Micro-Season: “The Safflower Blossoms”

We have entered the micro-season of “The Safflower Blossoms”.  This is the second micro-season of the mini-season of Grain Full. 

Each mini-season contains three micro-seasons. The micro-seasons contained within Grain Full are:

  • The Silkworm Awakes and Eats the Mulberry (May 21 – May 25)
  • The Safflower Blossoms (May 26 – May 30)
  • The Time for Wheat (May 31 – Jun 4)

These seasons were established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai and are specific to Japan. However, just because the calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean it isn’t applicable to others.  No matter where you live you can use these seasons as a starting point for your personal exploration of the world around you. 


What is Grain Full?

The mini-season Grain Full refers to the time in the year when the plants begin to mature and life abounds.  It isn’t time to harvest yet, but the weather has made a turn for the better.  Some other translations of this season are Small Full (Grain)(1) and Fine Weather.(2)

The Safflower

The safflower, or Carthamus tinctorius, is a flowering annual plant that is a part of the Asteraceae family. Other plants in this family include the sunflower, daisy, and aster. The safflower’s flower may be red, orange, yellow, or white.(3)

The safflower is a fast-growing plant that resembles a thistle. It can grow up to about five feet tall (150 cm) and prefers drier climates with predictable seasonal rains.  In order to survive in drier climates, the safflower has developed a tap root system that can descend up to six feet into the earth.(4) The term “taproot” is used to describe the root system that has one dominant thick root that descends directly into the earth with smaller fibrous roots extending from it. A carrot is a great example of a taproot that also stores nutrients. 

Carthamus tinctorius ;Family:Asteraceae Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé ''Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz'' 1885, Gera, Germany Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber
Carthamus tinctorius illustration

Safflower History

The safflower is one of the oldest cultivated crops and is native to Asia and Africa, including parts of India, the Middle East, and Egypt.  Scientists and archeologists have found evidence that the safflower was grown for human use as early as 2500 BC(4).  

An interesting side note is that garlands made of safflower were found in the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun.(4)  Tutankhamun is also known as King Tut.  King Tut died at about 18 years of age in the year 1323 BC. 

Safflower Uses:

1. Safflower as a dye

The dried safflower produces both red and yellow dyes that can be used in the dyeing of wool, silk, or cotton.(5)  The colors come from a compound known as carthamin.  Carthamin produces a light-sensitive dye that is prone to fading. 

It is expensive to create dyes from the safflower plant so they were often mixed with the other dyes such as turmeric and sappan to create the desired colors.  In the 1800s, scientists created a compound known as fuchsine which began to compete with safflower dye in many industrial processes.(6)  Synthetic dyes now produce many of the colors that people used to create with safflower.

2. Safflower oils

The safflower plant can produce two types of oil.  One is edible and one is used in painting.

The edible type of safflower oil is known for being high in omega-6 essential fatty acids and vitamin E.(7)  Unrefined safflower oil is good to use in salad dressing.  High-oleic safflower oils, which contain more monounsaturated fats, can be used in high-temperature cooking such as deep frying.(7)

Health benefits of safflower oil may include the reduction in cholesterol and lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke.  However, there is limited scientific data to back up these claims.(8)  

The safflower oil used in painting processes contains a higher level of linoleic acid and is often used in place of linseed oil.(4)  Safflower oil does not yellow with age and this makes it particularly useful in white paints and some varnishes.(3)

''Carthamus tinctorius''; Pseudoanas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Safflower Photo by Pseudoanas

Poems About Safflower

The phrase “waka poetry” was originally used to describe classical Japanese poetry including both short-form and long-form poetry.(8)  In Japan during the Nara period (710-794), an effort was made to gather many waka poems into a collection titled the Man’yōshū, or Collection of a Myriad Leaves.(9) Although the exact history of this collection is unknown, it is suspected that Ōtomo no Yakamoch (716-785) was responsible for gathering the poetry currently found in Man’yōshū.(9)

The Man’yōshū contains over 4,500 waka divided between 20 volumes and three genres.  The three genres are:

  • Zoka, songs at banquets and trips; 
  • Somonka, songs about love between men and women; and 
  • Banka songs to mourn the death of people. (9)

The next two poems that reference the safflower come from the Man’yōshū and were found at Waka Poetry.net.

