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Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2007


Urajiro (Fern)

Dreaming of rice cakes, Folded with ferns, On my pillow of grass.

By Matsuo Basho (1644-94)

Among the traditional New Year's rice cakes and evergreen decorations in Japan, you will always find some ferns. But look a little closer, and you will find a wealth of meaning in those familiar leaves. Ferns are among the oldest plants on earth, having appeared at least 400 million years ago. These ancient plants do not reproduce via seeds: Instead they spread through either spores or rhizomes (roots). Urajiro (Gleichenia japonica), a fern with impressive leaves, spreads via its roots, sometimes forming great colonies of plants. In English, these colonies of tall ferns are generally known as "bracken." Ferns are adaptable plants, growing on poor, exposed soil as well as in shady woodland. Bracken helps to create soil from its fallen leaves, and it provides food and shelter for wildlife. People have also found a friend in bracken. The dry fronds make good bedding material for both man and beast, and they contain a natural insect repellent. In Japan, urajiro root is used to make starch, and the new shoots are among the wild sansai (mountain vegetables) that country people have long gathered for food. Last but not least, this fern has great symbolic value. Since the leaves are white on the underside they symbolize purity of heart. The silvery color also hints at the white hairs of a long life, and since the fronds are borne in pairs, they also represent a faithful couple growing old together. Finally, the many-branched leaves represent a happy family, prospering generation after generation. No wonder sprays of urajiro fern help us to mark the new year in Japan.

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