Japan's 72 Microseasons - #29
"Violet Irises Flourish"
June 27 - July 1
あやめ はな さく
Ayame hana saku
”Violet irises flourish”
There are some flowers that can survive with very little water, and some that flourish in heavy rain. In the continued downpours of tsuyu, the ayame brilliantly blossoms.
With the rainy season in full swing in Japan, the English phrase “when it rains, it pours” seems appropriate as an explanation for the delay. Some personal tragedy struck here rather suddenly, and it will be some time before I’m fully back on my feet. Life is often less regular than the seasons, although both go on. And there is comfort in that.
I also find a good deal of comfort in writing these—in reminding myself of nature’s cycles and that each parting soon welcomes something new—so I do hope that they provide a small moment of interest to you as well. There’s plenty of interesting things to discuss in these microseasons that have already passed, and if you’ll permit me I’ll see if I can’t catch up a bit in these days before I travel to attend to what needs attending.
With that in mind, we’ll keep this and the next few posts shorter (I always say), but such a beautiful flower deserves its time in the sun, so to speak.
The flower in question is Iris sanguinea, the blood iris. A perennial plant that does grow in shades of dark red, although violet is the more common and representative color in Japan. In Japanese, they are called ayame (アヤメ), which is also the overall name for the taxonomical family1. The kanji characters 菖蒲 can also be read as shōbu, but in modern Japanese that name now refers to a subtly different iris (Iris ensata) which blooms a little bit later. To distinguish, the word hanashōbu (花菖蒲) is used for them2 and the kanji characters 文目 can be used for ayame, should you find yourself in a very specific and unlikely literary crisis.
While we’re confusing things, there’s another purple iris that is often confused for the other two: kakitsubata, the rabbit-ear iris. This one bloomed much earlier, but given variability in yearly weather and local climates, sometimes all three are around at the same time. I mention all this because the visual similarity of this trio gave rise to the expression “Izure ayame ka kakitsubata” (いずれ菖蒲か杜若), meaning “it’s hard to say which is best (of equally good options)”.
There are, of course, differences between them, and you won’t find ayame in the wetlands and watersides that shōbu and kakitsubata like to grow in. That being said, unless you’re a botanist (or very particular about naming), though, they are all irises which are typically violet in color and if you point at a purple iris and call it ayame your point will get across.
They also all provide a bit of vibrant beauty across a range of colors in the midst of the humid, wet rainy season that is tsuyu, an appreciation that also gave us their name in English—“iris” comes from the Greek word for rainbow.
And much like a rainbow, the peak of their beauty is said to be brief: a single day in the most dramatic interpretations. As we’ve covered before, that sort of poetic transience of sudden splendor that fades all too soon is a much beloved in Japanese art and the overall public conscious. Their appearance during such a small window of time reminds us of where we are in the year, what has passed and what is to come.
While I won’t always commit to a haiku for each kō, I do like to include them when possible since often the subjects of the microseasons are also kigo terms. So here’s one from Onitsura Uejima, writing in the 17th century about rain and irises:
壁一重 雨をへだてつ 花あやめ
kabe hito-e / ame wo hedatetsu / hana ayame
this single, thin wall / separates me from the rain / irises in bloom3
Certainly a flower best appreciated from inside. Or at least with a nice raincoat.
While sheltering from the rain, here’s the seasonal flair you could add to your dinner table:
● Seasonal vegetable
myōga, 茗荷, Japanese ginger
● Seasonal seafood
kanpachi, かんぱち, greater amberjack
● Seasonal flower
shōbu, 菖蒲, the Japanese iris
May you flourish in any amount of rain.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
So biologically this ayame is アヤメ科アヤメ属のアヤメ (family: ayame, genus: ayame, species: ayame)
Like on Wikipedia, where the ayame article has a hanashōbu redirect at the top
Based on a Spanish translation by Vicente Haya