At a store the other day a woman passed me and a whiff of her fragrance nearly knocked me away. It wasn’t the strength of it.
Far from it, it was the faintness of the scent that stopped me on the spot. The women had in her cart several pots of chrysanthemums of different kinds, all blooming.
I was trying to capture the elusive memory of a scent from far away.
Most chrysanthemums sold here are scentless, but on that day in that cart was a pot that had a good old-fashioned kiku growing in it. Kiku is chrysanthemum in Japanese, and in Japan, autumn is not autumn without kiku.
From late October to early November, many stores, temples, parks and gardens host kiku festivals, where gorgeous show-quality chrysanthemums are displayed. Some large flowers are more than 10 inches across.
Smaller chrysanthemums are trained over bamboo or wire structures to grow into fantastic shapes of Kabuki dancers or famous beauties.
For people who find these competition-driven events rather ostentatious, there are always quieter exhibitions of traditional Ikebana groups featuring in their artistic floral arrangements the flower of the season, kiku.
The kiku rises to the occasion after all the other garden flowers are gone and gives us the last flash of spectacular colors and fragrance in the darkening days.
The genus of chrysanthemum has a large group of about 160 species, including such familiar flowers as Shasta Daisy, Marguerite and Feverfew, among others.
The kind of chrysanthemum we see around us this time of the year has a botanical name, chrysanthemum morifolium, which has its own varieties in the number of a few hundreds. We call them all florists’ chrysanthemums or simply “mums.”
The intensive cultivation of many hundreds of years has given us mums with large flower heads, but without the fragrance of the original species.
Much of the chrysanthemum’s scent comes from its leaves.
The aromatic chrysanthemum balsamita, a small daisy native to Europe and central Asia, is grown for its sweet-smelling foliage, and used as a vegetable.
Be forewarned, however, there are many chrysanthemums whose leaves are bitter and unpleasantly scented.
The pungent pyrethrum (chrysanthemum coccineum) is used in insecticides.
Most pricey Japanese restaurants serve chrysanthemum leaves chosen for their lovely aroma, lightly fried in tempura dishes.
Seasonal food fanciers delight in finding golden petals of large mums blanched or pickled in salads, sushi and sometimes, in clear soups.
Floating a kiku blossom in a cupful of sake is considered a tasteful thing to do in the fall.
What better way is there to warm the body in the chill of the evening and free the mind to go off into the meditative and poetic mood of the late autumn? None, said the Chinese sages and the adoring Japanese agree.
Chrysanthemum tea — infused drinking water and wine with chrysanthemums — is an ancient practice in China, where it is has remained a popular everyday drink.
It is considered a mild tonic and organ cleaner.
No doubt when chrysanthemums came to Japan in the seventh century, it came as a medicinal plant loaded with wondrous legends of longevity.
Planted in the Imperial gardens, it didn’t take too long for the chrysanthemum to become the emperors’ favorite.
The chrysanthemum parties in the gardens, which the Imperial court hosted, were recorded in numerous poems and paintings and give us epitomes of simple but refined life developed during the three peaceful centuries of golden Heian period.
No longer a lowly herbal weed, kiku was ranked at the top of the regal flowers and since the eighth century it has been held in the highest esteem.
Eventually, kiku spilled out of the gardens and flourished as the most popular design motif in every aspect of life.
We see kiku in clothing, personal effects, and inside and outside of dwellings in milliard forms and varieties.
In the 13th century, the 16-petal chrysanthemum was designated as the official crest of the Imperial household.
Exclusive to the royalty, the Imperial crest came to symbolize some god-given authority and nobility, something other than the original function of the crest in identifying ownership or simply decorating and beautifying surroundings.
During WWII, the Imperial Chrysanthemum crest was used by the military to symbolize perseverance and patriotism, to which many willing young people dedicated their lives.
Chrysanthemum day or Meiji emperor’s birthday was celebrated on Nov. 3 and was one of the biggest national holidays.
School children sang special songs for the occasion and came home with two chrysanthemum-shaped cakes made of rice flour and sugar, one white and another red.
Virtually the whole population at one point in the early part of the 20th century shared the memory of being treated by the emperor with his 16-petal chrysanthemum cakes on his birthday.
Today the same date is still a holiday, now called Bunka-no-hi, the Day of Culture.
However faint or casual the scent was, it made me remember and think and imagine things almost endlessly. Such is the power of olfactory. I am amused.
Kimi Takemura is the former Nichi Bei Times Berkeley Branch chief.