Amazing Adventures in Hokkaido

The abundance of the natural environment, the lifestyles and culture of the people who live there – Hokkaido has many incredible stories that are as yet unknown.
In this column, we learn about the appeal of Hokkaido’s four seasons from the people who guide adventure tours there. We hope such stories will enrich your next visit to Hokkaido.

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Column: At the Heart of the Lily

The beautiful Heart-leaved Lily (Cardiocrinum cordatum) is a tall stately perennial plant that takes up to a decade to reach maturity.Once it has achieved full growth, its heart-shaped leaves may span as much as 30 cm, and it will produce as many as 20 attractive, trumpet-like flowers atop its towering stem. Widespread in the forests and along the forest margins of Hokkaido, it seems particularly common in the east and has even self-seeded numerous times around my wooded garden. Few summer sights are as glorious as a large, black swallowtail butterfly fluttering around the creamy-white flowers of this glorious lily.

By Mark Brazil

A mature Heart-leaved Lily in full flower

Freshly germinated Heart-leaved Lilies emerge in spring and produce only two shiny, dark-green, heart-shaped leaves. Their first season’s “work” is to accumulate the products of photosynthesis and store as much energy as possible in an underground bulb. They die back and remain dormant over winter, emerging once more after the spring snowmelt. If, in their first summer, they were able to store sufficient energy to survive, they then produce a somewhat taller stem and four leaves, repeating each year this process of adding pairs of leaves and extra height to their summer stem, and volume to their underground energy-storage bulb. Some five to ten years after first germinating, depending on the characteristics of the soil, the vagaries of the weather, and their resources, they will at last achieve maturity. In that final year, they grow into a towering, stately plant reaching 2 to 2.5 metres in height.

Heart-leaved lilies blossom only in that final, fateful year. Then they produce fragrant greenish-white or creamy-white flower trumpets that may reach 12 cm in length. These deep, funnel-shaped flowers open only at the tips and are subtly aromatic attracting a wide range of insects including enormous swallowtail butterflies and lowly hoverflies. Their most important pollinators are bumblebees, sweat bees, and hoverflies, which, having done their work successfully (tempted by plentiful supplies of nectar and pollen), enable the lilies to set seed.

The heart-shaped leaves and flower bud of a Heart-leaved Lily
The Heart-leaved Lily (O-uba Yuri) can stand more than two metres tall
Ranks of lilies with their fresh seed pods

During July and August, as the flowers of the Heart-leaved Lily fade, their seed pods develop. These three-sectioned capsules may each stand up to 5 cm tall and ultimately, by late autumn, will be filled with a stack of dry, wafer-thin winged seeds. As autumn approaches, the last leaves wither. By winter the lily’s stem, along with its columns of prominent seed pods, dries and stiffens. Eventually, each of the pods split vertically from top to bottom exposing the numerous stacked seeds within. As snow accumulates around the now rigid lily’s stem, winter winds cause it to shake and vibrate, and the paper-thin seeds rattle upwards and eventually find release from the seed capsule. The seeds will waft away on the wind, or skitter across the frozen surface of the snow layer, travelling many metres away from their parent plant. Meanwhile, beneath the ground, the now exhausted bulb that nourished the growth and flowering of the lily, withers and dies.

The rigid stem and dried seed pods of a Heart-leaved Lily in winter
A scattering of lily seeds across the snow’s surface

The richness of the young Heart-leaf Lily bulbs was not lost on the ancestors of the Ainu of Hokkaido, who found it to be a plentiful and important food supply. The Ainu, who call the bulbs turep, have traditionally harvested them for food and medicine. A starch can be readily obtained from turep, from which tasty dumplings can be made. Any remaining bulb and root fibres can be fermented and dried to make a nutritious high-fibre gruel or dried for later use in soups.

Whether as an attractive, perennial forest plant, or as a cultural source of food, the Heart-leaved Lily is both prominent and important in the landscape of Hokkaido, and each year I treasure opportunities to watch them develop.

Dr Mark Brazil, a British writer, naturalist, ornithologist and international expedition leader, is a long-term resident of Hokkaidō. He founded Japan Nature Guides in 2011 to provide outdoor guide training and nature guiding services. The author of ten books, mostly about Japan and East Asia, his latest are: Japan: The Natural History of an Asian Archipelago published in January 2022 by Princeton University Press, and Wild Hokkaidō: A Guidebook to the National Parks and other Wild Places of East Hokkaidō published by Hokkaidō Shimbun Press in June 2021.

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