh leaf of the dokudami plant can help alleviate the pain of a minor burn. The more I know about it, the more it sounds like my kind of “weed”. So, for the time being, I am happy to leave it flourishing in my north facing backyard where it grows unabated amongst pebbles on a concrete substrate.
In contrast to the fishy smell of dokudami, I am also inhaling the intensely sweet fragrance of Gardenia flowers in my neighborhood at this time. Gardenia augusta with the intriguing Japanese name kuchi-nashi which literally means “no mouth” has been used in Japanese gardens since ancient times. One of the theories for the origin of the Japanese nomenclature is that the seed pod remains closed on the plant. Another interesting explanation has been that kuchi-nashi is a derivation of kuchi-bashi which means “beak” in Japanese, given that the seed pods look like a nest full of fledgling birds with open beaks. The double flowered form Gardenia augusta ‘Fortuneana’: ō-yae-kuchi-nashi is used in modern Chinese medicine to cure influenza and colds and to flavor tea. The oblong fruits have been used as a dyestuff to tint some traditional foods a yellow color.
The first week of June also marks the arrival of another of the traditional twenty four seasonal points “bōshu”. It literally means “the season of rice-planting”. For centuries this has always been a busy time for farmers.
The description for the twenty fourth micro-season acknowledges that the beginning of June is also the period in which praying mantises hatch. Actually, these insects called kamakiri in Japanese which refers to the cutting action of a scythe, are regarded affectionately by most Japanese. As they are carnivorous, praying mantises help to keep the number or bugs down. One member of my Ikebana group captured the amazing sight of a huge group of praying mantises hatching in her home garden. I take this as a good omen for a “protected” summer.