The neighborhood was a poor one, chiefly of small houses. Some were leaning precariously and there were “evening faces” at the sagging eaves.
“A hapless sort of flower,” said Genji. “Pick one off for me, would you?”
The man went inside the raised gate and broke off a flower. A pretty girl came out through a sliding door that seemed too good for the surroundings. Beckoning to the man she handed him a heavily scented white fan.
“Put it on this. It isn’t much of a fan, but then it isn’t much of a flower either.”
Lady Murasaki chose this humble, night-blooming flower to evoke one of her most elusive female characters. Yugao, or “evening faces,” are the sort of flowers one might not notice among their lush foliage, but on closer inspection they prove quite attractive. The white petals are crinkled, with greenish veins, and the flowers on the main stem are different from the ones on the side branches. This is because the former are male flowers, which produce pollen, and the second are female flowers, which produce the gourds. Lagenaria siceraria is an important member of the Cucurbita, or gourd, family of plants that also includes the melon, cucumber and pumpkin. It may be native to South America, but its origins are still a mystery. Its seeds may have crossed the Pacific Ocean on tidal currents, or they might have been carried by early Polynesian voyagers. Either way, the plants have been grown in Asia for a very long time. When young, the gourds can be cooked and eaten, and, when dried, the hard shells make excellent bottles and containers. In China, the gourds were sometimes grown in special molds for making into cages for pet crickets: Apparently the empty gourd’s acoustic qualities enhance the insects’ songs. In Japan, the gourds are made into dried strips called kampyo that are used in sushi dishes and as edible “string” for tying together little packages of food.