Micro-Season: “The First Camellia Blossoms”

“Letters from the northern countries tell of snow, and winter winds begin to blow”

72 Seasons App

We have entered the mini season of First Winter.  This season runs from November 8 until November 22, and contains the micro-seasons of:

  • The First Camellia Blossoms (Nov. 8- Nov 12)
  • The Earth First Freezes (Nov. 13 – Nov 17)
  • The Daffodil Flowers (Nov 18 – Nov 22)

Established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai, the traditional Japanese calendar has 24 mini seasons and 72 micro-seasons.  Each season highlights a  slight change in the natural environment.  The micro-seasons are specific to the climate of Japan because they were developed around their agrarian society.  However, just because this calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean that it isn’t applicable to others.  The seasons can become a starting point for your personal exploration into the world around you. 

Camellia-japonica--Scott-Ackerman--cc-by-2-0
Camellia japonica: Photo credit Scott Ackerman

“The First Camellia Blossoms” (Nov. 8 – Nov. 12)  

The Camellia is an evergreen plant native to eastern and southern Asia with up to 300 different species.  The species Camellia sinensis is used to produce a variety of teas, whereas the Camellia oleifer is used to create edible tea oil.(2) The decorative flowering versions of this plant, including Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua, have become staples of winter gardens in Japan and southern United States. The flowers of the Camellia japonica can vary in color from white to red and may grow up to five inches in diameter. (3,4 

without seeing sunlight
the winter camellia
blooms
Kobayashi Issa

Symbolism of the Camellia

The Camellia flower, also known as the Tsubaki, has an interesting connection to Japanese culture. Depending on the source, the Camellia flower can mean a variety of things.  Alicia Joy explains that the Tsubaki “were very popular with nobles during the Edo Period. Among warriors and samurai, the red camellia symbolized a noble death. Otherwise, the red camellia means love. However, they don’t make good presents for people who are sick or injured because of the way the flowers “behead” themselves when they die.” (5)

Poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) was born into a samurai family and also spent time in the Japanese Army. (6)  I wonder what role the symbolism of the Camellia played in the creation of this haiku.

Someone dropped
or dropped by itself on the street
the flower of camellia.
Masaoka Shiki

Shiki is known for promoting the idea “shasei” in haiku.  Shasei has been translated to mean “sketch of life” or the idea of promoting realism within art and writing. The Shiki Project in Matsuyama expands on this definition by stating, “writing exactly what you see so the reader could also experience the scene and understand what had moved you.”(7) Does this mean that this haiku is simply an observation and nothing else?

Perhaps not. Charles Trumbull states in an article for the Haiku Foundation:

“It was not long after he began his haiku reform, however, that Shiki realized the limitations of a strict interpretation of shasei. While continuing to advocate the sketch from life for beginning haiku poets, he admitted the application of imagination and subjectivity to the composition of poetry. Not doing so, Shiki believed, could well lead to triteness in composition.” (7)

Taking this into account, does Shiki’s haiku relate back to the noble death of a samurai? Is there a connection between the fact that the flowers “behead” themselves and the flower on the street.  Or perhaps this haiku is a reflection of lost love? 

We may never know the exact intention behind this haiku.  But that is what I find so enjoyable about haikus and poetry, is that these short lines can become gateways into a deeper exploration into ourselves and our connection to the world.

The Camellia and American Literature.

The camellia flower also has a prominent spot in American literature. Specifically, the Camellia becomes a supporting character in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird is “both a young girl’s (Jean Louise Finch aka “Scout”) coming-of-age story and a darker drama about the roots and consequences of racism and prejudice, probing how good and evil can coexist within a single community or individual.” (8 The flower plays a pivotal role in the interactions between Jeremy Atticus, Scout’s brother, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, an older woman who is known for her intolerance.  As the story unfolds, Jeremy and Mrs. Dubose learn about each other and their individual challenges. 

