WILD‎ > ‎

DEW FLOWERS FROM JAPAN

photo: Luke Dixon


I searched in vain to identify the brilliant blue flowers that spread across my roof terrace and along the walls and paving slabs outside my bedroom window. The cleaner pulls it up when he is weeding the communal parts of our block of 1970s flats, but it soon reappears. The flowers have a vividness that makes them radiant on even the dullest of London days. For a while I thought they were a pansy of some sort with their striking blue petals and shocking yellow pollen. But no search of all my books of wild flowers came up with anything remotely like it.

The plant crawls along the ground until suddenly making a right angle in its growth and shooting upwards towards the sun. Outside my bedroom door, the plants grow anything from just six inches, to two feet or more in length before turning upwards, the flat surface of the paving slabs giving them a free run along the ground. It draws attention to itself. Once the stalks and leaves have grown upwards at a right angle, the small flowers open up, each with two dazzling blue petals, like the buttocks of an Yves Klein body print made by fairies. As I searched in vain through all the English wild flower books I could find, I eventually had to conclude that it was not an English wild flower at all.

Next, I began to search amongst so called invasive species but there too I drew a blank. Only when I looked even further afield did I at last come up with an answer, an identification of the brilliant blue flowers that were springing up all along my balcony. They are not of some rare English wild flower, nor of a prized garden specimen, nor even of a recognised invasive species. My mystery flowers belong to a plant that is at home not in England, but in the Far East, a native of China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and most significantly of Japan. The Japanese call it variously Tsuyukusa / Tsukikusa / Shimatsuyukasa, in English the Dew Herb. The Chinese know it as the Duckfoot Herb. In western parlance it is best known as the Asiatic Day Flower or Dew Flower.

But what was it doing outside my bedroom window? And how does it survive so well in the concrete of central London when it hails from the countryside of central Asia, where its preferred habitats are damp and open? Where did it come from, this visiting species, evolved to live under the hot Asian sun? It had surely travelled too far from home to have been simply borne on the wind.

The stories of so many of the plants we see every day are ones of migration. The buddleia also comes from China and was imported and cultivated for its colour and ornamentation only to escape from Victorian gardens and spread itself down industrial train tracks to become ubiquitous across the land. The Asiatic Day Flower, Commelina communis, has not yet been cultivated in England, so it is not garden escapee. In China though it has medicinal uses and perhaps the solution to my mysterious arrival lies there. My next door neighbour, an elderly Chinese woman, has a kitchen window opening onto my bedroom balcony and her larder is full of culinary and medicinal herbs from her homeland where the leaves of the Day Flower are also used in soups and stews, the flowers used as a garnish for salad, and the whole plant harvested and dried to make a tea. Have the startling blue flowers outside my bedroom come from seeds from a Chinese herbal remedy? Perhaps that is how it ended up growing on my Soho balcony, escaped from a tea packet from a Chinese supermarket in London’s Chinatown or spilt from a neighbours kitchen. Or have they come from the Chinese herbalist on the corner, or out of the bird feeder with its mix of anonymous seeds from the Pound Shop that I hang by my window for the visiting great tits? Or have birds dropped them? We have a loyal pair of Wood Pigeons who join us every year to summer in our Soho courtyard. Perhaps they have brought some Day Flower seeds with them on beak or foot, feather or faeces.

Experimental gardeners, exploring horticulturalists, the wind and the rain, birds’ beaks and rats’ droppings, bags of bird seed and Chinese herbalists, all add to the variety of plant life in London, a flora richer than anywhere else in the country. Such a variety of flowers is wonderful for the city’s pollinators, who always have something to forage on and the most varied of diets. For our London honeybees the variety of flowers to go to for pollen and nectar ensures a long and fruitful season. While their country sisters are limited to perhaps a few weeks of searing Van Gogh - yellow oil seed rape flowers and struggle for food the rest of the season, the urban honeybee has forage all year long, even in the depths of winter, when on those days that the weather is clement enough for them to venture from the hive, there is always native ivy or something more exotic in a garden or flower pot.

