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Wednesday, June 6, 2007


Nemunoki (Silk tree)

Flowering when the sun is up, Sleeping at night as after love, Should your lady gaze on it alone? I send this silk tree to him, That my slave may see it too.

Eighth-century love poem by Lady Ki, from the "Manyoshu" collection. Translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite in "Japanese Verse" (Penguin).

This graceful flowering tree, known botanically as Albizia julibrissin, has several unusual points. In the evening, it slowly folds up its feathery leaves, and this has earned it the Japanese name of nemunoki, meaning "sleepy tree." The leaves will also close up if an animal or human brushes roughly against them. The "silk" of the English name describes the flowers, which resemble fine powder puffs. If you look closely, you will see that what appears to be a single flower is actually a cluster of tiny ones, and that the silky threads are long stamens. They are white at the base and pink at the tips. At the base you will find tiny pistils, but no petals. The tree is native to an extensive swath of Asia, from Iran to China. It needs plenty of light and can reach to about 10 meters in height. A fully grown tree, covered in flowers, is a beautiful sight. Last summer I was surprised to find a lovely silk tree flowering in England, in the botanical gardens of Cambridge University. It had been raining, but when the sun came out the tree sparkled with raindrops, and the sweet fragrance of the flowers mingled with the fragrance of the earth.

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