Paulownia Trees (KIRI, 桐) in Bloom – find one (appropriately) in front of the Tsukuba U. Administration Building
By Avi Landau
For those of us living in Japan who savor the changes that take place month by month, week by week, day by day, in our natural surroundings, May just might verily be the merriest month of the year ! The rice-fields, which for the preceding six months have been dull, brown, empty spaces are within a span of a few days flooded creating a magnificent waterworld, with tips of young rice plants just breaking the mirror-like surfaces in uncannily perfect rows. Ducks, egrets and herons descend joyously upon these waters. The bush-warblers practice their distinctive song, out of tune at first, but after a few days at it you hear them singing away pitch perfect -while at night the mighty frog choruses roar. The young leaves of spring fill the air with a delicious musk – and so many shades of green, while the seasons flowers give us just as many shades of violet… wisteria, iris, azalea…..
There is another purple blossom traditionally associated with May. Its blooms on a tree that was once extremely common in Japan, grown in the garden of just about every house (planted when daughters were born and cut down to make kimono chests when they got married) or in large groves for sale to furniture, wooden geta clog, or koto makers. Today, however, they have become so uncommon, that few Japanese even know what its blossoms look like.
I am talking about the KIRI (桐) or as we call it in English – the paulownia ( named after Anna Paulowna 1795-1856, a Russian Grand Duchess who became the Queen Consort of the Netherlands after marrying the Prince of Orange in 1816. The tree`s name was coined by the great botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold)
Honestly speaking, I had completely forgotten about paulownia blossoms this May – that`s how rare they have become. But on the way to the beach the other day I passed a huge specimen, in impressive full bloom by the side of the road – after having been driving for about 90 minutes.
I realized that wehn I got back to Tsukuba, I would have to get on my bicycle and seek some paulownia out. It was no easy task! Cycling through one traditional hamlet after the other ( a pleasant ride indeed!) I couldn`t find a single one! Whenever I saw farmers working in the fields I asked them if there were any KIRI nearby. They all said the same thing: ” Well… there used to be along of KIRI around here when I was young… but now they`re all gone!”
When I asked them why, I got different resonses:
They grow very fast and need continuous trimming
They attract pests
They were cut down and sold (or made into a chest of drawers for daughters) and never replanted since now paulownia wood from China is cheaply available!
What a shame that is. Not only are these trees impressive in size (up to 80 feet – 25 meters high!) with equally impressive clusters of fragrant blossoms in May – they are also brimming over with cultural significance.
KIRI was held in very high esteem since it was used to dye fabrics the aristocratic purple – and according to ancient Chinese legend, when the phoenix came it would land only on a paulownia tree (and only when there was a decent ruler in power). A KIRI motif was adopted by many great men and institutions as a crest or emblem – including the emperor (before the chrysanthemum was adopted, the Ashikaga shogunate, the national unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi – and the current government and cabinet of Japan (Have a look at the 500 yen coin – you`ll find some paulownia there, too!
The wood of the kiri was the lightest type of timber traditionally grown in Japan. It is also very effective in keeping moisture out – something that was extremely important in this extremely humid country. The use of kiri-wood boxes and chests is probably the main reason for so many ancient textiles and art-works surviving to this day (some of them having been preserved for well over a thousand years!
Special gifts given in paulownia boxes were deemed all the more special.
Its wood was also used to make furniture of all sorts, wooden clogs and certain musical instruments, and Kagura dance-masks. As I have already mentioned, when daughters were born, a kiri tree would be planted, and would be cut before her wedding to prepare her kimono chest – a KIRI TANSU.
With so much beauty, aroma and cultural significance, its sad (and kinda shocking) that there are so few of them around now. I think it time to start planting them in gardens again !
In the end, I was only able to find the big kiri that stands in front of the Tsukuba University administration building – but there MUST be others! Seek them out ! They are the remnants of a great (and very long) age of Japanese paulownia.