Not all the seeds that find their way to London will flourish. My Commelina does well partly because my balcony and courtyard are little sheltered suntraps, and partly because our cleaner washes down the paving two or three times a week, and neighbours water their planters, so the cracks in the paving from which the plants sprout are always moist, as moist as the fields and road sides of Shiga province in China or the fertile countryside of rural Japan. The flowers are bi-sexual, another reason perhaps for the plant to feel at home in bohemian, queer-friendly Soho.

✽✽✽

It is the Yves Klein blue of its two petals that draw attention to the plant, both to pollinators and to humans. There are in fact three petals, but one, a white one, is so small as to be hardly noticed behind the vivid yellow pollen that hangs from the stamens that droop in front of it. It is the two blue petals that are so striking, and in Japan ways were found to harvest not just the plant but the very colour itself, a blue so pure and vivid that distilled to a dye it became highly prized. It was prized as an ink for the making of wood block prints, prized as a dye for colouring threads used in decorating the most expensive of kimonos, and it was prized in the making of a blue paper for which one village in particular, Yamada in Shiga prefecture, was especially famed. This Awobana paper was made by painting the juice of the flowers onto sheets of paper and leaving them in the sun, just long enough for it to dry but not so long that it began to fade. For like the flower itself, the dye extracted from its petals fades, and the wood block prints of the 18th and 9th century, the threads in the luxurious kimonos, and the paper from Yamada, turned from blue to a greenish yellow when the sunlight interacted with them. So precious was the dye and so impermanent its colour that kimonos embellished with its blue threads had to be kept away from the light and could only be brought out to be displayed or worn on the rarest and most special of occasions.

The fleeting impermanence of the dye is used in Japanese legend as a metaphor for the fickle and impermanent affections of men. In ‘The Tale of Genji’ Murasaki Shikibu writes:

‘It was true then: he had after all the shifting hue of the Dewflower. She had heard about that. She had heard, albeit in general terms, that men were good at lying, that many a sweet word went into the pretence of love.’

The search for a blue pigment has been a long one. Victorian gentlemen tried to capture the blue of the kingfisher’s feathers by shooting the bird and trapping it for eternity through taxidermy. Victorian ladies pinned the feathers to their fascinators and turned their heads in the hope of catching the sunlight as the bird does when darting across the water.

Artists sought to extract colour from flowers just as the Japanese did with the Tsukikuska, attempting to make pigment that would allow them to transfer the colour from petal to paper. Other natural dyes took the place of Tsukikusa, with indigo the primary colouring chemical; true indigos from the Tropics, the Indigofera of which the best was the Indigofera tinctoria from Sumatra. There was a Japanese alternative found on the Ryukyu Islands, Strobilanthese cusia, from which an indigo-like dye could be extracted. In Britain we had woad, the plant of Braveheart.

Woad is a brassica along with mustards and cabbages. London Rocket (Sisymbrium irio) which spread across the city after The Great Fire of 1666 is another edible brassica. It was not a native before 1666 but seeds, perhaps blown from ships on the river, took root in the soil newly enriched by the fire and it has been in London, on waste grounds, docks and railways ever since. There is also a more recent relative, False London Rocket (Sisymbrium loeselii) that has arrived perhaps from Eastern Europe. Unlike Tsukikusa, woad hides its colour, its tiny yellow flowers giving no hint of the blue pigment contained elsewhere within the plant. An indigo blue has been distilled from the green leaves since antiquity.

Eventually synthetic dyes took the place of the natural dyes, and ubiquitous synthetic indigo now colours all the blue jeans of the world. Yves Klein used his own copyrighted blue - YKB - to paint onto the buttocks of the models who made his body prints.