At on point in the story, Jeremy cuts off all the Camellia flower heads in anger towards Mrs. Dubose.  After this happens, Mrs. Dubose tells him that in order to kill this plant you need to “pull it up by its roots”.  Although, Mrs. Dubose is specifically talking about the plant, the literary reference is pointing back to the struggle of racism and intolerance. “Racism and intolerance can not be solved with surface-level tactics like violence and rebellion. Instead, it is through compassion that one can achieve the understanding to really make a change.”(9) When Mrs. Dubose passes away, she leaves Jeremy a box with a white Camellia flower.  Perhaps this is Mrs. Dubose’s final message, and final acknowledgement, that with patience, compassion, and understanding, we can heal those deep wounds that plague our human relationships.

Camellia japonica 'Alba Plena'
Camellia japonica ‘Alba Plena

The Camellia flower is fairly unique become it blooms when many other flowers have gone dormant. This adaptation has enabled it to procure a special spot in both Japanese and American cultures. Whether in haiku, or in American literature, this flower calls us to stop and think about our connection to the world around us. Hopefully, it will also remind us to think about love, patience, and compassion for those that we share the planet.


Resources

  1. 72 Seasons App
  2. Wikipedia: Camellia
  3. North Carolina State Plant Tool Box: Camellia japonica
  4. North Carolina State Plant Tool Box: Camellia sinensis 
  5. Alicia Joy; Hanakotoba: The Secret Meanings Behind 9 Flowers in Japan; CultureTrip
  6.  Britannica.com; Masaoka Shiki 
  7. Charles Trumbell; “Masaoka Shiki and the Origins of Shasei”, The Haiku Foundation 
  8. Britannica.com; To Kill a Mockingbird
  9. FTD.Com; Camellia Meaning and Symbolism

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15 thoughts on “Micro-Season: “The First Camellia Blossoms”

Add yours

  1. Another wonderful post, Mark! Your research inspires me to look more closely at the meaning of flowers, trees; anything in nature. I wonder if Harper Lee knew of some of these connections.
    I’m reading Lev Parikian’s book and today’s chapter is titled ‘Starlings Whizz Around in Groups’. Very accurate! I look out of my study window and see them gathering, taking flight and landing back on the telegraph wires!

    1. Hey Ashley, that is pretty amazing that Parikian’s chapter aligned with your experiences. I was thinking that I need to be making some notes so I can write the Northern Vermont version soon.
      I also wondered that about Harper Lee. I think the white camellia is supposed to represent either purity, good luck, or adoration. Any of those might work for the story.

  2. This lovely post synchs nicely with something I heard yesterday from a woman whose favorite month is November. I initially recoiled at that statement, but as she went on to talk about the changes in season and how she finds November a fertile time for her creativity, it began to make sense.

    1. Hi Tracy, that is very cool. I definitely enjoy learning how different people react to the changes in seasons. I have a tendency to lean towards the grumpy side when winter approaches. Which is totally weird because I don’t like the hear either. Thanks for add to this conversation!

  3. Fine writing as always, Mark. I was delighted to see To Kill A Mockingbird mentioned. It’s one of my all-time favorite novels and one I used to make a point of reading every year for several years in my younger days. I spent some time in the South (Louisiana and South Carolina), and I recall seeing camellias in Myrtle Beach, SC during the winter months there. Having grown up in Southwest, it was startling to see blooming flowers in winter even though winters in the South are vastly different from those in the Southwest. Also, the haiku you included are gorgeous and deep. So much to ponder in so few words.

    1. Hi Mike, thanks so much for the comment. I haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird in years,
      so I was really interested to find this connection. Ashley wondered if Harper Lee was aware of the symbolism that already existed with the flower and it was intentionally chosen because of that? I would have to lean towards there is probably some intention there. Hope all is well. Talk soon,

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. I am glad that you enjoyed this. I also appreciate your Twitter poetry. I don’t get over there often, but I enjoy your work when I do. Be Well,

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