When you think of Japanese flowers, you would not be mistaken in believing that two of the more popular flowers in Japan are the chrysanthemum and the cherry blossom. Many of the flowering cherry trees in the United States, especially those associated with the Washington D.C. area, were imported from Japan. Insofar as the chrysanthemum is concerned, this highly popular flower has become deeply embedded in many aspects of Japanese culture. The people of Japan love many kinds of flowers, both those that grow in the wild as well as those that lend themselves to arrangements or are offered as gifts.
The Japanese definitely love many different types of flowers every bit as much as Westerners do. What the Japanese will often do with cut flowers or flower arrangements, however, is quite different. While a mixed arrangement of cut flowers can undoubtedly be appealing, the way flowers are arranged in Japan tends to have less to do with their colors than with what could be called “line.” Masses of colors are not always seen as being appealing, at least in the artistic sense. In Japan, flower arrangement is an art form. A flower arrangement can tell a story or at least convey a meaning. A Japanese flower arrangement is not something that is simply pretty to look at, although it usually will be, but it is an artistic expression. The Japanese will arrange flowers with the same deliberate care they use in preparing tea, preparing food, or planting a garden. A Japanese flower garden is, in appearance, a far cry from an English cottage garden. Both can be designed by flower lovers to be very beautiful, but they tend to be beautiful in very different ways. The art of Japanese flower arrangement is called Ikebana and carries with it its own very special type of beauty.
Most flower lovers in Japan, which likely takes into account most of the population, are at least familiar with which flowers are associated with the four seasons. For that matter, they are familiar with what the flower of the month is. One of the most popular of all Japanese flowers is one of these. It is an autumn flower called the chrysanthemum.
The chrysanthemum is native to China but at some time before the end of the first millennium some of these plants were imported to Japan. It is somewhat of an understatement to say they have been extremely popular to this very day. You can see symbolic images of the chrysanthemum on Japanese coins as well as on many of their postage stamps. One reason for this particular flower appearing on coins and stamps is that it happens to be the symbol used as the Japanese Imperial Family Seal. The Japanese royal throne is also known as the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Just as roses of different colors have various meanings in American and other Western cultures, a number of the 100 or more different chrysanthemum colors have special meanings for the Japanese. White chrysanthemums, for example, should never be given as gift no matter how lovely they may be since the white chrysanthemum is a symbol of grief. Red chrysanthemums, on the other hand, carry much the same meaning as red roses do in America. They symbolize love and affection. It should probably be mentioned that red roses are nearly as popular in Japan as are chrysanthemums and, as is the case in America, symbolize romance.
It is not difficult to see why cherry blossoms have captured Japanese sensitivities. Like the chrysanthemum, cherry trees were introduced to Japan from China roughly 1,000 years ago. Cherry blossoms can be likened to cloud formations. The fallen blossoms can be likened to snow and the relatively short lives these blossoms have are symbolic of the transitory nature of life itself.
Each month in Japan has a flowering plant, or in some cases a tree, associated with it. This tradition is perhaps not as strong as was the case in the past but it nevertheless still plays a prominent role in Japanese culture. Each of these twelve flowers has either a symbolic or traditional meaning, usually both.
January features the pine – Some species of pine can reach an ancient age and, consequently, the pine represents eternal life. It also represents integrity and faithfulness. The twin needles of the pine are such that if one needle should die, the other will shortly follow. The pine is also a symbol of masculinity, boldness, and vitality.
February – The plum is often taken as a sign of good fortune. Perhaps there is a connection between this meaning and the English nursery rhyme in which Little Jack Horner pulled out a plum from his Christmas pie.
March is the month of two blossoms: peaches and pears. These two spring-flowering blossoms represent new life. They also convey a message of gentleness and mildness. Where the pine is very masculine, the peach and pear are both highly feminine.
April is the month of Japan’s national flower: the cherry blossom. As noted earlier, these blossoms can be likened artistically to clouds or snow and are also symbols of fertility. In Japanese folklore, the cherry blossom symbolizes both filial love and loyalty. It is the flower of the samurai warrior who spends most of his life preparing for battle, a battle in which he is likely to survive only a short time.
May is a month of many different flowers so it makes some sense that three different flowers should share the spotlight during this last full month of spring. These happen to be the peony, the azalea and the Wisteria. The peony, like the chrysanthemum and the cherry tree, is native to China. Like the other two, the peony also came to Japan about 1,000 years ago. The peony has played an important role in Japanese art, especially as an ornament woven into or printed on textiles. The peony symbolizes love, happiness, affection, and prosperity. The azalea is a symbol of affection as well as is the Wisteria and, for that matter, a great many other climbing vines such as ivy and the clematis.
June is time to celebrate the Iris. This sturdy upright plant is quite understandably a symbol of strength and vitality while at the same time exhibiting the characteristic of eloquence.
July also has a climbing vine as its flower. As was the case with the Wisteria in the month of May, the morning glory is July’s flower. Like the Wisteria, the morning glory symbolizes affection.
August features the lotus flower. This beautiful plant, which is so deeply ingrained in oriental culture, is symbolic of life itself as well as of immortality.
September is the month of the seven grasses of autumn. These are not seven types of ornamental grasses as one might expect. These seven grasses date from a poem written during the 8th century CE, a poem that begins “Flowers blossoming in the autumn fields – when I count them on my fingers – they number seven.” The “grasses,” or flowers, in question are the bush clover, arrowroot, dianthus, pampas grass, patrina, mistflower, and morning glory.
October is the month of the beloved chrysanthemum with various symbolic meanings attached to the many different colors the plant exhibits. Above all, the chrysanthemum symbolizes strength, courage and dignity and is often presented as a sign of encouragement to one who is struggling.
November is time to celebrate the maple, a tree with which the Japanese people are truly in love. The name the Japanese have for the Japanese maple has two meanings. One is “baby’s hands” and the other is “becomes crimson leaves.” This maple, with its richly colored and delicate foliage, is a tree which many bring with them if they move.
December – Somewhat like the cherry blossom, the camellia is tied in legend to the samurai who is not expected to live long in battle. The different colors of the camellia can have different meanings, but the flower itself symbolizes admiration, perfection, and nobility.
Ikebana, or the art of flowering arrangement, is so ingrained in Japanese culture that any discussion of Japanese flowers should at least give passing mention to this ancient art form.
Ikebana has its roots in Buddhism. Buddhism has its beginnings in India, but by the 6th century CE had spread throughout much of Asia including Japan. Since the beginning, flowers have been placed at an altar of Buddha as a worship offering. The flowers, or flower blossoms, tended to be strewn before the altar in a more or less haphazard fashion.
The Japanese eventually began to present their offerings in containers and a Japanese priest in Kyoto became so well-known for the manner in which he arranged the offerings that his advice was sought by other priests. These flower arrangements eventually became an art form which was practiced not only by the priests and members of the royal family but by commoners as well. Books were written, rules were prescribed, and exhibitions were held, much as is still the case today.
The people of Japan not only love their flowers, but take the way in which they arrange those Japanese flowers very seriously.