The Dew Flower is named in Linnaean classification after the Seventeenth Century Dutch botanist Jan Commelin, and the blue chemical was in turn called commelinin after the plant. The flower opens at dawn as the dew settles on it and the first rays of the morning sun bring the blue to life, and it closes tightly at dusk as the sun fades and the petals dry out, hence the names Day Flower or Dew Flower

Intrigued still about the plant that was keeping me company through the summer months, I asked my friend Tyrone for some help. He was on his way to Japan to spend time with his Japanese wife’s family. Perhaps someone there would know of the Shimatsuyukasa and confirm that it truly was Japanese.

✽✽✽

Dear Tyrone,

I hope Amsterdam went well and your beard caused no problems at passport control.

Here’s what I know about the flower I mentioned.

Any information would be gratefully received.

See you on your return.

Kind regards

Luke

*

Dear Luke,

Well, the lady at the flower shop says they grow well in Tokushima. But I’m guessing that’s not what you wanted to know. Is there a story or myth attached to the flower that youre trying to find out about?

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Tyrone,

Thank you so much for your enquiries.

That information alone is interesting. 

I wasn’t sure whether it really was a Japanese native.

No worries about the myth, but if anyone knows whether it is still used as a dye that would be worth knowing.

It was once used for making a blue dye for kimonos and a blue ink for wood block prints.

At least that’s what Google tells me - probably not as reliable as your local florist.

Kind regards

Luke

*

Dear Luke,

Perfect timing. I may be having coffee with Chujo from the museum this morning. I’ll ask

her.

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Luke,

Well this may be more confusing than useful. But you did ask.

It’s native to Japan, though some botanists think it may have been deliberately introduced from China an astoundingly long time ago, making it as good as native. The usual name means ‘dew-grass’ as it proverbially fades quickly. Former names have included ‘ten thousand leaves together’ and ‘hat-flower’. Another name means something like ‘the arrival flower’ or ‘putting on (as in clothes) flower’. And apparently old poems often referred to the flower with its coloured ‘robe’. And finally, a name that no-one seems to be able to explain, meaning something like ‘the duck with stone legs flower’ (WTF !!).

The plant was used for dyeing, but because of the laborious use of such small flowers, it tended to be superseded by other, bigger blue flowers. People now complain that chemical dyes have failed to replicate the flower’s original colour.

Dried, it was used in treatments for diarrhoea and lowering body temperature during fever.

Ive been given a small selection of the old poems relating to the plant. Could take me a decade or two to work out what they mean!

Attached is a photo of the 390 yen stamp with the flower upon it, issued in 1996.

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Tyrone,

This is all wonderful stuff.

Thank you so much and do please thank Chujo too if you see her - Wikipedia tells me Chujo is sometimes known as the Japanese Cinderella. I see I must write a book devoted entirely to this plant.

Happy travels.

Kind regards

Luke

*

Dear Luke,

OMG, never heard of Chujo-hime before, and neither had Hiromi. We’re seeing Takamatsu Chujo again on Thursday, I must tell her.

Since emailing you, I seem to see the flower everywhere. I really like how the flower itself grows out of a leaf-like cocoon.

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Luke,

The shimatsukuya poems are beyond me ... lots of difficult and old characters beyond my ken or dictionary. But just as an exercise, I looked up meanings using a modern transliteration. Here’s very roughly what a few seem to be saying:

The easily changing Tsukuya grass can be easily mistaken for the real thing. So too with people’s words.

You will try the Tsukuya dye on your garment. But by afternoon you will easily change your mind.

The coloured of the Tsukuya flowers robe will become bitter.

The robe of the Tsukya grass, wet like the morning dew, will afterwards become tears.

The Tsukuya flower blooms with the morning dew and is extinguished by evening. So too with our love.

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Tyrone,

Many thanks for this.

You are delving deeply into Japanese culture.

My flowers alas have disappeared this week, victims of the autumnal weather.

Kind regards

Luke

*

And indeed, they had. As the prints faded and kimonos and paper faded in ancient Japan, so my little flowers too faded on my London balcony as the days grew colder and so it was as if the brilliant blue flowers had never been.

