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  • Cameron Allan Mckean

A flood of green, light blue, and smoky brown | Asagao 3

, 2015/09/17

Tokyo’s rivers used to flood almost every year and turn the low-lying areas of the city into a mud sea. Plants — weeds, wildflowers, succulents and trees — loved it (and the hot, humid summers that followed the rainy season). But the rash of flora that appeared in Tokyo during the late 19th century was more due to obsession than geography or weather. Seed hunters, such as Yamazaki Tomejiro, sought out rare varieties, and hunted the country for mutated flowers they could resell in Tokyo. Tomejiro is famous for spending roughly ¥1.3 million, in today’s currency, on seeds in Osaka. Finding that perfectly odd variation wasn’t easy. “They had to plant thousands with the hope of finding a single mutation,” says Amema. “It would be interesting to do, but there’s just not enough space in Tokyo to really do it.” Space is a main character in the story of the asagao (Japanese morning glory). The flower’s past is closely tied to Tokyo’s rapid development, to World War II and to urban migration. Amema shows us his garden and the asagao seedlings he has been growing on his second-floor balcony garden. A collection of small pots with young seedlings are resting on top of wooden planks, held up by plastic bottle crates. “I’m 77, but I’ve liked asagao since I was a kid,” he says, looking over one of his seedlings with a magnifying glass. He grew up in Mukoujima the part of Japan where asagao-fever took hold strongest in the 1800s. Between 1804-1829, it was mostly the elite who experimented with growing henka asagao (changed asagao). Theirs was a fascination with creating never-before-seen colors (smoky greys and browns) and unknown shapes (like whirlpools, claws, needles and blizzards). It was a game of flowers, payed by samurai and priests. But during the second boom, between 1848-1860, everything changed. Merchants, commoners and farmers all tried their hand at growing the flowers. But then tastes changed again in the big city. Amema searches his bookshelf and soon the coffee table we are crowding around is filled with overlapping pages showing various flower strains. “At first they were making very unusual shapes and colours,” he says, pointing to a book of illustrations of henka asagao. “Now they are trying to make the largest flowers, they made 12 or 13 cm and then got 18 cm, now they can do 25 cm pretty easily.” This is what the seedlings outside are for: growing the biggest, most beautiful flowers possible. It’s a continuation of the third asagao boom, which began in 1888. This was a period when an interest in growing mutant varieties was overtaken by the challenge of growing the largest possible flowers. “A lot of the created mutations have disappeared,” Amema says. He goes back to rummaging through his documents and shows us a flower he preserved — enormous, with soft-pink petals, now flattened like a photo. “I stick to the big ones,” he says.

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Iriya
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Tokyo
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