I have lived in Japan for almost a decade. Every fall I see in flower shops the most unusual and fantastic plant, and I would like to finally know what the heck it is. It is sold as cut branches that are laden with a totally implausible fruit in the brightest of yellows. To be honest, those fruits look like the breasts of a cow. I have never seen this plant in any other country, yet it is hard to imagine something so flashy being native to Japan.
Yves L., Saitama Prefecture
That is Solanum mammosum, a member of the nightshade family and a relative of the tomato and potato. Although it's sold widely in Japan from September to November, it's actually a native of South America, where it grows as a perennial shrub. It is now grown commercially in Japan, but because of our cooler climate it's strictly an ichinensei shokubutsu (annual plant) here. The fruit is poisonous and the stems are prickly, but growers usually remove the leaves and thorns before they ship the branches to market.
Now let's talk about common names. I'll leave you to speculate why this might be, but whoever came up with the Japanese names ignored the obvious. I mean, even the taxonomist who assigned the Latin name had boobs on the brain. But in Japan, breast imagery was bypassed in favor of...eggplants. Here, the plant is known as tsunonasu (horned eggplant), kanariyanasu (canary eggplant) and kitsunenasu (fox eggplant). This last one is because if you look just right at the protuberances on the fruit, they resemble the pointy nose and ears of a fox.
By the way, that likeness inspired another name — fokkusu feisu — which, because it's written in katakana and includes the English words "fox" and "face," would seem to have been borrowed from abroad. But the plant isn't called fox face anywhere outside Japan; this is purely wasei eigo (made-in-Japan English).
So what are the common names in English? Some texts refer to this plant as Apple of Sodom, and in the West Indies it's called Zombie Apple. But the most common monikers all milk the mammary angle: there's Cow's Udder and Nipple Fruit and the very earthy Titty Fruit. I'll go with Nipple Fruit since it seems to be the most broadly used.
That was about all I could learn online, so I knew it was time to find someone abreast of the cut-flower market. I headed out to the Ota Wholesale Market in Tokyo to interview Tatsuya Tokoro, a senior adviser in sales with Ota Floriculture Auction Co., the largest floral wholesaler in Japan. Tokoro told me that Nipple Fruit comes to market around the beginning of September, when floral designers are looking for mimono (fruiting branches) for autumn arrangements. It continues to ship through early November, and is prized for its color and the strong architectural quality it brings to large flower arrangements.
The plant was first imported to Japan in 1935 for research purposes, but it wasn't cultivated until the late 1950s or early '60s.
"The first growers were in Tateyama, a town on the southern tip of the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture," Tokoro explained. "Larger-scale production began in nearby Kamogawa around 1969, when the government offered subsidies to farmers to move out of rice production and into other crops."
The greatest concentration of growers is still in Chiba, but the plant is also grown commercially in other parts of the country, including Ibaraki and Okayama prefectures.
It's not every day I get to sit down with a 33-year veteran of the floral industry, so I asked Tokoro to tell me more. He explained that the Boso Peninsula is now one of the most important flower-growing areas in Japan, but that's only a postwar development. "Although there's a very long history of flower appreciation in Japan, people used to have easier access to nature and gardens, so there wasn't much need for commercial flower cultivation," he said. "And during the war, farmers were actually prohibited from growing ornamentals so they'd put their full effort into food production."
Tokoro told me that the two most important months for flower sales in Japan are March and December.
"In March, you have school graduation ceremonies, which creates a lot of demand for flower arrangements," he said. "It is also when company employees are most likely to be transferred, and it's common to send someone off to a new job with a big bouquet of flowers."
The spike in demand in December is for Christmas, which has become big business in Japan, followed by New Year's. "December is a very interesting month in the flower business because you see products that aren't available any other time of the year, including the pine branches and plum flowers used for New Year's decorations," he said.
Last year, the average expenditure on cut flowers in Japan was ¥10,113 per household, according to the Japanese government's annual Family Income and Expenditure Survey (the Kakei Chōsa). The biggest buyers of cut flowers are in and around Osaka, where average annual expenditure in 2010 was ¥16,741, followed by the regional cities of Takamatsu (¥13,854) and Sendai (¥13,826). In Tokyo, purchases for home use are lower than some other cities, but it's still the biggest market because of heavy purchasing by hotels, restaurants, weddings halls and funeral providers.
Like you, I've never seen Nipple Fruit outside of Japan, but I'm going to keep an eye open the next time I travel elsewhere in Asia. It turns out the plant is popular in Chinese-speaking countries, where it's known by a whole host of names, including wu dai tong tang, meaning "Five Generations Living Harmoniously Under One Roof." It's a favorite for making New Year's trees for the Chinese New Year, which next year falls on Jan. 23.