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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Biyoyanagi

美容柳

Hypericum chinense, or 'biyoyanagi' I found this beautiful flower growing by the roadside outside Tokyo University’s Institute of Solid State Physics in Kashiwa City in Chiba prefecture, north-east of Tokyo.

It is the diaphanous yellow biyoyanagi, scientific name Hypericum chinense (but also known as Hypericum monogynum and Hypericum salicifolium). It is closely related to Hypericum perforatum, or St John’s Wort.

It is an evergreen shrub growing to about 70cm (c. 28 in) tall, is in leaf all year, and blooms during June in Japan. The flowers are hermaphrodite (i.e., with both male and female organs)

The name biyoyanagi, roughly translated, means ‘beautiful willow’, and is a phrase found in a poem of the classic Chinese poet Po-Chu-i (772-846), who is known in Japan as Hakurakuten or Hakuyoi. Po-Chu-i had a huge influence on literature in Japan, and his poem ‘Chokonka’ (‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’) tells the story of Yang Kwei-fei (Yokihi in Japanese) the beautiful concubine of the last T’ang emperor Hsuan Tsung (713-756) whose beauty was such that he contrived to free her from her marriage to his son and take her as his concubine, from then on letting things of state fall to rack and ruin in his blind devotion to her. The word ‘willow’ appears often in the poem to describe Yang Kwei-fei’s beauty, such as ‘A flower petal was her face, a willow leaf her eyebrow’.

The emperor’s negligence led to a rebellion, whereby he was forced to have Yang Kwei-fei strangled as part of his punishment. He later rued having done so, and sought to contact her via a Taoist priest in the underworld. According to legend, the priest brought back half of a golden comb that she had used while alive, which I can imagine also being related to the flower.

After Yang Kwei-fei death’s the distraught emperor is said to have had her immortalized in a statue of the Kannon Buddha. It was brought to Japan by the priest Tankai in 1255 to Sennyuji Temple in Kyoto. It is now known as the Yokihi Kannon and can be seen in the temple's Kannon-Do (Buddha Hall).

Incidentally, being related to St. John’s Wort, well known for its medicinal qualities vis-à-vis nervous disorders, apparently the biyouyanagi also has some medicinal value. It was the subject of a study in 1995 by Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Tokushima in Japan, which found that the extract from the plant showed significant activity against HIV and inhibited cytokine production.

Keywords

Japan flora St. John's Wort Tokyo

Books on Japanese Nature

Images of Japan

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