Nature in Short / The gourds that trumpet the start of winter

By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News

By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan NewsCongratulations to all! In the traditional Asian koyomi almanac, today marks the Ritto, or official Start of Winter.

Throughout Japan’s warmer regions, however, autumn is still going strong. The peak of the Tokyo leaf-viewing season, for example, is still almost a full month away.

At this time of year, the action in the natural world focuses more and more on the dense thickets that develop along south-facing roadsides and the edges of countryside woodlands. Here, various shrubs and vines climb up and over one another in a riotous fight to monopolize the ever-decreasing sunlight. Although these habitats are generally considered to be wastelands, they support great biodiversity. Insects and birds congregate here to feed on the year’s final burst of flowers and fruits.

Vines in the cucurbitaceae or gourd family (urika) are among the toughest thicket competitors. Many species are incredibly fast-growing herbaceous plants with thick stems, huge leaves and long twisty tendrils that allow them to climb up trees and fences.

One easily recognized local species is the karasuuri (Trichosanthes cucumeroides). The bright reddish-orange cylindrical fruits are about 6 centimeters long and filled with a dozen or more brown seeds. The lacy white flowers open on summer nights and are pollinated by large hawk-moths with a long proboscis that can reach down deep into the tube to extract the nectar. The male and female flowers bloom on separate plants, and the fruits develop only on the female plants.

Uri is the generic Japanese term for gourd, and karasu is usually written and interpreted as crow. Some scholars, however, believe the name originally referred to a particular shade of vermillion (shu) brought to Japan from Tang China (kara).

Interestingly, another local species of thicket gourd is called suzumeuri or “sparrow gourd” (Neoachmandra japonica). The crow-sparrow distinction in Japanese plant names often represents a size comparison. The suzumeuri has much smaller leaves and fruits than the karasuuri.

The karasuuri is deeply steeped in folklore and oral tradition. One well-known story holds that the seeds resemble an uchidenokozuchi — a sort of magical hammer typically held by oni demons and the Buddhist deity Daikokuten — that when shaken brings forth gold coins and other treasures, or can make any wish come true.

In the past, people used to place these seeds in their wallet or pocketbook in the hope the magic would increase their fortunes. Elderly farmers also tell me when they were young they rubbed the juice of these fruits on their legs in the belief this would make them able to run faster.

One other species of gourd is common in local thickets, but at this time of year it should be avoided at all costs. This is the bur cucumber, called arechiuri or “wasteland gourd” in Japanese (Sicyos angulatus). This tenacious vine is native to eastern North America but was brought to Japan in the 1950s, probably accidentally on ships carrying timber. The bunched fruits are small, green and fuzzy, and covered with some of the nastiest barb-tipped spines you can imagine. The spines are light and thin, and easily break off and become entangled in clothes or even embedded in the skin, after which they are very hard to remove.

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Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University Information Sciences.Speech

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