ASIA ETHNOBOTANY FOOD ANTHROPOLOGY

Seven Spring Herbs

8th January 2019

On the seventh of January, the Japanese celebrate a special holiday, nanakusa-no-sekku 七草の節 (The Festival of Spring Herbs), which marks the end of the New Year festivities. Nowadays, most Japanese people buy these plants in the supermarket only once a year, but until quite recently these wild weeds were collected throughout the winter and spring on an everyday basis. The tradition originally concerned the seventh day of the lunar year but was moved to the seventh day of the European calendar, which means that in some areas in the North it may be more difficult to collect these species for the Festival. However, most of Japan has quite a mild climate and some weeds can still be found in the fields in winter, only temporarily covered by snow.

Haru no nanakusa is served as a simple rice gruel with boiled herbs (nanakusa-gayu). The number seven is very important to the Japanese and has magical connotations. Usually the following plants are mixed in nanakusa:

  1. seri 芹 (せり) (Asian dropwort Oenanthe javanica ssp. stolonifera) – beware that the European dropwort O.croccata is extremely poisonous, whereas its Asian counterpart can be eaten)
  2. nazuna 薺 (なずな) (shepherd’s purse Capsella bursa-pastoris) – a common weed throughout Eurasia
  3. gogyo 御形 (ごぎょう) (jersey cudweed Gnaphalium affine)
  4. hakobera 繁縷 (はこべら) (common chickweed Stellaria media) – a common weed throughout Eurasia and beyond
  5. hotokenoza 仏の座 (ほとけのざ) (henbit dead-nettle Lamium amplexicaule)
  6. suzuna 菘 (すずな) (field mustard Brassica campestris ssp. rapa), now called kabu (蕪)
  7. suzushiro 蘿蔔 :(すずしろ) (radish Raphanus sativus var. hortensis), now called daikon (大根)

There may be deviations from this list in different parts of Japan, depending on local traditions and the plants’ availability. For example, mugwort Artemisia sp. can also be used. According to some sources, the custom came from China, but I could not trace it back properly.

On the morning of January the seventh or on the eve of this day, a spoon for eating rice and/or a wooden mortar are placed on a chopping board, indicating an auspicious direction, and a song with the words: „before birds from the Continent come to Japan, we are going to collect nanakusa” is sung. The herbs are chopped while chanting.  

This film shows hitting the weeds with seven kinds of tools:

And another film:

Shepherd’s purse is one of the most widely collected and eaten wild vegetables. It’s not always wild. It can easily be grown from seeds and cultivated like a normal vegetable. It’s especially popular in Shanghai, where you can easily buy ji cai hou dun dumplings. There’s also a beautiful legend to do with Shepherd’s purse that was what first brought me to China.

I was always fascinated by this country. When I was three, I tried to learn Chinese characters. Later, I became very interested in the Chinese art of Feng Shui. When temporarily living in Norwich, England, I rented a room to a Chinese student, who taught me Chinese. This made me regain my interest in this place and two years later, in 2005, I bought a flight to Beijing. However, my main destination was a suburb of the ancient city of Xi’an, a place called Hanyao. I had read about the Hanyao legend in a book called “Road to Heaven. Encounters with Chinese Hermits” by Bill Porter.

Here’s the legend: Wang Pao Ch’uan was the youngest daughter of a prime minister from the T’ang Dynasty. He wanted to marry her to a politically suitable man, but she kept refusing all of the candidates. Eventually, her father made all the men who wanted to ask for her hand gather together, and she was supposed to climb the Great Goose Pagoda and throw a ball of silk from it.

Great Goose Pagoda in Xi’an

The man who would catch the ball would become her fiancé. She saw a poor traveller, P’ing-kuei, standing in the crowd. She had met him the day before and threw the ball to him. But her father did not respect her choice and the young couple had to leave the palace. They were forced to settle in an empty cave in a loess cliff that was formerly used for making pots. Unfortunately, a war with Tanguts from the North broke out soon after they had settled there, and P’ing-kuei joined the army. One of the prime minister’s sons-in-law organized a trap and P’ing Kuei was captured and imprisoned by the enemy. In spite of receiving the news of her husband’s death, Pao Ch’uan faithfully waited for his return. P’ing Kuei came back 18 years later to find her collecting shepherd’s purse. She had been eating it all the time throughout those long 18 years. Now the place is a small Daoist temple, and inside it a wax figure cabinet which depicts the story. They are also meant to serve shepherd’s purse dumplings, though I couldn’t find any when I was there in September 2005.

The gate of Hanyao in 2005

A loess cliff in Hanyao, a very typical feature of central Shaanxi landscape
One of hermit huts in the cliff
A cleaning lady guided me around
This is where Wan Pao Ch’uan lived
A holy pine tree
Wan Pao Ch’uan and her husband
A Demon House from Hanyao
Another part of the Demon House story

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