Flowers and plants abound in this tale, and while some of them are familiar (as a resident of Washington, DC, I’ve seen more than my fair share of cherry blossoms), I have no readily available mental image of many others. Wisteria I know, but what does a gillyflower look like? Or a safflower? A twilight beauty? Heart-to-heart? A murasaki flower?
Seeing these plants adds a special poignancy or humor to Genji’s decision to refer to them in his poems to or about certain characters. The safflower, which gives Suetsuhama her name, is spiny, prickly, and often bright red – reflecting how her old-fashioned, formal manners rub Genji’s modern suavité the wrong way, as does her unfortunate, red-tipped schnoz (One problem with pursuing love affairs in the dark – you can’t be sure what the light of day will reveal). Twilight beauties, as it turns out, wither after a single night’s blooming; while murasaki flowers are small and white (it’s their roots that are purple, and beget the dye – this is clearly mentioned in the book, but it’s easy to forget). I’ve been reading ahead, and spent nearly the whole book thinking kerria roses – often mentioned in the tale’s landscape descriptions or in reference to clothing – were a blush pink, in accordance with the western idea of a rose-color. Turns out they’re bright yellow.
My research also clued me into the fact that the names of plants may pose a thorny (rimshot, please) question of translation. For example, due to common root words, heart-to-heart is often mistranslated as hollyhock, even though the two plants have about as much in common as a baobab tree has with a butterfly bush. Further, the sheer passage of time may change the referents of words — I found one gardening forum all in a tizzy as to whether the twilight beauties could really be moonflowers, as they were unsure as to whether moonflowers had yet reached Heian-era Japan. I also happened upon grad students puzzling over whether asagao really means bluebell, or whether it could also refer to morning glories. Mysteries abound.
Knowing that Mr. Tyler has been kind enough to join in some of the discussions going on in the comment box, I wonder if he can shed some light on these controversies. I have attempted a few translations in my time, and have found myself dog-tired simply from doing battle with modern slang. My little foray into plant-lore has impressed me with how all-encompassing this story is in its reflection of its culture — it simply leaves nothing out, from proper landscaping design to the type of hat a dancer wears to commentaries on what good and bad cliches in poetry might be. To translate it means to master a little – or a lot – of all these things. I am happy to have so thorough a guide.