By Avi Landau
Walking in Tsukuba`s wild places in winter can take some determination. Though there is no snow on the ground, and the temperature readings on the thermometer are really not very low, when the chill wind starts to blow ( and it does so often), your hands and face can sting and burn, making a leisurely stroll quite uncomfortale. What makes it even harder to plow on through these frosty gusts, is the depressing lack of color. While local residents as well as the local government keep things cheery in parks and around homes, offices and the major thoroughfares with plenty of plants that blossom or bear fruit in winter- including sazanka, nandian (nanten), and various citrus trees, the areas which are not looked after by humans, look mostly dried out- all browns and straw color.
One thing that KEEPS ME GOING on my daily walks, however, is the knowledge that SOON, spring, with its flowers and WARMTH, will be here. So as I make my way though the brush and woods near my house, I keep my eyes wide open for signs of things to come.
Yesterday, while I was on my way to check on just exactly where our neighborhood goshawks ( O-Taka) would be nesting this year ( they have used several different trees in the past), I regretted not having taken gloves and a warmer Jacket. I kept my hands in my pockets and face turned down, and out of the wind.
Happilly I ran into my neighbor, who also happens to be very interested in what these noble birds are up to (in fact it is due to her unflagging efforts that they still live around here at all) !
As we shuffled along the road together, gravely contemplating the future of this amazing part of Tsukuba, snowless winterscapes stretched out in every direction.
Then, an excited, high-pitched, cry- HOTOKE NO ZA !- which came so suddenly and with such enthusiaｓm that my heart almost stopped.
When I looked over, I found that my neighbor had in fact already leaped down into a small depression by the side of the road. She was pointing at a low growing plant with tiny purple flowers protruding on top. Before I could protest, she pulled the little blossom out of the ground and handed it to me saying- SPRING IS HERE!
I looked at the flower closely. It was really quite amazing ( for a plant considered by many to be a weed), and I could see right away why this flower was called HOTOKE NO ZA, which means Buddha`s Seat or Buddha`s Throne. It is because its slender, vertical, cone-like flowers, seem to rise right out of the nearly horizontal leaves creating the image of little Buddhas standing or sitting on lotus leaves.
From March through June these flowers will be blooming along roads, by the fields, and in the wilds across most of Japan( though not in Hokkaido), sometimes forming purple or pink carpets.
The hotoke no za, which has the scientific name Lamium amplexicaule L., has the habit, of being fooled into blooming by the warm weather of an Indian Summer, and can sometimes be found blooming in December or even November. The weather has not been especially warm around here recently ( in late January), but when I got down on my knees for a closer look, I noticed the ground covered with these same plants just about to burst into bloom. These will be important for setting the activities of spring into motion as they are some of the earliest bloomings of the important pollen sources for bees.
Surely a heartwarming sign that spring was just about here.
Still as we started walking again and I started to twirl the little flower by the stem slowly in my hand, I began to think about this plant and its name, and also about the reaction that it aroused in my neighbor. I was reminded once again of how very complicated the Japanese language and culture can be- and realized that in this case- a misunderstanding coulld make things could get dangerous!
This is why.
The plant name HOTOKE NO ZA evokes images of spring in just about every Japanese adult. This is because it is the name of one of the SEVEN GRASSES OF SPRING (haru no nana kusa) which are eaten in a porridge on the seventh day of the New Year.
There is a classic poem listing these grasses, which makes them easy to remember: SERI NAZUNA GOGYO- HAKOBERA HOTOKE NO ZA SUZUNA SUZUSHIRO KORE ZO NANA GUSA (芹薺五形はこべら仏の座菘すずしろこれぞ七草)- which I translate as: These are the seven grasses- seri, nazuna, gogyo-, hakobera, hotoke no za, suzuna and suzushiro.
Since the name HOTOKE NO ZA is clearly listed among the seven plants of SPRING that are eaten a week into the new year (and which are supposed to be good for your health), it is easy to understand why this flower would be associated with spring.
There is one big problem , however. The plant mentioned in the poem, the one eaten in the NANAGUSA porridge is a completely DIFFERENT PLANT!!!!!!!
That plant, which has YELLOW FLOWERS, is now called the KO- ONI-TABIRAKO (コオニタビラコ), Lapsana apogonoides Maxim, a type of chrysanthemum - is EDIBLE.
The HOTOKE NO ZA, Lamium amplexicaule, that I saw yesterday by the road is a member of the Lamiaceae ( shiso) Family and is NOT EDIBLE!
So dont put it in your seven herb porridge!
Because of the name being used for two different plants ( though the name has now changed for the edible one) many people seem to get confused. Some English language websites I looked at actually mistakenly say that Lamium amplexicaule are edible and used in the porridge!
An understandable mistake for those who do not DOUBLE CHECK everything.
So now that we know you are not going to eat them, keep your eyes open for these unusual flowers- they are harbingers of spring! If you do spot some, crouch down, or get on your hands and knees for a closer look. Dont let something so beautiful just slip by under your nose!
I have also written about other early bloomers which foretell the coming of spring- UME (梅), plum:
and the fragrant RO-BAI (蝋梅):