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Heavenly Higanbana Invite Outdoor Enjoyment as they Announce the Autumn Equinox

The colorful show of spider lilies found clustered in fields, gardens and along embankments, begins after the first heavy rain in autumn at a point when there is a transition to the much drier and more pleasant autumn weather.

Earl Kinmonth

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Japan has two public holidays keyed to seasonal change.  Vernal Equinox Day (春分の日, Shunbun no Hi)  is usually March 20 or 21, when days are becoming longer and the period of light and dark are equal.

Autumnal Equinox Day (秋分の日, Shūbun no Hi) is a public holiday in Japan that usually occurs on September 22 or 23, when days are growing shorter and the period of light and dark are equal.

In 2021, Vernal Equinox Day was on March 20.  Autumnal Equinox Day will be on September 23.

As with the better known Japanese Obon celebration, both of the equinox holidays may involve visits to ancestral grave sites and ceremonies to remember departed ancestors.

The equinox holidays differ from Obon in that they are national holidays. Obon is customary, and its dates and associated customs vary by region within Japan.

The Autumnal Equinox is distinctive in that it is associated with the brilliantly tinted flowers of higanbana (spider lilies) that usually burst into bloom shortly before the equinox. Their colorful show begins after the first heavy rain in autumn at a point when there is a transition from the very humid summer weather in Japan to the much drier and more pleasant autumn weather.

A field of higanbana, or spider lillies, at Koishikawa Botanical Garden

Autumn Beauty by Many Names

Higanbana are also known as Manjushage or Manjusaka, meaning “the flower blooming in heaven” in Sanskrit. There are also many regional names for the flower as well as variants coming from their association with death. One Japanese language site lists more than a thousand different dialect names.

The common English name is red spider lily, lycoris or cluster amaryllis. The latter name reflects the fact that while lone plants with a single flower at the end of a single stem can be found, clusters of plants in a one meter or less radius are far more common. 

Typical cluster of red spider lilies.

Useful Botanical Aspects 

A distinctive aspect of higanbana is that the flowers appear before the leaves, something that I had not noticed until I began reading about them this year.

Spider lily flowers appear on the ends of single stems before the plant has leaves.

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While cycling, I have frequently seen higanbana along river embankments (levees) and the dykes separating rice fields. I had assumed that this was because this placement provided congenial growing conditions for the plant.

As it turns out, higanbana are found on embankments because they were planted there because the roots are poisonous and deter burrowing animals that might otherwise weaken the embankments.

This is also said to be the reason the flowers can be found around ancient grave sites. While cremation is now ubiquitous in Japan, even mandated, that was not always the case. Planting higanbana around burial sites was a method for keeping burrowing animals away from the corpses.

The poison is sufficiently strong that it can kill humans, although more typically it produces vomiting. It can be removed, however, and in times of famine higanbana have been detoxified and eaten.  

Again, while cycling I had noted what seemed to be random patches of higanbana in fields. I had assumed that seeds had been blown by the wind or deposited by animals. 

Instead, because the plants are poisonous, animals do not eat them and the plants have no seeds to be blown by the wind.

Rather, Higanbana are propagated from bulbs. This means that every cluster of plants that one sees is the result of human activity.

Straight rows of higanbana are clearly the result of intentional planting. 

A row of spider lilies typical of what can be seen along paths in some parks.

Other more random occurrences are probably the result of bulbs being included in soil that was moved from one place to another.

Bulbs mixed in the potting soil is the likely explanation for this spider lily sprouting up through a shrub at Koshikawa Botantical Garden.

In photographing higanbana at Mizumoto Park and Koishikawa Botanical Garden, I also realized that my idea that the flowers prefer sunny slopes was wrong.

Some of the more famous viewing sites have much larger hill sides covered with spider lilies than this small but popular area in Mizumoto Park.

While hills covered with bright red higanbana are the attraction of some of the most famous viewing sites ー and appear in numerous travel promotion advertisements ー the plants seem to be capable of flourishing even in places that receive little sunlight.

Clusters of spider lilies in a heavily shaded part of Koishikawa Botanical Garden.

Similarly, I had always thought of higanbana as being red and red only.  While red flowers are most common in the Kanto area, and are predominant overall in Japan, white and yellow higanbana exist, and are all the more striking because of their contrast with the more common red variety.

Red and white spider lilies growing together in a shaded area in Koishikawa Botanical Garden.

While photographing white and yellow higanbana, I heard others commenting about how unusual they were, with some saying they had never seen them before.  

A cluster of white spider lilies at Mizumoto Park.

While photographing one planting of white higanbana at Mizumoto Koen, an elderly man asked me for confirmation that the flowers were indeed higanbana. Fortunately, I had done enough background reading before coming that I could do so.

White spider lilies lining a path in Mizumoto Park.

Conclusion

While I have photographed higanbana in years past, this was simply casual scenic photography.  Since retirement in 2017, I have spent more time walking and cycling and photographing the many different wild flowers to be seen cycling and even more those found in what I call street gardens, something I took up in my article “In Tokyo Neighborhoods, Floral Beauty Amid the Beastly Pandemic.”

Recently I invested in a lens for closeup and bokeh effects, and have just started using software that performs flower and plant identification.

A steady stream of passersby were stopping to photograph these yellow and white spider lilies growing next to a busy street south of Sugamo Station.

Google Lens for Android and IOs is free and appears to be reasonably good at identifying flowers and bugs. There is also commercial software for horticultural identification that I will be trying soon.

Although flower photography started off as something I did casually as a result of having a smartphone with a high quality camera, it has turned into a learning experience for me both as a (retired) social historian and a geek since my high school years.

Even without my somewhat peculiar background in which I went from electrical engineering to the social history of Japan, there is unlimited enjoyment to be found in tracking nature in Japan, whether it is in great public spaces and gardens or in rather generic residential neighborhoods.

Author: Earl H. Kinmonth

Find other stories about Tokyo and nearby areas by Dr. Kinmonth at this link.

Earl H. Kinmonth is professor emeritus at Taisho University. Before moving to Japan in 1997, he was reader in Japanese Studies at the University of Sheffield (1989-1997) and professor of history at the University of California-Davis (1977-1989). His research is in the history and sociology of Japanese education from the Meiji period to the present, with an emphasis on 1930s-1940s Japan. He is a Japanese citizen and writes commentary in English and Japanese, and does Japanese English translation. He is currently writing a book on foreign media coverage of Japan under the working title Japan in the Foreign Imagination.