In ancient times Japan had no calendar, and farmers relied on seasonal changes in nature to guide them in growing rice. At the end of winter, the appearance of the cherry blossom marked the end of the hunting season, and the beginning of the rice growing season. In late spring, the iris bloom announced the beginning of the rainy season, when the rice would be transplanted to the fields. Over time, these wild irises were transplanted into Japanese gardens, and have been cultivated in Japan for over 500 years. During the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868) there was a renaissance of iris cultivation, when many years of peace allowed the art and science of botany and horticulture to flourish. In the beginning of Edo Period, when the ruling class of shoguns and daimyos built their castles and mansions, they created many excursion-style gardens, in which people could walk around the garden. The iris or Hanashobu was, and still is, a common flower to see in Japanese gardens as it can be grown in water (ponds or marshes), it’s blooming period in May and its simple and refined beauty.
This simple, elegant flower is of high importance in Japanese culture, and has attached to it much symbolic meaning. The iris flower was thought to ward off evil spirits, and is a symbol of masculine success. It’s long, narrow blades of the leaves resemble the sharp blades of the sword, and for many centuries it has been a custom to place iris leaves in a boy’s bath to give him a “martial” spirit. The iris is associated with Boy’s Day (Tango-no-Sekku), also called the Iris Festival, which is a day where families honor their ambitions for their male children (this was changed to be called Children’s Day in 1948. Additionally, the iris was used for medicinal purposes such as detoxification, stomach medicine and to improve blood circulation. These elegant 19th century hand-colored woodblock prints of irises portray a variety of colors, and are each numbered with a manuscript title.