Native flora and Kiku Matsuri

Hello from Japan! The autumn colour on Awaji is just reaching its best – perfect timing for our visit to Kokedera (the moss temple) and the Imperial Palace gardens next week. I’ve been in Japan a while now, and am coming up to my final month before heading back home to what I’m starting to properly appreciate as a beautifully mild climate (no more of this ridiculous heat – it’s been close to 20 degrees here today and I really just want a bit of cold for my November). Unfortunately, this is both my first and last blog in Japan. I’ve done so much while I’ve been here and been to so many amazing places it would take me an age to remember the half of it, so instead of trying to cover many things I’ve done and not do them justice, I’d like to focus on the two most interesting things I’ve done recently – learning about the Chrysanthemum tradition with Yoko and studying the native flora of Awaji with one of the ALPHA professors, Sawada-sensei.

Starting with Awaji flora, we spent last Sunday travelling the island looking at both rural and coastal vegetation, with Sawada-sensei, a vegetation science professor. Traditional Japanese rural landscape is known as satoyama, consisting of a variety of biomes, from rice paddies, irrigation ditches and semi-natural grassland to dry vegetable farmlands and secondary forests. Of these, one of the most important is the semi-natural grassland, found on the banks between rice paddies, as it is fairly specialist and the only place a lot of native plants will grow (eg. Gentiana scabra, Japanese solidago). However, this habitat is under threat from consolidation of paddy fields, making them square, larger and more amenable to machines. This is not unlike the consolidation of farmland in the UK, where hedgerows were removed to create larger fields that could be more easily managed and harvested. However, in doing so this has removed an important habitat and greatly reduced the species richness in farmland, and this is exactly what has happened with rice paddy consolidation too. The loss 0f habitat now means these species, whilst still relatively common, are becoming rarer – a trend which will need to be dealt with to stop the loss of native plants. One of Sawada-sensei’s students studied this particular farm to see if she could determine how much biodiversity one farm unit (rice paddies and coppice) could support. She found 380 different species – 30% of all of Awaji flora.

We went looking for natives in two paddies, one that was purely valley, and one that included both hill and valley paddies. Surprisingly, the plants we found did differ quite significantly between these two sites. The second site also included an old graveyard, and because it has been left mostly untouched (though presumably managed, because it was a grassland ecosystem), out of respect for those buried there, it was excellent for biodiversity.

Next, we travelled down to the South of the island, stopping briefly to look at a cliff habitat by the side of the road, and Chrysanthemum occidentalis-japonense growing there. There are three main coastal habitats; cliff, dunes and salt marsh. The majority of our time on coasts was spent on Narugashima, a 3km-long island just off the shore of a small fishing town. It is part of a fairly broad National Park called Setonaikai, which consists of a series of islands and coastland along the entire stretch of the Inland Sea. Salt marshes are the rarest of coastal habitats, given that they cannot form on the sea-side (or in this case Osaka Bay side) of an island as the waves cause too much disturbance. Luckily, the inland side of Narugashima is close enough to the mainland that it is protected from this, and a salt marsh thrives.

Here, we found a vast array of plants I’d never heard of before, and some I just wasn’t familiar with. I particularly loved the native Hibiscus, Hibiscus hamabo  which is highly tolerant of salt water and thrives in salt marshes (although may recently changed to Talipariti hamabo according to some internet sources, though not enough to make me stop calling it Hibiscus). Although it wasn’t its flowering time, it had been confused by the warm start to autumn and we got to see its pretty yellow flowers (smaller than the showy cultivar choices, but far more beautiful, I believe). I have an entire side of A4 with just a long list of plant names, but I don’t think here is the place to go through them all – instead I’ll leave you with some photos of my favourites, and ones I’ve managed to research more about. It was great to get to learn a little of the important habitats of Awaji, and see some native plants. Thanks Sawada-sensei!

The next half of my blog I wanted to focus on visiting Chrysanthemum festivals with Yoko. We went to two different places, both in Osaka, to learn about the traditional ways of displaying chrysanthemums in Japan. We started out at Hirakata Park, which was a theme park with plants. I thought this was a bit of a strange place to go looking for a highly traditional display of chrysanthemums, and it was, but they had a rather nice and tasteful display – more so than the castle and garden displays I’d visited so far (with the exception of Sorakuen, which I really enjoyed). But what we were really there for was to see the mum dolls, and see them we did! We even got to watch them change the mums over – something that needs doing every 7-10 days from the start of the display (Oct) to the end (Nov). Usually this means 5 or 6 changes for the duration of the festival – and given it takes an experienced person one full day per doll, this is quite a feat. Yoko explained that it takes 30 years to properly learn how to make a mum doll and become a master…I don’t think I’ll be taking it up anytime soon. But it was interesting to hear how each part has a specialism, from making the doll faces, to making the doll frames (need to be all in proportion and take into account the mums making it wider), to preparing and tying in the mums.

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Chikako (last years Japanese TRIAD student) came with us too! Both me and Neil worked with her at Hidcote and it was fantastic fun to see her again!

My favourite part though, I have to admit, was visiting Kokkaen nursery. Turns out this is a fairly vast nursery complex, and they have many tents full of mum displays – all the types of displays you can imagine. Here we saw some fantastic bonsai mums (the best I’ve seen so far), beautiful cultivars and ridiculously-sized flower heads. There were so many different display categories for these giant-flowered mums (atsumono kiku is what they are known as in Japan), and Yoko did explain them, but I couldn’t tell the difference between some displays, and I was sure I saw several of the same displays in different places – at least two or three of these. I saw my only thousand bloom in Japan here too, and after working on the mums at Longwood but not getting to see them flower I had really wanted to see at least one. Goal achieved. It was pretty impressive, and we got a lovely group photo next to it.

I could write another blog and a half just on the mum exhibit categories, but this is getting ridiculously long now, so I’m going to focus on the displays of the Atsumono kiku, particularly the displays of 3 stems and flowers per plant (known as sanbonjitate). This type can be shown as a single pot, or, more commonly, a grouping of 12 pots, 4 rows of 3. The rules are very strict (have to be three colours, these must alternate, flowers must all be of similar sizes and all open at the time of judging, mums on the same row must all be the same height), and don’t leave much room for artistic license, which can make seeing an entire room of them a bit unrelenting. However, they do display an amazing amount of skill and knowledge on the part of the grower, and thinking about the time and effort that goes into creating them, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe. Or I couldn’t anyway. For sanbonjitate, there need to be three flowers per plant, each on a single tall stem, in a triangle with two at the front and a stem at the back. The back stem must be taller than the other two, by a specific proportion, and this cannot be done using growth regulators – it has to be done using techniques from the good old days, such as covering the back stem with a black bag to etiolate it, or reducing the vigour of the front two stems through piercing them and letting sap run out.

That was a much longer blog than planned, and didn’t include any Japanese gardens. So here’s the Adachi Museum of Art we visited a few weeks back. Because I promised Yoko, and also, it’s pretty.

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