It’s late April. The Japanese countryside is blanketed with some of the most beloved symbols of Japanese spring: irises and Artemisia princeps (yomogi).
The love affair with irises and yomogi runs deep in the national psyche, weaving a fascinating tale going back to the 7th century, when Japan was ruled by empress Suiko, the first female monarch of Japan.
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Tale of Power and Grace
In 593, she reluctantly had to be convinced to become empress when Japan faced the prospect of civil war.
A devout Buddhist, she enacted Japan’s first constitution. This remarkable 17-article document codified statements such as
- “The path of a Minister is to turn away from that which is private, and to set face toward that which is public.”
- “Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone.”
Almost 1,400 years on, she is still remembered fondly and celebrated in annual parades as a beautiful and graceful monarch.
The Tradition of “Medicine Hunt”
According to the official Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki, 720 AD), Empress Suiko decreed the 5th day of the 5th month of every year to be the public day for collecting wild irises and yomogi leaves.
On this day, a royal expedition was held and the public was encouraged to make time to visit the countryside.
The tradition is still in practice today, and in early May Japanese display decorations made from iris and yomogi leaves (kusudama, medicine potpourri).
Iris and yomogi leaves are bunched together hung at entrances and under the eaves of homes to drive away evil spirits. The practice is called noki-shōbu.
Yomogi, the Japanese mugwort, is a member of the chrysanthemum family of plants. It’ scientifically classified as Artemisia princeps.
A sumptuous Japanese tradition on May 5th (officially celebrated at present as the Children’s Day) is to prepare a special treat called kashiwa-mochi, made from yomogi flavored rice cakes with sweet azuki beans wrapped in oak leaves.
Yomogi, with its immense health benefits, is known as the “Japanese wonder herb”. Besides culinary uses, it is also used to make a soothing herbal tea (yomogi cha), in herbal bath preparations (yomogi yu) and for making soap (yomogi sekken). Yomogi leaves extract is widely used in skincare cosmetics and age-spot treatments.
Japanese irises come in three distinct species:
Ayame – Long, erect, narrow leaves and bearing purple, blue, red and occasionally white flowers.
The deeply-hued, passionate ayame irises are an unmistakable sign of spring and early summer.
Kakitsubata – Erect, sword-shaped leaves and rich purple flowers.
Their vivid color and bold beauty have inspired poets, artists and kimono makers for generations.
Hanashōbu – Widely cultivated as an ornamental plant. Native to Japanese wetlands. Also known as Japanese water iris.
Shōbu – Though it is commonly referred to as an iris, it actually belongs to a family of plants called Acoraceae. Fragrant roots and leaves. Also known as sweet flag.
To this day, on 5th of May Japanese prepare a bath with shōbu leaves (shōbu-yu) for children to promote good health and to ward-off evil.