An exotic visitor to Soho takes us on a journey to the Far East, by way of Yves Klein Blue, inks, dyes, indigo, woad, and the most precious of kimonos.

 

I searched in vain to identify the brilliant blue flowers that spread across my roof terrace and along the walls and paving slabs outside my bedroom window. The cleaner pulls it up when he is weeding the communal parts of our block of 1970s flats, but it soon reappears. The flowers have a vividness that makes them radiant on even the dullest of London days. For a while I thought they were a pansy of some sort with their striking blue petals and shocking yellow pollen. But no search of all my books of wild flowers came up with anything remotely like it.

The plant crawls along the ground until suddenly making a right angle in its growth and shooting upwards towards the sun. Outside my bedroom door, the plants grow anything from just six inches, to two feet or more in length before turning upwards, the flat surface of the paving slabs giving them a free run along the ground. It draws attention to itself. Once the stalks and leaves have grown upwards at a right angle, the small flowers open up, each with two dazzling blue petals, like the buttocks of an Yves Klein body print made by fairies. As I searched in vain through all the English wild flower books I could find, I eventually had to conclude that it was not an English wild flower at all.

Next, I began to search amongst so called invasive species but there too I drew a blank. Only when I looked even further afield did I at last come up with an answer, an identification of the brilliant blue flowers that were springing up all along my balcony. They are not of some rare English wild flower, nor of a prized garden specimen, nor even of a recognised invasive species. My mystery flowers belong to a plant that is at home not in England, but in the Far East, a native of China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and most significantly of Japan. The Japanese call it variously Tsuyukusa / Tsukikusa / Shimatsuyukasa, in English the Dew Herb. The Chinese know it as the Duckfoot Herb. In western parlance it is best known as the Asiatic Day Flower or Dew Flower.

But what was it doing outside my bedroom window? And how does it survive so well in the concrete of central London when it hails from the countryside of central Asia, where its preferred habitats are damp and open? Where did it come from, this visiting species, evolved to live under the hot Asian sun? It had surely travelled too far from home to have been simply borne on the wind.

The stories of so many of the plants we see every day are ones of migration. The buddleia also comes from China and was imported and cultivated for its colour and ornamentation only to escape from Victorian gardens and spread itself down industrial train tracks to become ubiquitous across the land. The Asiatic Day Flower, Commelina communis, has not yet been cultivated in England, so it is not garden escapee. In China though it has medicinal uses and perhaps the solution to my mysterious arrival lies there. My next door neighbour, an elderly Chinese woman, has a kitchen window opening onto my bedroom balcony and her larder is full of culinary and medicinal herbs from her homeland where the leaves of the Day Flower are also used in soups and stews, the flowers used as a garnish for salad, and the whole plant harvested and dried to make a tea. Have the startling blue flowers outside my bedroom come from seeds from a Chinese herbal remedy? Perhaps that is how it ended up growing on my Soho balcony, escaped from a tea packet from a Chinese supermarket in London’s Chinatown or spilt from a neighbours kitchen. Or have they come from the Chinese herbalist on the corner, or out of the bird feeder with its mix of anonymous seeds from the Pound Shop that I hang by my window for the visiting great tits? Or have birds dropped them? We have a loyal pair of Wood Pigeons who join us every year to summer in our Soho courtyard. Perhaps they have brought some Day Flower seeds with them on beak or foot, feather or faeces.

Experimental gardeners, exploring horticulturalists, the wind and the rain, birds’ beaks and rats’ droppings, bags of bird seed and Chinese herbalists, all add to the variety of plant life in London, a flora richer than anywhere else in the country. Such a variety of flowers is wonderful for the city’s pollinators, who always have something to forage on and the most varied of diets. For our London honeybees the variety of flowers to go to for pollen and nectar ensures a long and fruitful season. While their country sisters are limited to perhaps a few weeks of searing Van Gogh - yellow oil seed rape flowers and struggle for food the rest of the season, the urban honeybee has forage all year long, even in the depths of winter, when on those days that the weather is clement enough for them to venture from the hive, there is always native ivy or something more exotic in a garden or flower pot.

