Mystery of Colours
'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, April 2015
Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado
English Translation: Asia Club, WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko)
Edible flowers have come to be widely used recently, and fashionable restaurants provide menus with such flowers in different colors. However, people have been eating flowers from old times and worldwide. Japanese have had a custom of eating nanohana (rape blossoms), butterbur scapes, sakura (cherry blossoms), noble orchids and chrysanthemum flowers since Edo period. Their buds or petals are commonly deep fried as tempura, vinegared or dressed with sauce. Cherry blossoms are particularly beautiful and have sweet smell. We enjoy a touch of spring by using cherry blossoms in various cooking, and western and Japanese sweets, too. Sakura-yu is a drink you can make just by pouring hot water over salted cherry blossoms.
It is said that flowers have medicinal effects. Maybe due to it, a sashimi plate is often served with a small, yellow chrysanthemum flower on it. I used to believe it to be a dandelion for a long time since I returned from England, where people eat dandelion leaves in salad. I somehow explained to myself that Japanese eat flowers as well. Partly because the topic did not come up in conversation for long, I haven’t noticed my misunderstanding of the flower nearly for ten years.
To humans, flowers taste none but slightly bitter. However, in early spring, when tree branches are not yet covered with leaves, birds are sucking honey and pecking flowers and burgeons with gusto. Their beaks are yellow with pollens, which shows how codependent birds and flowers are on each other.
Since childhood, I used to suppose that birds are attracted by beautiful colors of flowers. Later I learned that birds’ color vision is different from humans’. While we are “trichromatic”, having three independent vision receptors to identify three basic colors of red, green and blue, by different wavelengths, birds are “tetrachromatic”, having the additional 4th receptor to perceive ultraviolet wavelength. The other day I saw an overseas TV program to show how colors are seen through birds’ eyes. Even in case of a species that seems to have no difference in color between male and female, the male had a bright blue cap, and patterns of various colors emerged on flowers that look single-colored to human eyes. Whenever I go out for photographing birds, I try to wear clothes which I think are indistinctive, but I’m afraid that they might see me clearly.
People perceive colors differently, depending on the backgrounds and local cultures where they live. Japan is a country blessed with variety of flora, light and water of all four seasons, and many of Japanese colors are named after plants. Sakura (cherry blossoms), yamabuki (kerria japonica), and moegi (sprout) are nicely named colors to symbolize spring. Now, the color called uguisu, the Japanese Bush Warbler, is not actually the color of the bird, but of the Japanese White-eye. I think the beautiful song of uguisu must have been associated with the prominent plumage of the Japanese White-eye, for both birds are heard and seen almost at the same time. What a great pleasure it is! The sunny and pleasant season has come again when we can watch birds, ruminating on the mystery of colors.