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7 Plants and Flowers For Japanese New Year

As we approach the new year, beautiful arrangements appear in front of homes and businesses across Japan. But did you know that every stalk and flower was chosen for its specific symbolism?

By 5 min read

As we make our way through December, our remaining days quickly get booked with surviving bounenkai (end-of-year parties), reserving fukubukuro (lucky bags) and more activities that characterize the end of the year in Japan. With this fast-paced rush to the finish line, it’s easy to overlook the aesthetics of the New Year holidays and, more specifically, the lovely plants and flowers that come to symbolize it.

Let’s explore seven plants that you’ll see decorating the homes, businesses and public spaces that populate your daily life in Japan, seeking to answer questions like “What are they?” and “What is their significance to the Japanese New Year?”

Fukujyuso (Japanese Buttercup)

This flower invites happiness or eternal happiness.

Fukujyuso, or Japanese buttercups as they are referred to in English, are brilliant yellow flowers that look especially beautiful contrasted with the snow. While their blooming peak is typically in February, they often appear at florist shops around New Year thanks to varieties grown in greenhouses.

Fukujyuso have long been considered a representative flower of shogatsu, perhaps partly due to the coincidence of its February bloom in nature and the Chinese (and traditional Japanese) New Year at the same time of year. Indeed, this blossom’s name in Japanese, which includes the kanji for fuku (good fortune) and jyu (congratulations), is especially fitting for the start of a new year. Fukujyuso’s hanakotoba, or flower symbolism, is to invite happiness or eternal happiness.

Matsu (Pine)

This tree symbolizes fertility and wards off evil spirits.

Pine has been considered an auspicious plant since ancient times in Japan. As a key piece of the kadomatsu (new years decor placed near the door) since the Heian era, the purpose of the pine was to ensure that the toshigami (new years god) would find the home without getting lost on the way. In the Edo period, households would have to fetch their matsu from that year’s most favorable direction. Because pine is an evergreen coniferous plant, its needles stay green all year.

It is also an exceptionally long-lived tree, with pines still standing after over 4,000 years. As such, traditionally, it symbolized long life and good fortune, which is still reflected in its hanakotoba of perpetual youth and longevity. Matsu also possesses further qualities that enhance their suitability as representative shogatsu trees. Japanese folklore claims they are effective at helping with the propagation of descendants and fertility as well as good at warding off evil spirits.

Take (Bamboo)

Like pine, it is also associated with long life.

The other star of the kadomatsu is another evergreen plant: take or bamboo. Although pine’s history in the kadomatsu is longer, bamboo is conspicuous in modern iterations of the decoration, usually as the centerpiece. In its native environment, this fast-growing grass is evergreen, although it can sometimes lose its leaves when faced with extreme cold.

In Japan, take is well-known for its astronomical growth and hearty linked root system. This hardiness keeps it straight and tall even in the face of the archipelago’s earthquakes and typhoons. These qualities led to its hanakotoba of faithfulness and constancy and its place in the center of the kadomatsu. Like pine, it is also associated with long life due to its evergreen nature and sturdiness, as well as growth due to its speedy propagation.

Senryo (Glabrous sarcandra herb)

This flower is linked with celebration, profit and wealth.

Senryo is a red-berried plant popular in New Year displays partly because of its association with business prosperity. Similarly, its flower symbolism links it to celebration, profit and wealth, which are thought to have emerged because of the plant’s prolific ability to create many red berries. The tie to celebrations is one reason these stunning berries often star in oshogatsu flower arrangements. Almost indistinguishable from senryo is manryo, yet another red-berried and green-leafed favorite of the end of the year.

The key to separating these related plants is that senryo berries grow straight from the tip of their branches, while manryos hang down like cherries. Because of their similar origin and kanji, both carry the connotation of producing more wealth and are popular as decorations, in flower arrangements and grown in pots at the door this time of year.

Kiku (Chrysanthemum)

Famously serving as the symbol of the imperial family.

With flower symbolism meaning nobility and virtue as well as a reputation for being able to exorcize evil spirits, it is no wonder that all types of mums, from small garden spray mums to large ping-pong mums, are ever-present in New Year’s decor. Long known in Chinese medicine as a longevity elixir, the kiku (chrysanthemum) in Japan symbolizes the restoration of youth while famously serving as the symbol of the imperial family. In osechi ryori (traditional shogatsu food), for example, turnips are served in the shape of kiku, called kikuka-kabu to represent longevity.

In flower arrangements for the new year, these blooms are popular, both for their symbolism and extraordinary, long-lasting nature as cut flowers. As the Japanese saying goes, “kiku wo kazaru to, fuku ga kuru” (good fortune comes when you decorate with chrysanthemums).

Nanten (Heavenly bamboo)

This plant symbolizes changing difficult circumstances (to better ones).

Commonly found in kadomatsu, nanten or heavenly bamboo are red ornamental berries with green leaves found throughout Japan. Nanten’s name in Japanese is a play on words that also reflects its symbolic value in gardens, especially in New Year’s aesthetics. With nan meaning hardship and ten deriving from the verb tenjiru which translates to turn or alter, this plant’s meaning can be summed up as changing difficult circumstances (to better ones). Many of Japan’s end-of-the-year traditions, such as osouji, involve cleansing our spaces of evils and nanten fit comfortably within this practice of leaving behind a bad fortune in favor of hope and prosperity.

Ume (Plum)

Plum blossoms represent endurance and integrity.

Although the cherry blossoms garner the most attention regarding flora in Japan, ume (Japanese plum) once held that prestigious position during the Nara period (710-794). Ume blossoms also still carry cultural significance during the New Year holidays as one of the Three Friends of Winter, an artistic tradition introduced by China during the Heian period. Alongside bamboo and pine, ume is another East Asian plant that beautifully withstands winter.  With its five-petaled blooms ranging from white to dark pink, plum blossoms represent endurance and integrity as one of the year’s first flowering plants in the middle of winter. As such, it can sometimes be seen in kadomatsu celebrating the New Year season.

Do you decorate your home for oshogatsu? Let us know below!

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