A Winter Friend, the Sazanka (山茶花)

Flower watching is an event like no other here in Japan.

Every spring especially, the country goes crazy for the light pink cherry blossoms that grace so many of its streets, parks, and hillsides; so much so that office workers sometimes get off early once a year to go prepare picnic blankets beneath the biggest, fullest, pinkest trees.

Entire industries are built around the cherry blossom.

But I might just be more in love with a flower that blooms at the most unlikely time, half a year away from the cherry blossom.

Winter blooming sazanka shrubs (trained to grow as trees) in Osaka, Japan | photo, P.M. Lydon

Winter blooming sazanka shrubs (trained to grow as trees) in Osaka, Japan | photo, P.M. Lydon

Here in Osaka, around winter solstice, when the light is at its shortest and weakest, the Sazanka flower can be seen, celebrating alone while the rest of the landscape rests in dreary browns and pale greens.

A flower that seems to revel in the dull winter’s light, if the Sazanka were somehow shown a full spring or summer sunlight, I am convinced it would pale in comparison to how it magically radiates on this cloudy, windy, wet, winter morning.

The Sazanka celebrates the clouds.

The Sazanka helps me celebrate the clouds.

Winter blooming sazanka shrubs (trained to grow as trees) in Osaka, Japan | photo, P.M. Lydon

Winter blooming sazanka shrubs (trained to grow as trees) in Osaka, Japan | photo, P.M. Lydon

Yet as visually proclamatory as the Sazanka is, it’s more often that you’ll smell a group of these shrubs before you can see them. The pungent, earthy, sweet scent will meet you hundreds of yards away, offering an enchanting relief to the wet and weary winter nostrils.

Every time that scent meets me, I can’t help but stop and search for my winter friend, and when I spot the deepest pink petals, popping about in a bush of glossy green leaves, again I can’t help but say hello, and thank you.

Winter blooming sazanka shrubs (trained to grow as trees) in Osaka, Japan | photo, P.M. Lydon

Winter blooming sazanka shrubs (trained to grow as trees) in Osaka, Japan | photo, P.M. Lydon

Sazanka, my friend, thank you for bringing your color, scent, and a smile to my winter. Thank you for putting such immense energy into a warm and magic display of nature’s brilliance.

And all while your friends are fast asleep!

— Suminoe Park, Osaka, Japan

Footnote:

The Sazanka (山茶花) is a species of tree technically classified as a Camellia and known as “Sasanqua Camellia” in English, though the Japanese don’t typically acknowledge it as a Camellia. It is believed to be native to China and Japan, where it grows wild in the mountains. The characters that make up its name translate to mountain (山) tea(茶) flower(花).

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