April 5, 2012

Seasonal colors: Japan versus the Sonoran Desert

Where I live, March, April, and May are the most colorful spring months, with flowering trees, cactus, and wildflowers. Of course Japan also has new growth and flowers in the spring and these colors and motifs figure heavily into kimono seasonal designs: cherry blossoms, wisteria, peach, narcissus, azalea, peony, butterflies, and hollyhocks all come to mind when I think of classic spring images. I think the only thing we have here that I have seen on that list beside butterflies are hollyhocks...and you have to give them a lot of water!

The colors and flowers where I live are very different than those in Japan and that make it a challenge to get into a "spring kitsuke mindset" when you live in the desert. However, looking around in my yard today, I realized our plants are just as beautiful...different but worthy!

According to color expert Shigenobu Kobayashi, author of the fabulous little book Colorist: A Practical handbook for Personal and Professional Use,* states that the colors of spring in Japan during the months of March and April "exhibit 'gentle',  'quiet', and 'dreamy' images, They are delicate, with a strong contrast. And then a spring storm scatters the seeds and petals in the ground. These are simple and clean colors. We are refreshed and fell youthful when the weather is good.'' These are the colors he uses for March and April in his year-long study of the colors in nature at Tokyo University's Botanical Garden:

The spring colors where I live would probably be described as "vibrant", "fresh", and "casual". Here are the colors I associate with spring in my city:

small palo verde

We have only one parallel to a cherry tree I can think of: a native flowering tree that blooms in April known as Yellow Palo Verde, Parkinsonia microphylla. I took some photos today of some of these trees just starting to pop open their blossoms.

These trees look really unusual to visitors...they have smooth yellow-green bark and bright yellow flowers that appear before tiny leaves.

Palo verde

Of course these trees are not revered like the cherry tree; we have no palo verde festivals or gifts of trees to various cities. But they are very beautiful and make me feel like it's really spring!
There are three yellow palo verdes in my yard just starting to bloom. A few other plants are blooming as well, mainly cactus and aloes. Check out these colors! We do have many yellow wildflowers and plants flowers, so yellow has to figure into the equation.

Desert marigold
Aloe flowers

huge spikes of yucca

tiny purple wildflowers

Opuntia basilaris (Prickly pear cactus)

Fluffy pink hedgehog cactus

Aloe ferox bloomed in February.

As you can see, our colors tend to be bright, almost garish rather than soft. The light is different here too...we don't have the humidity to create that soft light you see in places like Tokyo, Seattle, and Monterey, etc.

"chenille" opuntia (Prickly pear)

So if I was going to do a Sonoran Desert Spring kitsuke, I would create an outfit featuring yellow, green, and probably coral or hot pink. As for motifs, it would be really difficult to find anything with cactus flowers, green trees, or aloe, so I think going for color would work fine. At least I could get the general flavor.

Green and hot pink
Cream and magenta

I'll have to start gathering some items since I am short of yellow in my collection. I do have a leafy-green iromuji and a magenta and cream sha kimono and lots of items in different shades of pink....a good place to start!

The coordination on the left shows the green iro with a hot pink nagoya obi with a white rose on it- a lovely spring flower; the coordination on the right is a Meisen sha kimono with a magenta ro nagoya obi featuring a karabana floral motif. Both of these would work for a "desert spring" look but I would love to do a whole outfit based on yellow and green someday.

*More about the little book. I'm really into color (I used to be a color consultant for architectural spaces and for marketing) and have a collection of color books. I really love Mr. Kobayashi's books and his approach to finding and using the colors in your own environment. His seasonal study of the garden in Japan is also a fabulous resource for anyone interested in kimono seasonal colors as he uses photos of the garden throughout the year to inspire his color choices. My one critique: the book is really small and the images and color swatches are also small! 


  1. I love what you are doing here with the spring desert color inspiration! - Teena

  2. Wow, some in-depth color theory there! Really interesting to read about!

  3. Thanks for the nice comments Teena and BikaBika! I figured I was kind of going off on a weird tangent...apparently not so weird! I love studying seasonal colors in general, especially as it relates to kimono.