Iris is a genus of between 200-300 species of flowering plants with showy flowers. It takes its name from the Greek word for a rainbow, referring to the wide variety of flower colors found among the many species. As well as being the scientific name, iris is also very widely used as a common name; for one thing, it refers to all Iris species, though some plants called thus belong to other closely related genera.
In Japan, there are three varieties of irises which the term “Japanese iris” encompasses : Hanashobu, Kakitsubata, and Ayame. They are cultivated in gardens or growing wild in Japan. Besides, there is another kind of plant which has been called ‘Shobu’, or ‘Ayame’ , or ‘Ayamegusa’ since the ancient days of Japan. This is because it is similar to iris in the form of its leaves.
Would you please look at the picture below and guess which flowers of the four types above mentioned were taken?
As you guess, they are Hanashobu. This picture was taken at Koizumigata Park (小泉潟公園) in Akita.
By the way, let me tell you about those three kinds of Japanese iris and another kind of plant called “iris” in the ancient times of Japan.
The 1st kind of iris is the Hanashobu （ハナショウブ, 花菖蒲, Iris ensata var）, growing in the wet land. It is the most extensively cultivated variety in Japanese gardens.
The 2nd kind of iris is the Kakitsubata (カキツバタ, 杜若, Iris laevigata), growing in the semi-wet land. It is less popular, but is also cultivated extensively.
The 3rd kind of iris is the Ayame.(アヤメ, 菖蒲, 文目, Iris sanguinea) typically growing wild on the dry land in Japan.
The 4th plant doesn’t belong to the kind of iris but is called ‘Shobu’ (ショウブ、菖蒲) in Japanese, or ‘Ayame’ ( あやめ), or ‘Ayamegusa’ ( あやめ草) in the old Japanese terms. This is a plant called ‘Sweet flag’ belonging to the Acoraceae family, Calamus, and known for its fragrant roots, rather than its flowers.
The 1st kind of iris, Hanashobu are wonderful garden plants. As the word Iris means rainbow, irises come in so many colors: blues and purples, whites and yellows, pinks and oranges, browns and reds, and even blacks. The genus Iris has about 200 species and is native of North Temperate regions of the world.
Around the middle of June, I visited such Iris Garden and took some pictures.
Taking a stroll around the Iris garden, I hit upon the following haiku:
Ama agari nanairo fukashi hanaayame
after the rain
In 1803 Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶)(1763-1827), one of the most popular haiku poets in Japan, wrote the following haiku:
Kakitsubata yori ano niji wa okoriken
from which that rainbow
In this haiku of Issa’s, he used another Kanji characters ‘ 垣津旗‘ instead of
David G. Lanoue interpreted about this haiku as follows:
Issa imagines that the rainbow has arisen from blooming irises—the intense, showy colors of the flowers continuing in bold streaks upward, into the sky, forming the rainbow. It is interesting that “iris” derives from the Greek word for “rainbow.” Issa could not have known this, but he intuits the same connection that exists in many Western languages. The rainbow is in the sky; irises are rainbows on earth.
In 1689 Matsuo Basho (松尾芭蕉) crossed the Natori River and entered Sendai, Miyagi on ‘ The Narrow Road to Oku.’ It was the day they celebrate by converting their roofs with ‘Sweet flags’, or Calami’ (あやめ). He visited there around the time of the Sweet Flags Festival (あやめの節句)(5th day of Fifth Month, also called the Boy’s Festival), when sweet flags were displayed on the eaves of houses to drive away evil spirits, or they took “Shobuyu, or 菖蒲湯 (bath with floating sweet flag leaves)” baths. The leaves keep mosquitoes and snakes away with strong fragrance. As the strong fragrance was believed to drive away bad air, people began to take baths with sweet flag leaves. Furthermore, the plant ‘Sweet Flag’ was believed to be a symbol of the samurai’s bravery because of its sharp sword-like leaves. Even now many families with young boys enjoy “Sweet Flag Bath(shobu yu)” in the Boy’s Festival on May 5.
At that time Basho’s host, the painter Kaemon(加右衛門), had given him sandals with blue cords. So in ‘The Narrow Road to Oku.’ Basho praises Kaemon for being an exceptional follower of ‘Furyu(風流)’, writing his following haiku:
Ayamegusa asi ni musuban waraji no o
Donald Keene translated this haiku into English:
I will bind iris
Blossoms round my feet―
Cords for my sandals!
Kaemon presented Basho with such sandals, praying for safety on theroad. That was because sandals with blue cords like sweet flag kept Basho from being in dangerous conditions. But Basho highly appreciated Kaemon’s spirits of poetry. And Donald Keene used the words ‘Iris blossoms’, not the words ‘Sweet flag stems’ in his translation. Certainly this makes Basho’s haiku more poetic and literary.
Last of all, let me refer to another haiku of Basho’s.
Hanaayame ichiya ni karesi motome kana
only in one night
In 1688, on the fourth day of May, Basho enjoyed the Kabuki drama by Motome, one of the most beautiful, young Kabuki players at the Osaka Kabuki theater. Just on the following day Motome suddenly passed away. Basho grieved over the unexpected death of his favorite Kabuki player, and he composed haiku for him. He compared Motome’s sudden death to the iris’ withering which usually happens only in one night. Strangely enough, Motome passed away just on the day before the Ayame Festival was held. Maybe Motome faded away just as a rainbow disappears so suddenly.
Let me show you such a sudden withering ‘Ayame’ faces in the following picture.
― Hidenori Hiruta