In the Western world, Japanese Spring is almost exclusively associated with Sakura (cherry blossom) and images of trees covered in pale pink or a breeze filling the air filled with fluttering cherry blossom petals, creating the illusion of snowfall.
However, there is another important symbol of Spring in Japan, the Tsubaki (Camellia japonica). Unlike sakura tress which are deciduous and produce multitudes of tiny flowers over 2-3 weeks in early March, camellias are evergreen, flowering between February and April with large flowers (up to 10cm). Its flowers are generally red but can also be pink or white.
The fact that the flowers bloom in early Spring (or late Winter) have made them an important symbol of this season. In fact, the character used to write ‘tsubaki’ uses Chinese elements which mean ‘Spring tree’. Tsubaki flowers are particular in that unlike the other blossoms representative of Japanese Spring such as the plum or cherry, which fall away petal by petal, the camellia flowers drop off as a whole. The distinctive thud of a tsubaki blossom dropping to the ground in Japanese is called ‘boto’. One can easily picture the unique scene under the tsubaki trees, where large bunches of intact flowers litter the ground.
It is said that samurai did not like tsubaki flowers because the dropping flowers were reminiscent of the cut-off heads of dead warriors. Still today, some Japanese describe the dropping tsubaki flowers as disturbing, and are not willing to plant one in their garden. Others hold that that this flower should not be offered at temples or given as gifts to recovering patients. However this is not the rule and many flower arrangements in Spring-time include tsubaki.
The same applied during the Edo Period (1603-1867), when despite the samurai’s aversion, these flowers were appreciated all over Japan and many cultivars were bred. Shogun Hidetada (the ruler of Japan, 1579-1632) considered the tsubaki his favorite flower. Throughout Japanese history many products were made from the tsubaki tree such as oils, dye (from its burnt ashes), and various tools and weapons.
It also became a major flower to be used in decorations for Japanese tea ceremonies. It was chosen for tea ceremony because it has no smell and so while adding beautiful colour and form to the occassion, does not interfere with the aroma and flavour of the tea.