Brightening the garden in February

It’s Hannibal Rising,’ someone quipped as Yoko and I turned up at a New Year party. The wag was referring to Thomas Harris’s new bestseller in which a cultured monster is paired with a courtly Japanese woman. I assured him it was a most unlikely coupling. Nonetheless, Mr Harris’s latest shocker is not without points of interest. One is that he calls his cannibal-comforting heroine Murasaki Shikibu or the Lady Murasaki. With

a film of the book opening tomorrow, many thousands will hear this name in 2007. Most of them will be unaware that it once belonged, as Mr Harris freely admits, to someone else.

The first Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a high-ranking courtier in Japan in the late 10th century. She became lady-in-waiting to the Empress. Far more important than that, she was also the author of what is generally believed to be the world’s first ? or oldest-surviving?novel, The Tale of Genji, composed in the early years of the 11th century. Each time I follow the fortunes of Hikaru Genji, the novel’s princely hero, through endless love affairs, court intrigues and power politics, I feel I am being given glimpses of Western fictions that were still more than seven centuries away when Murasaki put brush to paper.

My greatest pleasure by far in reading The Tale of Genji, however, lies in the fact that plants and gardens perfuse almost every page. The calendar is measured in flowering, fruiting and leaf-fall times; poems and billets-doux not only mention plants, but are sent with a sprig of that plant attached. Fabrics, colours and scents are described in floral terms; parties are thrown expressly for viewing certain plants; chapters and characters are named after them. Even the name Murasaki itself denotes the mauve of wisteria, the novelist’s favourite flower.

But wisteria is for spring, as the lotus is for summer, and miscanthus and maple (two other Genji favourites) for autumn. We, of course, are now in filthy February. No matter?just when we most need the comforts of fragrance and colour, the Lady Murasaki sends a sprig of something even more potent than wisteria.

It is the flowering plum, Prunus mume, a large shrub or small tree, unremarkable for much of the year, but which is quite the most miraculous plant for the late winter garden.

Murasaki devotes whole chapters to it. In one, ‘Ume gae’ (‘A Branch of Plum’), we are at the end of the second month, a gentle rain falls and, near a palace veranda, the plum is in full blossom. Its rods of rich crimson flowers form a preternatural contrast with the greyness of the landscape. Its perfume is also incongruous, suggestive of sultrier seasons and private rooms where silken robes slip silently to the floor. There follows an exchange of poems between two lovers, missives on paper that is the same dark cerise as the plum blossom attached to them. Vivid colouring, astonishing scent?both are reasons enough to love the flowering plum; but there is something else, the lady tells us, some deeper reason. It is the fact that Prunus mume is gaunt and strafed-looking in winter and then is suddenly transformed: ‘A barren, blossomless tree, I have heard it called/At heart, it bursts even now into richest bloom.’ The plant betokens rebirth and darkness defeated after long dreary months.

Thousands of cultivars of P. mume are grown in Japan and China, some of them dating back more than 1,000 years, but they are rarely seen in British gardens. We grow one from the Lady Murasaki’s time, Beni-chidori (Crimson Plover), with deep fuchsia-pink blossom and a scent that combines incense with honey and rose pouchong tea. It began flowering early this year, in the second week of January, and shows no sign of waning. As spring warms up, I shall prune back the green portions of its flowered shoots to within a few inches of the craggy older branches and crown to promote a fresh crop of wands for next winter. Otherwise, it needs nothing more than a good well-drained soil and a sunny site with side protection?near a wall, for example.

Do invest in P. mume. It comes with the highest recommendation from the elegant (original) Lady Murasaki.