The Tokugawa Shogunate may have been crumbling, and Commodore Perry’s “Black Ships” may have been tearing aside the veil behind which Japan hid from the world for more than 200 years . . . but the commoners of eastern Edo were preoccupied with other matters: A craze for potted plants was sweeping the shitamachi quarter in the middle of the 19th century. Even more surprising in this final great flowering of Edo popular culture, it was the humble asagao (morning glory; Ipomoea purpurea) that captured people’s imagination the most.
Now thought of merely as a hardy vine that climbs roof-high in summer, bearing simple, bluish-purple trumpet-shaped flowers that close before noon, the asagao was originally brought from China in the eighth century. Then, for close on a millennium, it was primarily grown for its black seeds, harvested for medicinal use as a laxative and diuretic.
Traded at a high price, the seeds had put the flower in the shade, even after potted plants first became popular among the common folk of Edo and Osaka who, for want of gardens, began keeping them on sidewalks and steps in great numbers during the 18th century.
Seeds of a sensation
Asagao were ideal plants for the poor, easy to grow from seeds and to dispose of after the season. They also provided a source of income for low-class samurai, many of whom lived in Okachimachi (literally, “foot-soldiers’ town”) in northeastern Edo and as a side job grew the plants to sell to their commoner neighbors.
A nurseryman by the name of Ichibe’e, who lived in Okachimachi at the turn of the 19th century, is known to have begun hybridizing asagao, probably starting with naturally occurring mutations. Word spread fast in the densely populated shitamachi, and in no time a fad started that fast became a boom, with thousands of people growing asagao for the delight of developing rare varieties.
Something that has to be seen to be believed, these henka asagao (changed asagao) — though not yet a 21st-century craze — are now again slowly but steadily gaining a growing number of fans enthralled, as those Edo folk were, by their latent ability to change in seemingly endless ways.
Quite distinct from the standard asagao, a henka asagao’s blossoms may resemble a bell flower, lily, iris, pink, carnation, orchid or peony, and be either single or double. Some bizarre examples have a tube protruding from the center of the chalice, with stringlike petals bursting upward or dangling down — sometimes with “balloons” hanging from the ends. The colors, too, range from red and pink, to blue, purple, yellow or white, many in breathtakingly deep tints — and with some flowers striped, speckled, mottled or bordered. Even smoky colors such as gray, grayish purple and brown may emerge from the Edo Period hybrids we’ve inherited.
The leaves as well may be vastly altered from the original three-lobed form to five- or six-lobed; they may be crumpled, swirled like a whirlpool, curled like the claws of a dragon or linear like needles.
The creation of the Edo Period’s final floral fantasy was a labor of love soon pursued across all classes of society. It had the aspect of a horticultural game, too, led by samurai dilettantes, priests, physicians and poets, who had accumulated knowledge and skills in gardening. Nurserymen, always eager to please their capricious customers, invested generously in the development of new hybrids.
Asagao flower shows were popular midsummer events, inviting extensive public participation on a competitive basis. Prizewinning flowers were ranked in a fashion like that used in sumo. The beauty of the very best blooms was immortalized in woodblock prints by master artisans.
Two of the period’s most prominent asagao aficionados left their names in the competition records and best-flower catalogs: Lord Nabeshima Naotaka and Yamazaki Tomejiro. The pair — despite the wide gap in their social status — were friendly rivals and collaborated, too.
Nabeshima (1809-60) was a hatamoto, a direct retainer of the shogun, who was the city magistrate from 1843-48 with broad responsibilities as chief of police, judge and mayor. An old map of Edo shows the spacious Nabeshima residence in Iidabashi in present-day Chiyoda Ward, occupying a 2,950 tsubo plot (an area on which 100 salaried-workers’ homes might now stand), with a beautifully landscaped garden and a large pond fed by a stream. In the world of the art of asagao, he was known by the “nom de bloom” Kyoyo-kan.
A fortune in flower
Yamazaki (1811-91) was a nurseryman in Iriya in present-day Taito Ward (where Kishimojin Temple is to this day the center of a major morning-glory fair). An enthusiastic fan of kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro, Yamazaki borrowed the kabuki actor’s house name, Narita-ya, for his business.
An anecdote attesting to his entrepreneurship tells of Narita-ya going to Osaka to buy good seeds. His first purchase, though, was lackluster — producing only ordinary flowers. The next season he went again and found a garden full of rare varieties in bloom. When he offered to buy seeds of all the varieties from this garden, the owner asked for 60 ryo in gold coins (990 grams of gold, now worth around 1.3 million yen), which Narita-ya managed to bargain down to 30 ryo — still an extravagant price by any measure. Nonetheless, after earning a handsome profit from his purchase, Narita-ya then continued to visit the same gardener in order to feed the public’s hunger for mutant morning glories.
Another anecdote tells how he also tried to preserve the ephemeral asagao flowers for viewing by as many customers as possible. His solution was a custom-made, portable chest of drawers, filled with clear seaweed jelly in which fresh, jewel-like blooms were set to last for several days.
The henka-asagao craze reached its zenith in the last decades of the Edo Period (1603-1867), then died out during the turbulent transitional period following the 1868 Meiji Restoration. When it was revived at the turn of the 20th century, the vogue shifted from fantastic variations to large-size trumpets, though a small group of aficionados kept growing Edo-Period asagao, forming clubs in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, with branches in the countryside.
However, in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and then the bombing raids of World War II, most of the precious seeds were lost. In fact, it is only the seeds scattered in the hands of the rural club members that have made possible the postwar revival of henasagao cultivation, first for academic research.
To begin with, the National Institute of Genetics in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, grew the plants for a while, before donating seeds to the University of Kyushu under the care of biology professor Eiji Nitasaka.
Separately from this, Yoshitaka Watanabe, a high-school teacher from Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, had an accidental encounter with Edo-Period asagao in 1965. While browsing at an antique book store, he happened to see irresistibly beautiful asagao in delicate old woodblock prints — as well as seeds in packets dated 1902. Though skeptical that these old seeds would be able to sprout, he planted them and was amazed to find they produced flowers in several rare varieties.
His obsession with asagao thus begun, Watanabe has since amassed an extensive collection of prints and writings on this unique culture, and now that he is retired he grows several hundred pots of henka asagao every year to keep the floral legacy of Edo alive.