The Season of Fall

The last month has been a time of gains and losses, like a long, drawn-out chess game in which I’m blinded and the opponent is permitted to intermittently slap me in the face, taunt me, and reverse the game board. Worse still, before the blind fold, I was foolishly optimistic, despite former beaten players on the sidelines warning me of the opponent’s tricks. To have built up so much, only to have it all fall down.

Which reminds me of this ole’ horrifying gem.

Which reminds me of this ole’ horrifying gem.

Even the weather last weekend lured the Koriyama locals with a surprising heat wave. I watched as my neighbors took the opportunity to cut down the orange persimmons (kaki in Japanese) that decorated the nearly bare trees like small, squat Halloween pumpkins.

One of the streams and adjacent footpaths snaking through Koriyama

One of the streams and adjacent footpaths snaking through Koriyama

Of course, my disappointments are nothing compared with the disappointment and frustration of the staff at Kew Gardens’ Princess of Wales Conservatory. Sam Knight of The Guardian wrote an especially enthralling account of a thievery perhaps not all too significant to those outside the realm of botany. In January this year, one of the conservatory’s Nymphaea thermarum, the world’s smallest water lily now extinct from the wild, was filched unnoticed, a crime considered by the staff to be carefully calculated.

A massive tree towers over a shrine guardian statue

A massive tree towers over a shrine guardian statue

Now, facilities like the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, have installed CCTV cameras, after an unfathomable crime in which “someone hacked and burnt eight of the Botanic Gardens’ most important trees in a vicious overnight rampage” in 2013. According to the report, vandals also destroyed dozens of rare cacti in the arid garden.

One of the most interesting points of The Guardian article is that these collections were built up by poachers themselves, botanists who travelled and uprooted and removed – at gun point, if need be – plants from their natural habitats. While we’re doing a fine job of ripping up things in the name of science and quickly consuming and destroying the land around us, it sometimes makes the effort of conservation and biodiversity maintenance of plants pointless efforts.

A neighbor's beautiful backyard garden with tufty chrysanthemums

A neighbor’s beautiful backyard garden with tufty chrysanthemums

“They are the most relevant things to humans really, even though humans don’t realise it,” a horticultural scientist of Kew said to Knight. “Most medicines come from plants and algae. Most new technology is going to come from plants and algae. The basis of antibiotics is plant and fungi, and what do we do? Nothing. We don’t give a toss.”

One of my favorite riverside parks, in which are many pines, jack-in-the-pulpits, and pond lotuses

One of my favorite riverside parks, in which are many pines, jack-in-the-pulpits, and pond lotuses

Meanwhile, The Plant Press published an insightful – and not very uplifting – account of the downsizing of botanical institutions and research centers over the past few years.

Although it’s overwhelming, I realize it’s not all gloom and doom. The Japanese, from what I’ve observed here in Koriyama, are very much in touch with nature. Despite the unfortunate number of parking lots suddenly appearing where lots of Herb Roberts and Blue Fleabanes once stood, I’m surrounded by a bounty of gorgeously maintained garden plots filled with Cosmos, Commelinas, and Chrysanthemums, and the countryside spills over with wild mints, thyme, yomogi, and more.

Another of my favorite shrines behind a gargantuan tree

Another of my favorite shrines behind a gargantuan tree

Especially encouraging are the protected trees surrounding the many shrines in and around Koriyama. On an isolated hill west of downtown Koriyama, my favorite shrine, Otsukikasuga Shrine, is enveloped by seemingly legendary cedars. I can imagine some of these giants have been around for some time and can only hope they will continue to be. It took so much time for them to grow up, and it would be a shame to see it all hacked down.

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Premature Recapitulation: (Nearly) A Year in Fukushima Prefecture

“The heavier the head of rice, the deeper it bows.”

She carried with her a bundle of unremarkable weeds, which resembled those of a maple tree, only narrower and a bit on the pale side. I could see even before we stopped to ask directions that she knew these four tourists, with two gaijin — or “foreiginers” in Japanese — were looking for the way to the windmills, just a left, right, and nauseous hillside zigzag away from the stretch of paddy fields she was currently plodding across.

After our host in the passenger seat thanked the wizened woman, I watched her shuffle on with her collection of yomogi, wondering where she was going. An hour or so later, we would pass her again; I recognized the same dull patterned bonnet tightly knotted under her chin as she tilled in a small, neatly lined garden at the base of the slope as we made our way back into Koriyama.

Rapeseed, though low in absorption, is considered a bioremediator

Rapeseed, though low in absorption, is considered a bioremediator

At the top, as the car sickness ebbed and a pleasant breeze rose from the crystal blue of Lake Inawashiro, which extended impressively to lesser hills in the distance. A tall carpet of bird’s rape – or, less offensively, wild mustard flowers — smeared the Hollandesque canvas of field and exclamating windmill, punctuated with sunny dandelions and crisp yet thriving yellow-green bamboo.

This brightly colored scene seems like a distant memory now, if not something straight out of a Miyazaki film. Strange to think that over a year ago, I sat piano-side, reflecting on my dynamic – more volatile than anything – time spent in Budapest, Hungary. Those days, it was all residency permits, unstable class loads, and day-long, thought-purging hikes. In New York, it was rent payments, electricity and Wi-Fi issues, and dangerous solo nights in seedy lower east side bars.

Fukushima in comparison is work, wine, and hobbies. On a recent business trip to Tokyo, I realized how much I missed my new home town of Koriyama, a veritable paradise of plants. Weekly forays/runs (foruns, as I will call them from here on out) bring in a constant supply of wild mint (regrettably counting in the misfortunate mix-up with the one poisonous species), thyme, oregano, basil, ginkgo biloba leaves and fruits, and more.

