In ancient Japan, people customarily gathered herbs in the spring and ate them as an expression of their wish for good health. The herbs could also be presented to a superior as a wish for long life. To make then easier to consume, the seven spring herbs were later added to a gruel.
The custom goes back to the Heian-period, when according to tradition the Emperor Saga was very fond of this broth, although it was in his time eaten on the first Day of the Rat. In the late ninth century, in the days of Emperor Uda, the custom came to be observed on January 7.
The custom of serving the Emperor with a medicinal gruel on January 7 continued till the Tokugawa period, during which the Seven Herbs Festival came to be widely observed in the whole country.
[Nanakusa-gayu - photo Ad Blankestijn]
The seven herbs are:
nazuna, or shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
hakobera, or chickweed (Stellaria media)
seri, or water dropworth, Japanese parsley (Oenanthe javanica; this is one of the few non-toxic species of the Oenanthe (water dropworts) genus, which are otherwise extremely toxic, so outside of Japan be careful not to consume any wild-growing varieties even in small amounts!)
gogyo or hahakogusa, cottonweed (Gnaphalium affine)
hotokenoza, or henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)
suzuna or kabu, turnip (Brassica campestris)
and suzushiro or daikon, white radish (Raphanus sativus).
[Nanakusa - photo Ad Blankestijn]
I must confess some of the English names above mean as little to me as the Japanese ones (with the exception of course of white radish and turnip), but I trust in age-old wisdom and will have my bowl of medicinal gruel today!
And that is very easy in our modern times. In the past, these herbs had to be gathered, mixed and beaten with a willow-stick on the night of January 6. Now, conveniently, you can find packs of the herbs in supermarkets, sometimes already with the gruel added, so you only have to heat it.
Nanakusa - the fresh variety on the left, and the freeze-dried variety on the right
- photo Ad Blankestijn]
By the way, Poem 15 (Emperor Koko) of the Hyakunin Isshu is about the gathering of the young greens of the seven herbs in the fields of spring.
And then there is also a set of the "seven herbs of autumn," but that is of later concern...
[Update Jan. 8: replaced photos]