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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Written on May 14, 2011

A paulownia tree, that is.  Coincidentally, Betty Smith’s famous novel from 1943 is set in my neighborhood, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, just where this tree is blooming.
Paulownia, or kiri as it is known in Japan, is one of that country’s most popular family crests and it is a well-used motif in textile and lacquer design, among others.  It is loaded with historical and legendary significance–and the actual tree shows beautiful blooms, as can be seen here.The kiri motif is borrowed from China.  In Chinese lore it is believed that the mythical phoenix (called Hoo-oo in Japan), when it comes to earth, will alight only on the branches of this tree–and it will only eat the seeds of bamboo.

During the late Heian Period, the kiri motif became fashionable among the aristocracy and it is often associated with this class of Japanese society.  The world’s first psychological novel, The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, opens at the aristocratic Paulownia Court. And here’s more, quoted from this wonderful website:

According to legend (mostly from China), the Hō-ō appears very rarely, and only to mark the beginning of a new era — the birth of a virtuous ruler, for example. In other traditions, the Hō-ō appears only in peaceful and prosperous times (nesting, it is said, in paulownia trees), and hides itself when there is trouble.

As the herald of a new age, the Hō-ō decends from heaven to earth to do good deeds, and then it returns to its celestial abode to await a new era. It is both a symbol of peace (when the bird appears) and a symbol of disharmony (when the bird disappears).

In China, early artifacts show the Phoenix (female) as intimately associated with the Dragon (male) — the two are portrayed either as mortal enemies or as blissful lovers. When shown together, the two symbolize both conflict and wedded bliss, and are a common design motif even today in many parts of Asia.Above is a kiri-karakusa or paulownia-arabesque pattern done in the katazome method; this cloth is from a futon cover.And these images, above and below, show the kiri motif on a boro futon cover, rendered in the tsutsugaki method.

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  1. Comment by Ann:

    The boro hand work is fascinating. I wish I knew more about the social end of what went into its production. Well, sure poverty, but more than that, were some groups more likely to produce the hand work than others? Did young girls get the job of mending? Were the owners of these materials ashamed of their circumstances? Were scraps shared across neighborhoods?

    Thanks you for alerting your public to their continued existence. Ann

    May 18, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  2. Comment by Claudia:

    What a wonderful post! I learned so much about the symbolism of the phoenix and while I was just sitting down to an iced americano at Oslo, I noticed a paulownia tree blossom across the street. Arigato!

    May 18, 2011 @ 4:55 pm