April 6, 2009

Nanohana -Appreciating Mustard Flower Season in Japan

With Foil wrapped Easter Lilies appearing at my supermarket, all short and green after being drenched with Miracle Grow and dwarfed with growth retardant hormones so that they barely resemble the four foot tall Lilium longiflorum of days gone by, these fragrant but virtually sterile lilies with their stamens removed, emasculated into meaningless brands of a holiday that now celebrates with red #2 Peeps, and not the more more natural yellow ones.... might as well be plastic. And I used to LOVE Easter Lilies.

So I am thinking of other signs of spring, that are culturally important and authentic. I am reminded of Japan, and mustard.
At the entrances of train stations in March, the nanohaha make an appearance, brilliant yellow and 'saying that spring is near'.

Mount Fujji bloom in an advertisement, above a field of Nanohana, Japans love affair with seasonal plants, includes some lesser appreciated species, like the lowly mustard, which is elevated as a celebratory blossom in one of Japans earliest flower festivals. It's all about appreciation for the simple phenomenon of nature. Spring. We have the crocus and the robin, Japan has the mustard flowers.

I've been thinking about my last trip to Japan. In February, I was killing some time, before flying home from Tokyo, and actually got lost, which isn't that hard to do in Tokyo sometimes, at least for an American like me. I found myself in a park, and although it was a cold day in February, there in the distance, I saw some bright yellow flowers planted in a bed in the park. In neat, tidy rows, upon closer inspection, I saw that yes, these we're in fact Mustard plants.

In Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, Mustard fields are planted and sculpted into mazes, not unlike corn fields in North America during Halloween.

Here in America, we should be familiar with Nanohana, since this mustard is something most of us use everyday. Not as yellow mustard on our hotdogs, but as Canola oil. This is the same mustard, or Rapeseed that Canada makes Can-ola oil ( A made up name mashed up from CAN from Canada, and OLA, from Oleum,,,Mmmmm all part of a 1980's marketing strategy promoted that no one would buy even the healthiest oil if it was called Rapeseed oil). Of course, Rapeseed, is also the young plant called Rapini by the Italians, again proving that it is completely edible and healthy. So forget the urban ledgends about using rapeseed and Canola oil as motor oil ( of course, you can), but one is not the same as the other. But conspiracy theorists still feed this 'poison' on the internet.

Nanohana, in Japanese literally translates into 'Vegetable Flower' but it also can be read to mean wild flower, or flower of the field. the plant is completely edible.

The Sakura festival gets all of the publicity and Japans biggest flower festival.....but what about Nanohana.... yellow Mustard? Which blooms just before the cherry?

In my garden, these rather pretty but simple flowers are the same cole crop flowers in Cruciferae that one sees on a cabbage, radish, turnip, Bok Choi or more likely, some Brocolli that one forgets to harvest, and then it goes to seed. But in the heart of a buzzing, busy and grey city, this bed of brilliant saffron blossoms, seemed sublime.

A graphic interpretation of Nanohana, Japanese Mustard Flowers
The bed was carefully tended, surely. With a simple bamboo fence constructed around it, and over it like a cage, presumably to keep the ravens off of it ( they we're angry, high in the Camellia trees above me). But I so wanted to recreate this sort of planting in my New England garden. So I bought some mustard seed at Sakata Nursery, and brought it home. I would think that it needed cold temperatures most certainly, and I feel that I may wait until September to plant, since a spring planting in our climate would surely grow too quickly with it's temperature range which can scale upwards from 25 deg. F to 8- deg F in a week. But, in the perfect spring, and an early March sowing, I would imagine that I could recreate the Japan effect of planting mustard for the joy of it's spring blossom, which, like many Japanese plants, is important culturally to the Japanese.

Nanohana Candles for gift giving. Nothing say's spring like Rapeseed oil candles in a pretty box!

Known in Japan as Nanohana, March, is the Nanohana season for most of Japan. In small window sill plantings, to decks and terraces with pots of yellow nanohana, to parks and public places, one can see the celebration of the Mustard blossom, with it's graphically simple four petals ( like a cross- hence, Crucifer, or hinting of it's plant family, Cruciferae). All crucifers have four petals, be they high alpine relatives, or tropical giants. An easy giveaway for botanists.

The Nanohana March, a spring walk event in Japan. The Ibusuki Marathon is based around the theme of Nanohana, and this Nanohana March, is another Sunday walk event in Yokohama and other parts of Japan.

Nanohana in Japan are also celebrated in the art and culture of Japan. In clothing patterns, toys, gift arrangements, even at one train station, I saw Nanohana bakery products, cookies, sandwiches, t-shirts, totes, souvenir books, robots, a car color for Nissan, a magazine cover, a train brochure, and stuck in seasonal advertisements.

These Nanohana sweets are traditional azuki bean sweets available in the early spring at many Japanese markets.

Mmmm...Nanohana PastryNot as omnipresent as other flower festivals like the cherry blossoms of spring ( Sakura) or primula ( sakuraso), or as shown in some of my past postings like the Plum Flowers ( Ume) in February, or the Morning Glories of July ( Asagao), this little, simple flower is still powerful in a certain week, in a certain month. If only the rest of the world could celebrate such a simple event, like the blossoming of the lowly mustard...cultural relevance can elevate the more mundane of events. Here in Boston, we are celebrating that the Red Sox are starting their season today, with news reports of how many hotdogs (Fenway Franks) are sold in one day ( 22,000). But what, I say.....about the mustard? The Japanese may still love their Baseball more than Nanohana, but this event does date back to the 1400's Edo period whereas Baseball only goes back 30 years or so in Japan.

A Woodblock Print of Mustard Blossoms from 1600
For me, Nanohana is a home run.


  1. How interesting! I never heard of this festival...so fresh and unpretentious! thanks

  2. What a great post, very informational and interesting.

  3. Absolutely fascinating - thanks.

  4. Very interesting post! Thanks! I like to learn something new about plants, gardening and people worldwide. The pictures reminded me blooming rape flower fields in China, also intense-yellow in color. Could be these plants in China and Japan related?

    1. Yes China is the leading producer.

  5. Hi! Nice post, but according Wikipedia, baseball in Japan was introduced in 1872.

  6. thanks for sharing this, now I know what is the name of those yellow flowers in front of my house LOL


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