Yamagata Safflower

Yamagata Safflower


Yamagata Safflower
For the month of July, "Benibana" Safflowers are in full bloom here in Yamagata

In the still hours of the morning, the sun peaks over the mountain ridge, and the light of day pours across a sea of golden flowers. As the morning mists swirl and rise into obscurity, the local farmers quietly shuffle into the flower fields to harvest the fine wispy petals while they are still damp with due. Since ancient times, Yamagata’s “benibana” safflower has been considered precious. As even in the modern day, the benibana safflower is worth more than its weight in gold.

What is Yamagata Safflower?

Yamagata Safflower
The Mogami Safflower that is prominent in Yamagata has thorny leaves and long petals

Safflower is the official flower of Yamagata Prefecture and is often referred to by its Japanese name, “benibana” (紅花). Along with the thistle, sunflower, and the dandelion, the safflower is a member of the Asteraceae family and is also known goes by the scientific name Carthamus tinctorius.

Worldwide, there are over  25 distinct species of safflower plants that vary significantly in character and appearance. Even within the East Asian variants alone, some plants are known to have as many as 100 flowers simultaneously bloom, while others will only have a single flower. Other safflower plants will have prickly thorns on the leaf, meanwhile, others will feature smooth, rounded fronds.

While safflowers can be found throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia, and even Africa, the variant cultivated in Yamagata today is proudly called the “Mogami Safflower” after the Mogami River that was vital in the trade and spread of Yamagata safflower culture.

Yamagata’s Mogami Safflowers are a brilliant golden color, with the flower’s core being a deep crimson red. The leaves are of the thorny variant, and while it may look like the flower is a single head with thousands of little petals jutting out, each of these thin wispy strands is actually its own flower (at least as far as biology is concerned) with its own seed and cellular structure

The Mogami Safflower variant was officially declared its own separate variant of safflower in 1968 at the Yamagata Prefectural Agricultural Experiment Station after centuries of selective cultivation. In 1982, Mogami Safflower was designated as the official flower of Yamagata Prefecture, and the safflower is almost synonymous with Yamagata today.

History of Yamagata Safflower

Yamagata Safflower
Every year, safflower towns such as Takase gather for annual safflower festivals

The earliest traces of safflower seem to have originated in what is now modern-day Isreal, and there is archeological evidence of ancient Mesopotamians cultivating it some 4600 years ago. From there, the safflower is said to have spread in China and Central Asia along the Silkk Road, eventually making its way down the Korean Peninsula and finally into Japan.

Although it is estimated that safflower first reached Japan during the Muromachi Period (1336-1568), it wasn’t until the Edo Period (1600-1868) that safflower culture in Japan really took off.

During the Edo Period, the Kitmaebune trade route was a sea route that ran from Edo (modern-day Tokyo) through the Seto Inland Sea, up the Kanmon Straights, and up the Sea of Japan all the Hokkaido.

Cities such as Sakata became incredibly wealthy through this trade network as agricultural goods such as rice would be sent down the Mogami River from inland Yamagata, collected at the port in the Sankyo Soko Warehouses to be stored, and then shipped out to Edo via ship.

Yamagata Safflower petals
The best time to gather safflower petals is in the morning when the flowers are wet with dew

Safflower was another valuable commodity transported using this method during the Edo Period. While safflower had been cultivated sporadically across the country since its arrival, the Mogami Basin soon became recognized for the high wields and unrivaled quality of the flowers. So by the time the trade route was established, Yamagata Safflowers were already in high demand.

Safflowers grown in inland areas of Yamagata, such as Shirataka and Takase, became an essential part of the Kitamaebune trade network and were transported in mass down the Mogami River, where they would be sold and sent to Edo by trade ship.

They reached such a value during the height of the trade that it was said that safflower was worth more than one hundred times its weight in rice and ten times its weight in gold!

But what made Safflower such a valuable commodity, and why was it so sought after? Let’s look at some of the many uses of safflower and what makes it still one of Yamagata’s most valuable resources.

How is Yamagata Safflower Used?

safflower dyed cloth
From the collected flowers, a number of shades and hues can be mixed and made

Even before safflowers made their debut in the Land of the Rising Sun, their seeds and extracted oils have been used throughout China, the Middle East, and Central Asia for its medicinal purposes.

In Japan, however, the primary usage of the benibana dye is as a bright red dye that has held a deep cultural significance in Japan since long ago.

Due to the high price associated with Yamagata Safflower, only the most important shrine garments in Japan, such as those worn at Ise Grand Shrine, are dyed with Yamagata Safflower today. Some ceremonial garments that feature this vibrant crimson color, such as the kimono on display at the Bunshokan, are priced at well above 30,000 dollars (USD) due to the high concentration of Yamagata Safflower used.

However, very few garments short of the select few are made using a 100% safflower dye. In fact, most things dyed using Yamagata Safflower are dyed using only a compound containing only 10-20% safflower dye.

Safflower Rice
Safflower rice is a popular seasonal dish, most often served in higher-end restaurants in Yamagata

While augmented pigment activators can help achieve the deep red color artificially, a range of pinks, yellows, and oranges can also be produced naturally with lighter concentrations of Yamagata Safflower at a fraction of the cost.

Another usage of Yamagata Safflowers is in the making of the red makeup and lip tint used by geishas and maiko, such as the Maiko of Sakata City. Like garments dyed using Yamagata Safflower, makeup produced this way is also very expensive, so it is used sparingly.

One other alternative usage of Yamagata Safflower is in cooking, as it can be enjoyed as a topping, tempura, or even on rice! While the taste isn’t very strong, it offers a sweet, smokey floral flavor palette that adds culinary depth to the dish.

Yamagata Safflower Today

Only Yesterday
"Only Yesterday", Studio Ghibli (1991) takes place in Yamagata Prefecture

Today, over 50% of all safflower produced in Japan still comes from Japan, and Yamagata Safflower culture is still wildly celebrated with festivals such as the Takase Benibana Festival.

Benibana also has a special place in contemporary Japanese pop culture as the 1991 Studio Ghibli Film, Only Yesterday, takes place in Yamagata and features a young woman who ventures out of Tokyo to help with the local safflower harvest. While not Studio Ghibli’s most popular film, it is a nostalgic portal of rural Japanese life in the early 90s and a beautiful ode to the beauty of Yamagata.

Yamagata Safflower Experience

Yamagata Safflower Experience
Participants can come and try their hand at Yamagata Safflower harvesting for themselves

Come and experience Yamagata Safflower Culture for yourself! For the duration of July, through our Yamagata Safflower Experience, you can come to Shirataka and Learn about Yamagata Safflower Culture in person!

The experience starts with a trip out to the flower fields, where you will pick the safflower petals that will be used as a dye. Wearing gloves to protect your hands from the thorns, you will pluck just the head of the flower and place the petals into a basket on your hip.

Safflower Safflower Experience
After you dye your Yamagata Safflower handkerchief, you can take it home as a souvenir!

Next, you will return to the farmhouse, where you will prepare the cultivated petals by first washing them, kneading them, and then rolling them into “benimochi” pigment chips that will then dry and become the base for the dye.

Finally, participants will use real Yamagata Safflower dye to dye their own handkerchiefs that they can take home as a souvenir of your time here in Yamagata.

For more information about our Yamagata Safflower Experience, please check our Experience Page

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  • Yamagata Hanagasa Festival - Expedition Japan :

    […] and shout songs passed down from generations past, they brandish their round straw hats strewn with Yamagata Benibana Safflowers known as Hanagasa through the air to the pounding rhythm of Taiko […]

    1 year ago

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