Treasures of the library

Morning Glories and Edo Period Japan

Asagao in the Lisa Sainsbury Library

The English are world famous for their love of gardening. Perhaps less obvious is the horticultural enthusiasm of the Edo period Japanese, who were just as keen a gardener as the English. In fact, Japanese Edo period eras are often twinned with certain flowers and plants that became particularly fashionable during the period. For instance, camellia is associated with Kan’ei era, while azalea marked the Genroku era. Other examples include chrysanthemum of Seitoku, acer tree of Kyōhō, Ardisia crispa of Kansei, morning glory of Bunka-Bunsei, Japanese rhodea and pink of Tempō, and henka or ‘mutant’ morning glory of Kaei-Ansei eras. Such associations reflect the gardening fever experienced in many parts of Japan centered on Kyoto, Osaka and Edo during the 17th to 19th centuries. And it is thanks to books and other printed documents from the periods that help us understand the extent of this vernacular enthusiasm.

Nearly 70 morning glories are hand-illustrated

Amongst the surviving number of books on popular flowers, those concerning morning glories are particularly copious. Particularly noticeable are those depicting henkaor ‘mutant’ morning glories. Morning glories were originally introduced to Japan as a medicinal plant, laxative to be precise, some 1200 years ago. Their effective yet ephemeral blossoms, however, made the annual plant a popular ornamental container foliage. Their rise to stardom comes in late Edo period when morning glories suddenly experienced a mutation. The new generally non-seed-bearing mutant strands produced a range of spectacular and some most peculiar flowers (and indeed even curious vines and leaves). To capture the cacophony of strange mutant morning glories, records were made in copious amount compared to other botanical records by enthusiasts with many containing illustrations.

Some are given names according to their attributes.

Morning glories were so popular that they became a cultural sensation. The mania came in two ‘boom’ waves: First in Bunka-Bunsei period (1810-1830) and second in Kaei-Ansei period (1847-1861). In addition to a number of illustrated books being published, the morning glory boom manifested also in the form of ‘hana awase’ or flower competitions. Competitions took place at local temples and other communal and private spaces where growers exhibited their mutant henka morning glories. The displayed plants were ranked and the list was printed as a single sheet following the tradition of sumo wrestling’s banzuke ranking list. An example of the morning glory ranking banzuke print can be seen from the National Museum of Japanese History’s website:

banzuke print

Others are carefully illustrated
but without a name

The origin of both morning glory booms was Osaka. Osaka was first to publish several types of illustrated morning glory books during the Bunka-Bunsei boom. These in turn excited Edo horticulturally minded publishers to issue their own versions beginning with Asagao sō (1815) that was followed by similar examples.

The fad temporarily subsided as a result of the Ōshio Heihachirō rebellion in 1837 and the introduction of Tempō reform in 1841-1843. But the second boom era kicks off once again in Osaka in Kouka 2 (1848) when morning glory competition and illustrated book printing resume with full force. Edo gardener would travel to Osaka to buy henka morning glory seeds to plant the fashion in Edo. The Kaei-Ansei era boom saw a wider range of eccentric and dynamic variation of morning glories. One of the illustrated books that capture the vast types is Asagao sanjū-rokka sen (36 selection of morning glories) published in Kaei 7 (1854)(which some argue to be the most significant pictorial work of its type made in the Edo period). The book is available for view in digital format through the National Diet Library website:

Asagao sanjū-rokka sen

The book presents a wide range of henge or ‘mutant’ morning glories.

A good example in the Lisa Sainsbury Library is the book with a simple title strip containing characters to phonetically spell ‘asagao’. The book is in a traditional hanshi-bon size, which measures around 22 x 15.5 cm and is typical format of those made in the Edo period. Aside from the green woodblock printed border and cartouche, each page shows a particular type of morning glory drawn and painted by hand. Name of the illustrated morning glory is inscribed inside the cartouche, although some are presented without names. Curiously, except for the title of the book and names given to the blossoms, no other text appears in the book.

The book contains a good selection of eccentric and fantastic types of morning glories. Compared to the aforementioned ‘Asagao sanjū rokka sen(36 morning glory selection)’, however, the flowers presented in Lisa Sainsbury Library’s ‘Asagao’ are much tamer and suggests that the book was made inspired by the fashion seen during the Bunka-Bunsei era.

The desire to capture the ephemeral beauty of morning glory flowers can be explored through these brightly coloured images. While the trend to cultivate the plant is no longer a common practice in Japan today, the image of the glorious flower is firmly positioned in the Japanese cultural psyche as one that signifies the arrival of hot bright summer.


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Asagao zufu” o yomu : “Asakaho sō”. Kokuritsu Rekishi Minzoku Hakubutsukan, 2008

Hirano Akira
Librarian, Sainsbury Institute