Photo/IllutrationTsubaki, right, in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, in 2017 and sazanka, left, in Kagoshima in 2007 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The "tsubaki" (camellia japonica), which cheers up desolate wintry gardens with its vivid red blossoms, is often mistaken for the "sazanka" (camellia sasanqua), which starts blooming in late autumn.

When I was a child, my grandmother taught me to tell them apart by how they die: It's a tsubaki if an intact blossom drops to the ground in one fell swoop, whereas a sazanka would shed its petals over time.

"The tsubaki and the sazanka are close relatives," explained Takahiro Aoki, 50, an adjunct professor at the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture. "Due to selective crossbreeding, they have come to share certain common characteristics, which can confuse even professional horticulturists."

At the museum, a special exhibition titled "Fuyu no Hana Sazanka" (Sazanka the winter flower) is on until Jan. 26.

I somehow associate the tsubaki with a woman in a kimono. But some people in the past were said to disdain the flower because the manner in which the blossoms dropped to the ground reminded them of decapitations by feudal samurai warriors.

However, both the tsubaki and the sazanka remained explosively popular throughout the Edo Period (1603-1867), and were as much favored as other garden plants such as azaleas and peonies.

The showy tsubaki was sometimes regarded as a symbol of luxury. Whenever a famine or popular uprising broke out and the feudal government resorted to austerity measures, the tsubaki took the hit. And during the war in the Pacific, tsubaki trees were felled by government orders.

After World War II, the tsubaki won the fancy of Americans and Australians, and regained its popularity in Japan.

Loved in times of peace and shunned in hard times, the tsubaki is a flower that mirrors the zeitgeist of each era.

Novelist Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) associated the tsubaki with an enchantress. In his 1906 work "Kusamakura" (Grass Pillow), the protagonist, an artist, argues to this effect: "(The tsubaki) lures its victim with a most sensual smile and injects poison into his blood vessels before he knows it. By the time he realizes he's been had, it's too late. The red of that flower is no ordinary red."

With my poor imagination, I have never thought of comparing the tsubaki to an enchantress. But I am certainly mesmerized by the air of dignified defiance with which it blooms in the cold.

It is certainly a flower that looks perfect in the frigid morning air.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 16

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.