By Avi Landau
It is always exciting for me to follow the subtle ( and sometimes not so subtle) week by week changes which can be observed around us in nature here in Japan. And while in most cases we can predict what we will be able to see in a specific area at a particular time of year, there are sometimes SURPRISES- plants (or animals) which we have never seen in a particular area- which are for some reason or other suddenly there.
I experienced a thrill of new discovery just the other day- in a part of Tsukuba in which I thought I knew the flora and fauna as well as the back of my hand. Leading a group of 15 people on a history and nature cycling and walking tour of Tsukuba`s Konda and Hanamura villages, I scrambled up a low but slippery hill, with the others in tow. I was taking them to see what for very many in the group would be the highlight of the day- a mysterious 17th century sacred stone set on top of a forested hill, with a very curious figure carved onto it. Locals call it the Large-Nosed Dainichi-Sama.
Anyway, when we had all made our way to the top of the hill and were excitedly headed to the stone, when we were stopped in our tracks. On the forest floor, there was a cluster of knee-high plants ( looking like baby trees in fact) which underneath their leaves had very unusual brownish flowers looking like cobras ready to strike- with wavy hoods covering a cup-like structure, reminiscent of certain insect-eating plants.
Having a closer look, however, we found something even more interesting- a VERY long string-like feature which came out from under the hood and rose up in an elegant curve before flowing down all the way to the ground ( all in all I would say about 20 inches in the one I examined closely).
Though I had been to this spot MANY, many times over the years in this same season, I had never seen this plant before. Taking out my field guide to the flora of this area, I found the closest matching species from among all the photos. Thinking I had found the same flower which was there before us, I told everyone that what we were looking at was MIMIGATA TENANSHO.
We all took some pictures and oggled the plants for a bit, but soon walked away for the even greater excitement of the rare stone carving.
Later in the day, climbing the heavilly wooded hill upon which the old Konda Fortress once stood ( in Tsukuba`s Konda neighborhood), we were pleasantly surprised ( or should I say AMAZED), to see an even larger cluster of these same plants, spread out over an even larger area than we had seen earlier.
Once again, based on what I had found in the field guide, I told everyone that these were MIMGATA TENANSHO.
Well, the next day I looked at some pictures on the internet of the flowers with that name- and guess what? They didn`t have the long string flowing out of them! I realized that do to my hastiness, I had misidentified the plant! I had also ( to my embarrassment) given the members of my tour some wrong information! I would not be able to rest until I made amends.
To get to the bottom of the mystery of these plants` identity, I did what I usually do in such cases- I went to the Tsukuba Experimental Botanical Garden. At the reception desk I told them my problem and showed a picture I had taken of the mystery plants with my cell-phone. A call was made to the offices, and I was told to wait as they searched for a suitable specialist ( in the genus ariasema).
When the warm and friendly botanist came to greet me a few minutes later, she instantly recognized the flower in the cell phone photo I showed her- URASHIMA SO (scientific name ariasema urashima), which I later found out was called cobra lily urashima in English. She even guided me to the spot in the botinical garden where that very species (endemic to Japan) was blooming.
I was able to confirm that it was indeed the plant that we had seen in such abundance in Tsukuba`s woods.
The botanist then went on to explain that function of the uncannily long string ( called a spadix in English) was to attract flies and insects which crawl up on it from the forest floor. This is necessary for the plants pollination.
Relieved that I have found the plants true name- I immediately got in touch ( through e-mail) with those who had been on my tour to correct my mistake.
Looking into the origin of this plant`s name (in both Japanese and English) I found that the Japanese appropriately saw the long spadix as a fishing line! They thus named it after Japan`s most famous folk-tale fisherman: URASHIMA TARO! The English name cobra lily is also extremely apt, because as I have already said ( and as you can see in the photos) the flower does look like a cobra standing erect with hood spread out.
I also learned that this plant is poisonous in all its parts.
It just goes to show you (again)- check and double check ( and then check again!) when you are trying to make an identification in the field,
always keep your eyes open for the unexpected- even in your own backyard!