Setsubun-so (節分草)- eranthis pinnatifida- blooms, in fact, a few weeks after Setsubun ( the Bean Throwing Festival for which it is named)!
By Avi Landau
In Japan very few flower species bloom in January, February or early March. That is why nature lovers, or those who like to take note of the daily changes which occur in the natural world around them throughout the year, eagerly anticipate the appearance of EACH AND EVERY ONE of these cold weather bloomers- and savor them while they last.
Of these Japanese harbinger- of- spring flowers, the one with the easiest to remember name (for those familiar with Japanese culture) is SETSUBUN-SO (節分草)- named after the popular BEAN THROWING festival- which is held on February second ( and was traditionally held at the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox).
The origin of this name derives from the fact that these dainty looking ( though in fact very hardy), tiny, waxy white flowers SUPPOSEDLY bloomed around Setsubun time.
This name can be said to be MISLEADING, however, since in most of Japan ( or should I say in the areas where this plant actually grows) the setsubun-so does not bloom until several weeks, or a month after setsubun!
That is why in early February I could find several flower lovers scouring the setsubun-so growing areas in Tsukuba- looking for the little flowers ( which in fact, form carpets in open, sun exposed areas of wooded hillsides)- to no avail. The flowers simply were not anywhere near ready to bloom yet at SETSUBUN time.
Two years ago, I was a little worried that I would miss the setsubun-so since I was suddenly hospitalized for gall-stones just before they were about to bloom. Luckily though, I was released in a week, and was able to catch eranthis pinnatifida ( the eranthis of this scientific name means SPRING FLOWER, in Greek) just past its peak.
I was not surprised that when I got to the best setsubun-so spot in Tsukuba, there was a group of flower lovers with some serious camera equipment down on their bellies taking photos.
I too, even with my freshly cut and sutured abdomen, got down all the way on the ground for a long, close look. I then joined the photographers in shooting away ( though all I had with me was my cell phone camera!).
I was a little distraught, however, to find the number of flowers greatly decreased compared with previous years ( in fact setsubun-so have been listed as endangered plants in Japan`s red-list).
This year, however, – 2018 – will hopefully be a good year for the flowers. They have already started blooming (today is Feb. 19th) and will probably go on to form a little carpet ( or should I say a mat or rug) on a gentle slope near the pond at Tsukuba`s botanical garden. It was comforting to see them abloom.
Setsubun-so grows in peaty, forested areas with plenty of sun exposure. It takes advantage of the fact that the trees around them still have no leaves and thus let in plenty of light. By the time the forest floor gets shadier, as the canopy fills out with leaves with the advance of spring, the setsubun-so flowers wither away.
If you would like to see this flower for yourself ( you WILL have to get down on the ground to fully appreciate it!), the most convenient place would be the Tsukuba Botanical Garden, where some setsubun-so can be seen growing just near the FUKUJU-SO, just across the bridge on the other side of the pond ( on the right).
There are several places in Japan which are famous for setsubun-so and which promote special setsubun-so viewing events.
In the Kanto area, the best of these is in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture. Just take the Chichibu Tetsudo train line and get off at the Mitsumine Guchi (三峰口) Station. In Ryokami Village (両神村) there are buses to take you to the flowers!