7 Japanese Flowers of Cultural and Historic Significance

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Japan’s distinct seasons see a revolving array of flowers in bloom, with many having cultural significance and an esteemed history in the country. Not only are flowers revered for their aesthetics in Japan, but many also carry individual meanings that portray a message when given between friends, family, and lovers. Here are seven of Japan’s most loved flowers and their cultural significance in the country today.

Sakura (Japanese Cherry Blossoms)

Japan’s national flower and one of its most iconic natural symbols, the sakura (or cherry blossom), has strong ties to the country’s history and cultural identity. They embody the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi (a rustic elegance and refined beauty) as well as Shinto ideals of hope and renewal. Sakura are only in bloom for a short period between March and early May, with many Japanese believing this to symbolize human life and nobleness, and it's an event which is celebrated with “flower watching” parties known as hanami.

Kinmokusei (Orange Osmanthus)

With a color that ranges from white through to a vibrant orange-yellow, kinmokusei blossom during autumn and exude a pleasant, perfumed fragrance. They were introduced from China during the Edo period (1603-1868) where they were used for both medicinal and culinary purposes, while in Japan they have long been used as a natural air freshener. Kinmokusei is believed by many to symbolize truth and the nobility of a person.

Tsubaki (Camellia japonica)

Known scientifically as Camellia japonica (after Engelbert Kaempfer first described the plant in Japan), tsubaki blossom in late winter in hues of white, pink,or red. They have become a symbol of humility and admiration and are often given between loved ones, with the red tsubaki holding the meaning “you are a flame in my heart”. However, because they are delicate and fall from trees, they aren’t suitable as a gift for the sick. Traditionally their seeds have been used to make oil and their leaves transformed into tea, and there is a Shinto shrine named after them, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, in Mie Prefecture.

Ume (Japanese apricot)

Referred to as Japanese apricot or Japanese plum, ume has a long cultural history in the country, despite originally being introduced from China. It is one of the first flowers to bloom each year and is associated with the start of spring, believed to mean faithfulness, elegance, and purity of heart. In Tokyo, they usually flower in February and March, with ume matsuri festivals celebrated in public parks, shrines, and temples. They have a strong, sweet fragrance and a fruit that is sourer than a western plum or apricot, often processed into umeboshi (pickled plums) or umeshu liquor.

Sumire (Violet)

Known scientifically as Viola mandashurica, sumire are named in Japan after their resemblance to a container of carpenter’s ink. They are a deep violet color and thrive in a variety of habitats, including mountainous woodlands, low-lying plains, and built-up urban areas. In Japanese culture they represent sincerity and bliss and are often shared between family and friends to symbolize the bonds they have with one another.

Kiku (Chrysanthemum)

Originally brought to Japan from China during the Nara period (710-793AD), kiku soon became the emblem of the Japanese royal family and cultivation of this chrysanthemum flourished. Kiku Ningyo dolls were also made from the flowers to represent prominent figures in Japanese historical tales in a tradition which continues to this day. They bloom during autumn in vibrant whites, reds, and purples, with white kiku symbolic of death and often used in funerals or placed on graves, while others are used for brewing tea and as an edible vegetable. Kiku is also believed to give people long life and is honored on September 9th each year on what is known as “Kiku Celebration Day”.

Momo (Peach)

Believed to have been imported from China during the ancient Yayoi period (300 BC–300 AD), momo are revered by the Japanese for their plump fruit and pink-hued blossoms. They have long been thought to drive away evil in Japanese lore, with the traditional folk tale “Momotaro” telling of a young boy who came to earth floating in a giant peach and went on to defeat a band of evil demons.

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