The garden with its little gate of green,
Invites you to enter, and view mysteries unseen,
Its vine laden bowers and overhanging trees,
The air filled with sweetness, the hum of the bees,
The flagged walks with Iris galore,
Of most beautiful coloring, unknown before,
Pink, white, purple, yellow, azure blue,
Mixed and mingled of every hue,
You come away wondering, can more beauty be seen
Than in the garden with its little gate of green.
— from the Green Gate Gardens catalog, 1931
Reverence and love for the iris flower is not limited only to the European traditions. In Japan, where there is at least one flower festival every month, the iris has its own important celebrations.
The month of May particularly features the celebration of the tall-stemmed Japanese iris. The Japanese iris, the most ceremonial of which is called shobu, has long, narrow leaves resembling the sharp blades of a sword. So it is a symbol for masculine power. Thus, its celebration coincides with Boy’s Day, on May 5.
When I was in elementary school, we lived for several years on the island of Okinawa. Each year in May, the Okinawans (like all the other Japanese) would celebrate Boy’s Day, the supposed equivalent of Doll’s Day, which was to honor the girl children (but which, in the view of a certain very opinionated third-grader, was not remotely as much fun).
Actually, after WWII, Japan declared that Boy’s Day and Doll’s (girl’s) Day would be combined into one national holiday, called Children’s Day. It is intended to be a day to celebrate the health and happiness of all children. But many people still see it as Boys’ Festival. After all, the date remains May 5 and it still is really very much a celebration of the male children. It features koinobori, colorful carp fish streamers that are hung outside every home, representing good fortune. One is flown for each son in the household.
Originally celebrated in the houses of warriors, the ritual elements of Boy’s Day are apparent in its alternative name of Shobu-no-sekku or Feast of the Iris, which involves ritual displays of the shobu iris as a protector. The iris is closely associated with male power and potency and this festival is tied to the purifying and fertility rites of Spring.
Hobu-uchi or “iris-combat” teams, armed only with bunches of iris, would engage in mock battles. These included ritually beating the irises into the earth to drive out bad spirits, thus revealing the power of the iris as a magical tool.
It has long been a custom to hang bunches of wild iris under the eaves of the house to ward off evil spirits and to prevent misfortune coming to the home. Sometimes beds of it are planted on the thatched roofs of the village cottages to protect against pestilence and even fire.
Other customs that have persisted well into modern times include stuffing pillows with iris leaves, bathing in water scented with iris petals, the eating of chimaki dango (wisdom dumplings) wrapped in iris leaves, drinking iris tea on Boy’s Day and the prominence of iris arrangements in Boy’s Day displays.
And we see the power of the iris by its symbolic meaning in the ornamentation of kimonos and robes. While peonies are symbols of feminine beauty and sexuality, the iris represents masculine fertility and success.
The iris festivals continue into early June throughout Japan. During these celebrations, literally millions of blooms are on display in parks and gardens, with an estimated minimum of 500 distinct varieties.