Saxifrage stolonifera growing in a stream in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture

Saxifrage stolonifera growing in a stream in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture

That’s not to say Tokyo is entirely devoid of vegetation. On its eastern walls, Tokyo station sprouts all kinds of hardy grasses and vines, known as the Heuchera Rainbow Wall. All cultivars of the heuchera genus belong to the family Saxifragaceae, many kinds of which can be recognized with their trailing red roots in many streams flowing through Koriyama.

A few minutes’ walk north of the station is the renowned Pasona Group building, which appears to be bursting with flora from every side. According to this article, the interior sounds like the dreamworld of the Willy Wonka of botany:

 

“Tomato vines are suspended above conference tables, lemon and passion fruit trees are used as partitions for meeting spaces, salad leaves are grown inside seminar rooms and bean sprouts are grown under benches. The main lobby also features a rice paddy and a broccoli field.”

 

LEMME IN.

LEMME IN.

On my recent trip to Tokyo, my hotel was situation directly across from a building with tiered levels of numerous liriope. A few blocks away, I could make out the vast cover of tulip trees, gingkos, and Japanese maples rooted in the Shinjuku Botanical Garden, which I blissfully visited on my previous stay in Tokyo.

The common landscaping plant Liriope muscari

The common landscaping plant Liriope muscari

Soon, the company I work for will construct a new building in Koriyama. I can only hope the building incorporates some of these clever botanical designs. Based on my year here so far and despite the dizzying number of (fantastic) students and internal changes, I’d say, coda sustained, there’s room to grow.

The Poison City

“Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

 

An interesting article appeared in The Smithsonian Magazine some weeks ago, titled Step Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Garden (If You Dare). Said garden is part of the Alnwick Garden complex in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. The Poison Garden, a clever guise of a name to fool children into learning, contains some of the world’s most toxic, and surprisingly common, killers of the wild. Out of the 100 plus plants in the garden, I noticed a fair number are in walking distance of my apartment here in Japan. Although certainly not as compelling as the Alnwick Garden, I’ll take you along on my recent foray for foul flora of Koriyama city.


lily of the valley ose park Lily of the Valley
This plant seems to have been around for a spell, as several sources suggest its origins lie in the tale of St. Leonard’s bloody battle with a dragon or perhaps even the jaded tears of Eve herself. It is also, as a favored garden plant, found throughout Koriyama and especially near the entrance to kid-friendly Ose Park, which lies roughly 10 km west of the city center. The dainty-looking plant received much attention when it appeared in a near fatality–inducing cameo in Breaking Bad. As several of the other baddies noted here, Convallaria majalis has its kinder side, too: it’s been reported to ameliorate cardiovascular problems.

Brugmansia 2Brugmansia & Datura
Canest thou hear the fifth angel that heralds the fallen star? If you can, you’ve just ingested Brugmansia – angel’s trumpet – for Heaven knows what reason. Brugmansia has a sweet, inviting scent, but the beauty is dangerous unless you’re a moth. I happened upon it in the vague boundary of a Fall afternoon and evening. A light breeze wafted their powerful fragrance from over two blocks away. Like a mirror image of Brugmansia’s pendulous flowers, the species of Datura are also poisonous, particular the seeds and flowers.

WisteriaWisteria
Imagine…

You are taking a leisurely autumnal stroll, stopping beneath a thick canopy of gnarled wood to marvel at the many slender dried pods hanging and softly rustling in the wind. Without warning, one of them fires a brown seed the size of a nickel down your throat, and you are dead.

The air battle occurring overhead is a result of dehiscence, in which a seed pod dehydrates and, in this case, shrivels and tightens, ready for the slightest impact to spring the trap and fling its seeds as far as possible. The idea here is that the seeds will not fall directly below the parent plant, thus receiving no sunlight and potentially hogging the soil nutrients used by the parent.

Ludicrous situation above notwithstanding, the seeds of Wisteria are especially poisonous. In addition to its toxic nature, the beautiful twiner is also notorious for strangling plants and ruining new patios and sidewalks.

Mother of ThousandsBryophyllum daigremontianum
On one of the first warm days of Spring, Koriyamans began to bring out their hardier succulents from indoor hibernation. On my morning run, I did a double-take as an elderly woman slid open her screen door and shuffled out with a truly monstrous plant. Upon closer inspection during my run-by the following day, however, I appreciated how beautifully complex Bryophyllum daigremontianum, also known as Mother of Thousands or Mexican Hat Plant, truly is. Also, it is fun to say “bulbiliferous spurs”, which is how Wikipedia describes the plant’s unusual leaf margins. According to NSW Department of Primary Industries, “toxins are present in all parts of the plant; however, flowers are five times more poisonous than the leaves and stems.”


Mentha arvensisOthers I’ve possibly sighted but not confirmed include Omphalotus olearius, Entoloma rhodopolium, and Hedera rhombea. While a few of the plants mentioned in this post can sometimes be mistaken for other, more benign relatives (a perfect example being Giant Hogweed vs. Cow Parsnip, the former of which can cause severe burns), one to look out for is Mentha pulegium.

Pennyroyal, as it’s more commonly known, can very easily be mistaken for wild mint, or Mentha arvensis. Based on an unfortunate previous mishap, I can strongly advise any forager to confirm absolutely, without a doubt, the plant being picked. Plants, after all, are trying to kill us all.