We have entered the micro-season of “The Common Self-Heal Sprouts”. This is the first micro-season of the mini-season Winter Solstice. All the micro-seasons within Winter Solstice are:
- The Common Self-Heal Sprouts (Dec 22 – Dec 26)
- The Elk Sheds its Horns (Dec 27 – Dec 31)
- Beneath the Snow the Wheat Sprouts (Jan 01 – Jan 05)
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.
To celebrate this season, we will learn about the common self-heal, research Japan’s winter weather, and read some seasonal haiku by Reichhold, Basho, Issa, Buson, and Greves.
The Common Self-Heal
The common self-heal is a plant with many names. In Japanese, it is called utsubogusa and the kanji characters for utsubogusas (靫草) roughly translate to grasses and quiver. Common-self heal may also be called natsukarekusa or summer-withered grass due to the fact that it dries up in June. The micro-season of “The Common Self-Heal Dries Out”, which runs approximately from June 21 through June 25, marks the end of the common self-heal’s seasonal growth.(1,2)
The scientific name for common self-heal is Prunella vulgaris. The common self-heal is a herbaceous, edible plant, that is part of the mint family. Some other names given to Prunella vulgaris are heal-all, woundwort, heart-of-the-earth, carpenter’s herb, brownwort, or blue curls.(3)
Like other plants in the mint family, the self-heal has toothed leaves that grow opposite of each other on a square stem. These leaves are either egg-shaped or lanced-shaped. The flowers of the self-heal can be violet or purple, and they grow around spikes, or heads, with overlapping bracts. A bract is a “modified, usually small, leaflike structure often positioned beneath a flower.(4) Bracts can sometimes be confused with flower petals because of their proximity to the central flower.
The common self-heal grows in fields, gardens, pastures, and along roadsides. The wild versions of the common self-heal may grow to heights of two feet.(5)
Can The Common Self-Heal Really Grow in December?
As I look out my window at the snow, the idea of anything sprouting seems impossible. However, as we know, the 72-season calendar was explicitly created for Japan, and Japan’s winter climate can be very different from that of the northern United States.
While Japan’s northern prefectures will have temperatures that dip below freezing and have snow. Southern locations like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, average about 47 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius) and get about 4 inches of rain. What this means is that in southern Japan the winters are much milder that the winters in the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere. This makes it possible to have new plant growth in winter.
In 1685, when the 72-season calendar was adapted to its current form, Heian-kyō, the city now known as Kyoto, was the seat of power.(6) This means that Shibukawa Shunkai, who was the court astronomer at that time, probably would have lived in southern Japan. I can imagine Skunkai walking around Kyoto and noticing the small green sprouts of self-heal against the brown backdrop of winter fields and thinking that this event was unique enough to make it into the calendar.
Winter Plants in Haiku
When thinking about seasonal plant worlds for haiku, the World Kigo Database tells us “Many plants have their main entry in a different season and when mentioned in winter, this has to be added explicitly.” However, terms such as “fallen leaves” or “withered plants’ are considered winter plant kigo. A few other winter season plant terms include “Christmas rose”, “leaf peony”, and “decorative cabbage.”
If we expand our search for seasonal words a little further, we can access William J. Higginson and Kris Young Kondo’s “The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words”. Some winter plant kigo from this resource are:
Jane Reichold’s A Dictionary of Haiku Classified by Season Words with Traditional and Modern Methods has been described as an American saijik. A sajiki is “an almanac of seasonal topics and season words used in haiku and linked-poetry composition.”(7) A few examples from Reichhold’s winter plant list are:
With all this in mind, let’s read some winter plant-themed haiku.
bright red leaves held so high by a winter stem poinsettia
frost spikes the growing cold of withered leaves
autumn passes-- the crooked shape of field turnips (translated by David G. Lanoue)
cedars are tall in my hometown... first winter rain (translated by David G. Lanoue)
so bright and orange - late persimmons to share with the crows (retrieved from “Haiku and Happiness”)
when the winter chrysanthemums go, there’s nothing to write about but radishes. (translated by Robert Hass)
The winter leeks Have been washed white – How cold it is! (translated by Robert Hass)
I break off a branch of holly as carefully as I pray with Buddhist prayer beads (retrieved from Yosa Buson: Winter Haiku)
blow of an ax, pine scent, the winter woods. (translated by Robert Hass)
A Haiku Invitation
This week’s haiku invitation is to write a haiku or senryu that references plants in winter. Your haiku could reference what is growing outside or what has been brought inside.
Share your haiku in the comments below, or post on your own page and link back to this post. I can’t wait to read what you write!
- 72 Season App
- “靫草”; Japanese Dictionary
- “Prunella vulgaris”: Wikipedia
- “Bract”; Britannica
- “Prunella vulgaris”: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
- “Heian-kyō”; Wikipedia
- Higginson, William J. and Kondo, Kris Young; “The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words”.
- Reichhold, Jane; A Dictionary of Haiku Classified by Season Words with Traditional and Modern Methods
Jane Reichhold’s haiku were retrieved from A Dictionary of Haiku Classified by Season Words with Traditional and Modern Methods . Issa’s haiku were retrieved from David G. Lanoue’s Haiku Guy. Dr. Gabi Greeve’s haiku was retrieved from Haiku and Happiness. Basho’s haiku were retrieved from “Winter Haiku Collection”. Buson’s haiku was retrieved from “Yosa Buson: Winter Haiku” and “Winter Haiku Collection”.