Aki-no-Nanakusa: The Seven Herbs of Autumn
There are certain flowers and plants that readily come to mind when one thinks about Japan.
The most popular being the cherry blossom i.e. sakura. However, just as the Spring brings with it the beautiful pink blossoms of the sakura, the season of Autumn also has its own bouquet of herbage which are indigenous not only to this particular time of the year but also to this region, especially to Japan.
In my exploration of the months of August and September within the Japanese Tea Master's Almanac (written by Sasaki Sanmi and translated to English by Shaun McCabe and Iwasaki Satoko), I found myself intrigued by the many ways in which the change in seasons are honoured and celebrated in the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Namely, the recognition of the seven flowers/herbs of Autumn which are all utilised in some way within the ritual and preparation for the Mid-Autumn Moon-Viewing festivals which are held around the same times.
They are specifically identified as typical autumn flowers in a verse from the Man’yōshū (万葉集)
(“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”, a collection of Japanese poetry from the 8th century) writiten by the Japanese poet, Yamanoue Okura (山上億良), best known for his poems about children and commoners.
It is the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry.
The verse goes:
(Japanese Version) 秋の野に 咲きたる花を 指折り かき数ふれば 七種の花
萩の花 尾花 葛花 瞿麦の花 女郎花 また藤袴 朝貌の花
(Romaji Version) (Aki-no No-ni Sakitaru Hana-wo Oyobiori Kakikazoureba Nanakusa-no Hana)
(Hagi-no Hana Obana Kuzuhana Nadeshiko-no Hana Ominaeshi Mata Fujibakama Asagao-no Hana)
Flowers blossoming in autumn fields – when I count them on my fingers then they number seven
The flowers of hagi (bush clover), obana (eulalia), kuzu (arrowroot), nadeshiko (pink), ominaeshi (patrinia), also, fujibakama (mistflower) and asagao (morning face) flower.
These seven floral herbs primarily provide visual enjoyment rather than culinary with their simplistic beauty invoke much admiration. However, as you will see below, quite a few of them have been used in Traditional Chinese and Japanese Medicine for a very long time.
1. Japanese Dianthus – 撫子 (Nadeshiko)
The beauty of ‘Nadeshiko’ with its soft pink petals tops all other flowering plants in Manyoshu – 万葉集.
FUN FACT: The Japanese national women’s team (Yamato Nadeshiko) is also named after this flower.
2. Kudzu/ Pueraria Lobata/ Japanese Arrowroot – 葛 (Kuzu)
The name of ‘Kuzu’ came from the English name, ‘Kudzu.’ ‘Kuzu’ has various uses, such as food and medicine. When the root is dried, it becomes one of the traditional Chinese medicines used for the common cold and gastroenteritis.
3. ThoroughWort/ Eupatorium Fortunei – 藤袴(Fujibakama)
When dried, it has a strong sweet smell. Therefore, it is used for shampoo and perfume. That is why another name for this flower is ‘perfume flower’ (Kosuiran – 香水蘭).
4. Patrinia Scabiosifolia – 女郎花 (Ominaeshi )
The root and whole plant is effectively used in detoxication and pain relief in Chinese medicines.
5. Bellflower/ Balloon Flower/ Japanese Morning Glory – 桔梗 (Kikyo)
The English name is ‘Balloon Flower’ because it looks like a balloon. The dried roots are said to have a good effect on the respiratory system and alleviate coughing, so it is used in Chinese medicine.
6. Bush Clover (Hagi – 萩)
‘Hagi’ means the flower of autumn, which is why it has the Kanji character for ‘秋 – autumn included in its name.’
7. Japanese Pampas Grass – 尾花/薄 (Obana/Susuki)
This herb is quite famous in Japan since it is used as a decoration during Otsukimi or Mid-Autumn Moon viewings.