Not all the seeds that find their way to London will flourish. My Commelina does well partly because my balcony and courtyard are little sheltered suntraps, and partly because our cleaner washes down the paving two or three times a week, and neighbours water their planters, so the cracks in the paving from which the plants sprout are always moist, as moist as the fields and road sides of Shiga province in China or the fertile countryside of rural Japan. The flowers are bi-sexual, another reason perhaps for the plant to feel at home in bohemian, queer-friendly Soho.

✽✽✽

It is the Yves Klein blue of its two petals that draw attention to the plant, both to pollinators and to humans. There are in fact three petals, but one, a white one, is so small as to be hardly noticed behind the vivid yellow pollen that hangs from the stamens that droop in front of it. It is the two blue petals that are so striking, and in Japan ways were found to harvest not just the plant but the very colour itself, a blue so pure and vivid that distilled to a dye it became highly prized. It was prized as an ink for the making of wood block prints, prized as a dye for colouring threads used in decorating the most expensive of kimonos, and it was prized in the making of a blue paper for which one village in particular, Yamada in Shiga prefecture, was especially famed. This Awobana paper was made by painting the juice of the flowers onto sheets of paper and leaving them in the sun, just long enough for it to dry but not so long that it began to fade. For like the flower itself, the dye extracted from its petals fades, and the wood block prints of the 18th and 9th century, the threads in the luxurious kimonos, and the paper from Yamada, turned from blue to a greenish yellow when the sunlight interacted with them. So precious was the dye and so impermanent its colour that kimonos embellished with its blue threads had to be kept away from the light and could only be brought out to be displayed or worn on the rarest and most special of occasions.

The fleeting impermanence of the dye is used in Japanese legend as a metaphor for the fickle and impermanent affections of men. In ‘The Tale of Genji’ Murasaki Shikibu writes:

‘It was true then: he had after all the shifting hue of the Dewflower. She had heard about that. She had heard, albeit in general terms, that men were good at lying, that many a sweet word went into the pretence of love.’

The search for a blue pigment has been a long one. Victorian gentlemen tried to capture the blue of the kingfisher’s feathers by shooting the bird and trapping it for eternity through taxidermy. Victorian ladies pinned the feathers to their fascinators and turned their heads in the hope of catching the sunlight as the bird does when darting across the water.

Artists sought to extract colour from flowers just as the Japanese did with the Tsukikuska, attempting to make pigment that would allow them to transfer the colour from petal to paper. Other natural dyes took the place of Tsukikusa, with indigo the primary colouring chemical; true indigos from the Tropics, the Indigofera of which the best was the Indigofera tinctoria from Sumatra. There was a Japanese alternative found on the Ryukyu Islands, Strobilanthese cusia, from which an indigo-like dye could be extracted. In Britain we had woad, the plant of Braveheart.

Woad is a brassica along with mustards and cabbages. London Rocket (Sisymbrium irio) which spread across the city after The Great Fire of 1666 is another edible brassica. It was not a native before 1666 but seeds, perhaps blown from ships on the river, took root in the soil newly enriched by the fire and it has been in London, on waste grounds, docks and railways ever since. There is also a more recent relative, False London Rocket (Sisymbrium loeselii) that has arrived perhaps from Eastern Europe. Unlike Tsukikusa, woad hides its colour, its tiny yellow flowers giving no hint of the blue pigment contained elsewhere within the plant. An indigo blue has been distilled from the green leaves since antiquity.

Eventually synthetic dyes took the place of the natural dyes, and ubiquitous synthetic indigo now colours all the blue jeans of the world. Yves Klein used his own copyrighted blue - YKB - to paint onto the buttocks of the models who made his body prints.

