Surprising flower extravaganzas of fall

Flowers that look small and humble by themselves, but are spectacular and mighty in great numbers

When I started thinking about what’s so special about September in Japan, the first things that came to mind were three obscure flowers that are nobody’s favorite. By themselves, they’re utterly small and forgettable. You might even be a little insulted to receive a bouquet of them on your birthday. But when they come together in great numbers—especially they way they do in Japan—they achieve an impressive grandiosity that rivals far more famous displays of beauty.

Bush clover blooming at Mukojima Hyakka-en
The first of these floral nondescripts is called “bush clover,” and it’s one of the “seven flowers of autumn” beloved by haiku poets and kimono designers. But even though I tried to make it look more exciting by recruiting a few sunbeams to tart it up, you can see that the flowers are pretty small and un-heroic, and the bushes are, frankly, shapeless heaps.
Bush clover tunnel at Mukojima Hyakka-en
Unless, of course, they’re trained into a bush clover tunnel! This one at Mukōjima Botanical Garden is one of the many that are lovingly planted all over Japan every summer, but don’t come into their full blooming glory until September.
Bush clover tunnel at Mukojima Hyakka-en
When the unremarkable bush clover is coaxed into completely covering a bamboo framework by the time temperatures soar…
Bush clover tunnel at Mukojima Hyakka-en
…walking into one is nothing short of entering a cool, flowery fairyland. The Japanese have been planting these for centuries, because when it’s hot and humid outside, strolling through a tunnel of bush clover is pure magic.

The next ho-hum bloom is also a traditional Japanese flower, and this one is famous for appearing for only a few days around the autumnal equinox.

Higanbana red spider lilies amaryllis blooming at Korakuen garden in Tokyo
The native amaryllis known as higanbana looks a little more exciting than bush clover—at least they’re red—but getting a bouquet of these might make you question what the person giving them is really trying to say, because the other thing they’re famous for is growing around graveyards. Their bulbs are toxic to rodents, so in rural areas (warning: creepy fact alert!) they were planted around the edges of cemeteries to, uh, keep unwanted marauders out. Which, coupled with their odd appearance, doesn’t add to their appeal.

But look what happens when a lot of them bloom together!

Higanbana red spider lilies amaryllis blooming at Koma, Japan
This stretch along the river near Koma becomes an enchanted forest for a few days every September, when millions of higanbana bloom all at once
Higanbana red spider lilies amaryllis blooming at Koma, Japan
Imagine how great you would feel, walking through these fields! And they go on for KILOMETERS. There were lots of people there on the day I was there, but see how uncrowded it looks? It’s THAT BIG. Alone, these spidery lilies are a little weird. But together? Breathtaking.

And finally…

Purple cosmos blooming at Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa
Cosmos. If cosmos isn’t the weediest of all supermarket flowers, I don’t know what is. I mean honestly, can you even picture a vase of these that doesn’t already have sad petals dropped onto the table around it?
Purple cosmos blooming at Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa
But look how amazing they are, all blooming at once on a hillside!
Purple cosmos blooming at Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa
In Japan, there are places like Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa, where they plant acres of cosmos, as far as the eye can see
Yellow cosmos blooming at Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa
Walking through shoulder-high cosmos bushes on a sunny fall day is one of the happiest feelings there is.

And as I was thinking about these humble flowers that achieve greatness in numbers, I couldn’t help but feel both sad and hopeful for us humans too. In Japan, lots and lots of ordinary people working together managed to turn a war-torn third world country into one of the richest nations on earth, and fend off a pandemic that has claimed far greater casualties elsewhere. If we could forget for just a moment that alone we might be toxic to rodents and dropping our petals, but together we could burst into glorious bloom, we too could make the world a better and more beautiful place for all.

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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