Ayame/Shoubu (菖蒲) Iris


This is only one example of the multiple species of ayame that grow in Japan.

This is only one example of the multiple species of ayame that grow in Japan.

Ayame (菖蒲) Siberian Iris/Sweet Grass (Iris sanguinea)
Shoubu/Hanshoubu (菖蒲 / 花菖蒲) Japanese Iris (Iris ensata)
Kakitsubata (杜若) Rabbit Ear Iris (Iris laevigata)

Seasonal Association: Summer

The three types of iris usually referred to as Japanese iris bloom from early May to late June. This caused some ambiguity to Heian era poets. Should the iris be considered a spring flower or a summer flower? According to Haruo Shirane in Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, different sources originally placed it in different seasons. Shirane states that colour combinations for the juni hitoe that were indicative of the iris placed the kakitsubata in summer, however waka poets used the flower as a spring motif. A defining moment came when the influential editors of anthology Horikawa hyakushu decided to place kakistubata in spring, and hanashoubu and ayame in the summer due to their prominence in the Tango festival (held on the fifth day of the fifth month). This distinction had a lasting effect on poetry anthologies with seasonal themes, however the poets themselves continued to treat the iris as a summer motif, and by the Muromachi period, its identity had firmly returned to summer (pg 52-53).

In addition to this, the classic Japanese calendar, puts the blooming of the iris firmly into the summer months. Before the Meiji Era, Japan used a different calendar (a luni-solar calendar). According to the modern solar calendar, the traditional four seasons are as follows.

Spring: February 4-May 4 (first, second, and third months)
Summer: May 5-August 6 (fourth, fifth, and sixth months)
Autumn: August 7-November 6 (seventh, eighth, and ninth months)
Winter: November 7-February 4 (tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months)

Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons – Haruo Shirane

This traditional seasonality, which rules all seasonal kimono motifs, would place the blooming of the iris firmly in the summer season.

A final note on seasonality, I have many pieces in my collection (see below) that are awase (lined) and not designed for summer. So what does this mean? For me, it means don’t rely on the iris to tell you what season a certain piece should be worn in. Also consider if the piece is awase (lined) or hitoe (unlined) or ro (gauze) and any other motifs present on the piece. The combination of all these elements will tell you when to wear your kimono or obi.

When To Wear It: April – June

Auspicious: no


Traditionally, the iris is linked to Boy’s Day (now Children’s Day, celebrated on May 5th) because the leaves resemble swords and the name shoubu is a homonym for militarism. Iris can often be found on boy’s kimono. Kakitsubata was made famous by its appearance in The Tales of Ise, a Heian era poetry anthology. It is also the prefectural flower of Aichi prefecture.


The most distinguishing feature of the iris is the three petals that grow downwards. These petals can be smooth or jagged, but the all have a distinct vein running down the center. Iris also have a clump of smaller petals that grow upwards. Finally, iris have long, thin leaves that usually accompany the blossom.

237242  159 006

3 thoughts on “Ayame/Shoubu (菖蒲) Iris

  1. I know Japanese love to mix up Shōbu and Hanashōbu..
    As far as I know, Shōbu is connected to Boy’s Day, but it is completely different to an iris. If you look up the flower of Shōbu, you will know immediately.
    Sorry for being komakai, but I am a gardener specialized in perennials ^_-
    Love your posts about the motifs. One thing I always wanted to learn!


    • You’re right. The different names for different types of flowers in this group do make things confusing. I suspect that everyday people, kimono people, and gardeners like yourself all focus on different information and names when classifying them. It took my several days to try and untangle the mess of Japanese names, Latin names, and English names, not to mention seasonality. I never saw a particular type of iris (sorry, I know you said it wasn’t an iris but I can’t think of what else to call it!) associated with kodomo no hi during my research so that’s good to know. Thank you! Personally, I prefer ayame as the Japanese term for iris, but I know a lot of people use shoubu, so I decided to include it as well.


      • Shōbu is sweet flag or calamus in English.
        I think there is no problem with using Ayame or Hanashōbu, as most people can not say who is who. Both are iris. Only the species is different 🙂 Japanese like to shorten Hanashōbu to Shōbu without knowing that these two are totally different plants.
        I think it is no problem to make people aware that sometimes this poroblem can occur and tell them, that Shōbu can be meant as iris.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s