The Art of Bongseonhwa
The first week of June 2019 marked the Muslim celebration of Eid, where people around the world celebrated the end of a month of fasting. Along with the celebration came elaborate designs that marked the hands and fingertips of girls and women young and old. The bright red stain left by a dye, commonly known as henna or mendhi, reminded us of a very similar one used in Korea: 봉선화 (bongseonhwa).
Petals Filled with History
The history of bongseonhwa is a long and rich one. It is believed that bongseonhwa, also known as garden balsam or touch-me-nots in the West, was first planted in gardens to ward off evil spirits and disease. Aside from the tales and superstitions surrounded around the flora, bongseonhwa is believed to have many medicinal benefits. The plant is well known in Korea but also planted across China, Bangladesh, Nepal, and India, as well as many of the other countries in the region.
Originating from Asia, this annual plant can now be found around the world in many varieties of Impatiens balsamina. The plants are quick to germinate and flower all summer long in beautiful colors of white, pink, orange, and purple. While you may not be able to find these plants at your local nursery, they aren’t too difficult to start from seed. However, since they are annual plants, you do have to collect their seeds at the end of the growing season should you like to plant them again next year.
From First Bloom to First Snowfall
Spring showers in Korea kick off the plants’ quick germination as bongseonhwa sprout out their leaves to the sun. Being a popular plant throughout Korea, it can be found growing out of nooks and crannies as well as in parks and other public places.
Along with these flowers comes a tale of true love. Girls young and old would collect the flower petals and leaves of bongseonhwa and pound them to make a paste that they would place on the tips of the fingers and nails. At times, a big leaf and some natural fiber is used to wrap and cover each finger, but a modern day girl would opt in for the plastic wrap and thread.
The pulp mixture of petals and foliage leaves an orange stain on the skin and nails. The longer that it is left on, the darker it stains! Not only is it considered a natural beauty's way to adorn herself, but a promise made in something more lasting than ink. If the tale is to be told true, and the bongseonhwa stain should last until the first snowfall, it is said that you will marry your first love (or true love! The tale varies slightly from place to place). With flowers in bloom up to mid to late August in Korea, it is very likely your bongseonhwa stain will persist until the first snowfall!
Glitz and Glam
Pre-dating the 10-step Korean skin care routine or any other modern skin or beauty regiment, bongseonhwa has been a method of beautifying the nails and skin, akin to a historical nail polish. Where school codes may restrict makeup and nail polish use, the art and tradition of bongseonhwa has persisted (any school girl will try to find loops in the school rules!) and gets a free pass.
Global Unity through Customs
While each and every region has its own unique customs and traditions, we just couldn’t help but start to draw parallels between so many cultural practices. Whether it be bongseonhwa dyed fingertips, henna or mehndi stained hands, or tribal tattoos, the customs all share an overlap of telling a tale, shared love, and symbolism of growth and transition as a child goes from girl to woman on a personal quest of love. And it is only fitting that this timeless custom be centered around love, as love is timeless!