Man’yōshū, Book XI, poem 2623

In safflower
Dipped many times, my robe
Worn morn after morn
Has familiar wrinkles, yet
Is all the more dear for that…
-Unknown Author

Man’yōshū, Book XVII, poem 4021

Upon the River Ogami
Glowing safflower scarlet
Do the maidens seem;
Harvesting ashitsuki
Standing in the shallows…
-Ōtomo no Yakamochi

This third poem also came from Waka Poetry.net.  However, this poem comes from the collection titled the Kokinwakashū, or “Collection of Japanese Poetry Ancient and Modern.” This collection is known to be the successor to the Man’yōshū and was completed around the year 920.

Kokinwakashū, Book XI, Poem 496

Unknown to all
Are my feelings; what pain!
As the safflower
Would I show my love.

Finally, because we can’t forget to include some haiku on the subjects, we have two haiku by Matsuo Basho.

of eyebrow brushes – 
safflower blossoms

Seifu’s haiku
Like Safflower powder

In this second haiku Basho mentions a person known as Seifu.  Seifu was a safflower wholesaler, poet, and host to Basho as he traveled to Obanazawa in 1689.(11) I am not sure if Basho is using his haiku to criticize Seifu’s haiku or not.  But I find it interesting the comparison he makes between the haiku and fading nature of safflower powder. 


  1. Kelly Pang, “The 24 Solar Terms”; China Highlights
  2. “Fine Weather”: Season by Season.org
  3. “Safflower”: Britannica.com
  4. “Safflower: Wikipedia.com
  5. “Dyeing with Safflower”: Wild Colours
  6. “Carthamin”; Wikipedia
  7. “What Is Safflower Oil?”: MasterClass.com
  8. “Safflower – Uses, Side Effects, and More”; WebMD
  9. “Waka (poetry)’: Wikipedia
  10. “Man’yōshū”; Wikipedia
  11. “Stage 25, July 1689”; matsuo-basho-haiku

Many thanks to WakaPoetry.net for translating and sharing this season’s poems. The safflower-specific poems can be found here.

Basho’s Haiku was retrieved from Gábor Terebess’ “Matsuo Bashō’s haiku poems in Romanized Japanese with English translations” and Matsuobashohaiku.home.blog

Want to support our work? Visit the Naturalist Weekly bookstore and browse our curated lists of books of poetry and haiku. Or pick up a gift card that can be used throughout the store.   

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com
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16 thoughts on “Micro-Season: “The Safflower Blossoms”

Add yours

    1. Ahh, Yes they do! I am not sure how they taste. I didn’t find any safflower recipes. Maybe I need to look a little deeper!?

  1. I love the poem about the familiar often worn clothes. The safflowers are beautiful and provide so many gifts, I never knew until I read this post.

    1. Yes, I would agree with that. That was the first poem I found and really enjoyed it. I am glad that you enjoyed this post. I hope all is well!

  2. The 2nd haiku of matsu busho I think he tried to describe the importance of seifu and the safflower powder
    Without the wholesaler of safflower how can there be a powder
    A relation

    1. Thank you so much for this interpretation! Does this mean that seifu, just like safflower powder, may grow old and fade away, but that they are both important to Basho and/or to the larger Japanese culture? Interesting!

  3. In my area, as a kid, everyone grew wheat or pinto beans. Years later, safflower crops began appearing here and there. I haven’t been to the family farm in seven years so I have no idea if more people are growing safflower now, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Your research on this plant is deep and appreciated. The poetry is amazing. I was especially taken by Man’yōshū, Book XVII, poem 4021, as well as the two haiku by Basho. Such striking imagery and emotions. Exceptional article as always, Mark. Thanks for introducing me to the Man’yōshū and Kokinwakashū. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, I am glad that you enjoyed this one. Yes, the Man’yōshū was a great find. I can’t wait to spend more time learning about those book of waka. Thanks for the comment and I hope all is well!

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