Plant lovers give national flower its day in the sun

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Plant lovers give national flower its day in the sun

The national flower of Korea, the rose of sharon, or mugunghwa, is a prevalent symbol. Before entering restaurants, you may have noticed a white sign next to the door with a pink flower bearing the words, “Best Restaurant.” It is the mugunghwa, also known as hibiscus in English (hibiscus syriacus is its scientific name). Public servants wear tiny gold pins of the mugunghwa on their suits. A closer look will reveal that the pins are also shaped like the mugunghwa.
But think hard. Have you really seen the mugunghwa? Why is the mugunghwa the national flower when it’s so hard to find one growing naturally? Where have all the flowers gone?
Unfortunately, the story behind the absence of the mugunghwa is a sad one, rife with inaccuracies promulgated to crush Korea’s spirit under colonial rule. Seeing it as a symbol of Korea, Japanese colonialists embarked on a campaign to portray the flower as a buggy annoyance.
The mugunghwa is more of a shrub whose flower color ranges from pink and white to purple. Blooming between July and October, they are very tenacious, withstand blight and insects, although they do fall victim to the Japanese beetle, which likes to dine on its juices.
“Mugung” means “immortal,” and “hwa” means flower. The mugunghwa symbolizes immortality, determination and perseverance.
The presence of the mugungwha was apparently common through Korea according to old diplomatic documents. During the Shilla dynasty, diplomatic papers referred to the country as the “land of mugunghwa,” and the Chinese were known to refer to Korea as “the land of gentlemen where mugunghwa blooms.”
The flower earned more of an official reputation, however, in the late 19th century, when it was included in the lyrics of the Korean national anthem. It was only adopted as the national flower after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule. By that time, however, much of the countryside had been stripped of the flower.
“The Japanese wanted to get rid of all things that they thought could relate to patriotic sentiments, and the mugunghwa was for a long time considered a symbol of determination and perseverance,” said historian Kim Yong-bum.
Bushes of mugunghwa were uprooted and burned. Many were replaced with cherry blossom trees.
“The Japanese also taught many wrong things regarding the mugunghwa at schools and spread false proverbs,” he said. “For instance, there is a saying that if you touch a mugunghwa, you will get bloodshot eyes, or that the flower is very filthy and loaded with bugs. Young students were taught to spit if they saw a mugunghwa or else they would have bad luck.”
People who tried to distribute the mugunghwa were imprisoned. Namgung Eok, a high school teacher, was one of them. Mr. Namgung was an advocate of Korean history education and in light of patriotic activities, he began a “mugunghwa embroidery movement” among female high school students. After he retired, he went to the country and played a major part in distributing seeds and seedlings until he was discovered and imprisoned by Japanese soldiers. The 70,000 mugunghwa shrubs that he had planted behind his house were burned by the Japanese.

Ten years ago, Kim Young-man, a designer and chief executive officer of his own firm, Design Will, was browsing through design source books at the bookstore when he noticed that there were numerous books on cherry blossoms, the national flower of Japan, but none on mugunghwa.
“I realized that the mugunghwa is the national flower, but it’s never really used in practical design,” Mr. Kim said. “From that point, I started using the flower in textiles, illustrations, photography and other art to make a source book. Along the way, other designer friends joined me. Now we have an open pool of 2,000 mugunghwa designs that people can use.”
What started out as design, however, turned into a larger patriotic movement.
“I learned that there are many misconceptions about mugunghwa and decided that these misconceptions had to be put straight,” Mr. Kim said.
So in 2000, Mr. Kim and some mutual friends put together a Web site to promote the national flower. Last year, they officially founded a civic group Mugungnara (Korea Indigenous Cultural Contents Promotion Association) and are working to elevate the fallen image of the mugunghwa in Korea. Some of the activities that they are doing include conducting mugunghwa photography and painting exhibitions at elementary schools and planting events.
On the Web site,, one can select a mugunghwa seed and give it sunlight, water, fertilizer and watch it “grow.” The flowers don’t actually exist; it’s an online gardening simulation.
Kang Mid-eum, 15, has 177 mugunghwa shrubs on her site; she has been growing them for the past five years.
“It first started out as a game but now it’s a huge responsibility, and I think it’s my way of expressing my feelings for my country,” she said.
In the real world, people are also planting more mugunghwa flowers. In Hongcheon county, Gangwon province, the group Mugungnara invites families to come and plant seedlings. Their goal is to plant 1 million shrubs by Aug. 15, Korea’s Independence Day, since this year marks the 60th anniversary of independence from Japan.
“When I was young, my mother told me not to go near the mugunghwa because of the bugs, but now I see that she had it wrong,” said Lee Hwa-young, a 34-year-old housewife who recently visited Hongcheon with her family to plant the flowers. “There are less bugs on the mugunghwa than on roses.”
“My son had great fun, and one of the trees now bears his name,” she said. “We plan to go back every year and check on how it grows. Hopefully in a few years, the whole area will be covered with blossoming mugunghwa.”
That is just what Kim Young-man hopes will happen. “Rebuilding a damaged image is difficult, but it is very satisfying work since you are doing something for the good of your own country,” he said.

by Wohn Dong-hee
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