The Dew Flower is named in Linnaean classification after the Seventeenth Century Dutch botanist Jan Commelin, and the blue chemical was in turn called commelinin after the plant. The flower opens at dawn as the dew settles on it and the first rays of the morning sun bring the blue to life, and it closes tightly at dusk as the sun fades and the petals dry out, hence the names Day Flower or Dew Flower

Intrigued still about the plant that was keeping me company through the summer months, I asked my friend Tyrone for some help. He was on his way to Japan to spend time with his Japanese wife’s family. Perhaps someone there would know of the Shimatsuyukasa and confirm that it truly was Japanese.

✽✽✽

Dear Tyrone,

I hope Amsterdam went well and your beard caused no problems at passport control.

Here’s what I know about the flower I mentioned.

Any information would be gratefully received.

See you on your return.

Kind regards

Luke

*

Dear Luke,

Well, the lady at the flower shop says they grow well in Tokushima. But I’m guessing that’s not what you wanted to know. Is there a story or myth attached to the flower that youre trying to find out about?

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Tyrone,

Thank you so much for your enquiries.

That information alone is interesting. 

I wasn’t sure whether it really was a Japanese native.

No worries about the myth, but if anyone knows whether it is still used as a dye that would be worth knowing.

It was once used for making a blue dye for kimonos and a blue ink for wood block prints.

At least that’s what Google tells me - probably not as reliable as your local florist.

Kind regards

Luke

*

Dear Luke,

Perfect timing. I may be having coffee with Chujo from the museum this morning. I’ll ask

her.

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Luke,

Well this may be more confusing than useful. But you did ask.

It’s native to Japan, though some botanists think it may have been deliberately introduced from China an astoundingly long time ago, making it as good as native. The usual name means ‘dew-grass’ as it proverbially fades quickly. Former names have included ‘ten thousand leaves together’ and ‘hat-flower’. Another name means something like ‘the arrival flower’ or ‘putting on (as in clothes) flower’. And apparently old poems often referred to the flower with its coloured ‘robe’. And finally, a name that no-one seems to be able to explain, meaning something like ‘the duck with stone legs flower’ (WTF !!).

The plant was used for dyeing, but because of the laborious use of such small flowers, it tended to be superseded by other, bigger blue flowers. People now complain that chemical dyes have failed to replicate the flower’s original colour.

Dried, it was used in treatments for diarrhoea and lowering body temperature during fever.

Ive been given a small selection of the old poems relating to the plant. Could take me a decade or two to work out what they mean!

Attached is a photo of the 390 yen stamp with the flower upon it, issued in 1996.

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Tyrone,

This is all wonderful stuff.

Thank you so much and do please thank Chujo too if you see her - Wikipedia tells me Chujo is sometimes known as the Japanese Cinderella. I see I must write a book devoted entirely to this plant.

Happy travels.

Kind regards

Luke

*

Dear Luke,

OMG, never heard of Chujo-hime before, and neither had Hiromi. We’re seeing Takamatsu Chujo again on Thursday, I must tell her.

Since emailing you, I seem to see the flower everywhere. I really like how the flower itself grows out of a leaf-like cocoon.

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Luke,

The shimatsukuya poems are beyond me ... lots of difficult and old characters beyond my ken or dictionary. But just as an exercise, I looked up meanings using a modern transliteration. Here’s very roughly what a few seem to be saying:

The easily changing Tsukuya grass can be easily mistaken for the real thing. So too with people’s words.

You will try the Tsukuya dye on your garment. But by afternoon you will easily change your mind.

The coloured of the Tsukuya flowers robe will become bitter.

The robe of the Tsukya grass, wet like the morning dew, will afterwards become tears.

The Tsukuya flower blooms with the morning dew and is extinguished by evening. So too with our love.

Kind regards,

Tyrone

*

Dear Tyrone,

Many thanks for this.

You are delving deeply into Japanese culture.

My flowers alas have disappeared this week, victims of the autumnal weather.

Kind regards

Luke

*

And indeed, they had. As the prints faded and kimonos and paper faded in ancient Japan, so my little flowers too faded on my London balcony as the days grew colder and so it was as if the brilliant blue flowers had never been.