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Garden Plants of Japanby Ran Levy-Yamamori and Gerard Taaffe
Trees are essential in any garden design! Consider one of the most famous dry gardens in Japan, the garden at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto. This small rectangular plot composed of gravel and stones is almost devoid of plants. Yet even there evergreen conifers such as Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar) and Chamaecyparis obtusa (hinoki cypress) tower above the slate-covered wall. This backdrop of trees creates a pleasant screen for the dry garden and isolates the garden from the outer world, enabling monks and visitors alike to focus their attention on the stone garden.
Japanese maples, of which Acer palmatum and its cultivars form the majority, are among the most important garden trees in Japan. In spring visitors come to see the new leaves unfold, but the autumn colors hold the biggest attraction. Maples are always planted in strategic spots to enhance the garden beauty. Tofuku-ji Temple in Kyoto is well known for the superb autumn colors of its Japanese maples. Three small wooden-roofed bridges span the steep valley behind the temple, and Japanese maples are carefully cultivated along the valley between the bridges. Visitors have the rare opportunity to view the leaf colors from above.
Three pine species are commonly planted in Japanese gardens: Pinus densiflora (Japanese red pine), P. parviflora (Japanese white pine), and P. thunbergii (Japanese black pine). Japanese black pine is the most commonly planted of these pines. An impressive specimen is frequently sited at the entrance to private gardens. Pine trees must be well maintained. Trained gardeners cut back all new shoots every year to retain the desired shape of the tree. Pruning pine trees can be regarded as the ultimate practice in patience.
Podocarpus macrophyllus (yew podocarp) is also an important tree in Japanese gardens. Once a year the trees are carefully clipped with a shears into rounded shapes. However, the pruning technique does vary from region to region.
Trees give much needed shade during the long, hot summer months. Two species of evergreen oak frequently planted in Japanese gardens are Quercus glauca (ring-cupped oak) and Q. myrsinifolia (Japanese white oak). The fast-growing Cinnamomum camphor (camphor tree) is another common tree in the Japanese landscape. Where space is restricted, these trees are pruned each year. A common form of pruning involves thinning the crown and reducing the length of branches. Gardeners climb trees with the aid of ladders or with hydraulic lifts and carefully saw or prune branches.
The blooming of Prunus mume (Japanese apricot) heralds the beginning of spring. A garden with this tree in full bloom is a heartwarming sight. The Japanese appreciation for these blossoms goes back many hundreds of years.
Another important tree in Japanese gardens, and indeed in Japanese society in general, is the Japanese flowering cherry. In spring, the cherry trees paint gardens and mountainsides with their gorgeous colored blossoms. These wonderful flowering trees fascinate the whole nation. During the cherry flowering season gardens and parks across the country are packed with visitors. Particularly popular with people are the old cherry trees, some of which may be hundreds of years old.
Cherries are planted everywhere, and the grounds of many old castles have been turned into cherry parks. The prize for the most popular tree must go to Prunus
× yedoensis (Yoshino cherry). Though they are short lived, Yoshino cherry flowers have an incredible intensity. Unfortunately, the Yoshino cherry is overplanted.
Immediately after the cherry blooms fade azaleas burst into flower. Rhododendron × obtusum (Kirishima azalea) and R. indicum (Satsuki azalea) are two of the
numerous species and hybrids grown in Japanese gardens. The Kirishima azaleas are planted in a wide variety of situations from Japanese-style gardens to hedges beneath roadside trees.
Camellia japonica (Japanese camellia) and its countless cultivars are at their best in spring. They are often planted in private as well as temple gardens, close to
pathways where people can appreciate the blossoms. Mature camellias can grow to treelike proportions and can live for hundreds of years.
Japanese gardeners are particularly fond of berried shrubs, such as Ardisia crenata (coral berry), Nandina domestica (sacred bamboo), and Sarcandra glabra, to name a few. Sacred bamboo shrubs laden with red berries are a pleasing sight and enhance the feeling of autumn in the garden.
Hydrangeas are truly superb during the rainy season. The rain does not deter Japanese people from viewing these lovely flowering shrubs.Many temple gardens have large collections of hydrangeas to attract visitors. The arboretum in Kobe has the largest collection with 30 species and cultivars and an estimated 50,000 hydrangeas. In this arboretum the hydrangea flowering season is treated as a festive occasion and natural hydrangea tea is served free to visitors.
Any visitor to a Japanese garden would probably notice a number of nonnative trees and shrubs cultivated in it. Cornus florida (flowering dogwood), from North America, is greatly admired and widely cultivated in gardens throughout Japan and used as a street tree. However, in the traditional Japanese-style gardens gardeners
prefer to plant the native dogwood, C. kousa.
This does not mean that nonnative plants are excluded from Japanese-style gardens. Japanese culture has close links with continental Asia and plant introduction began long ago. Acer buergerianum (trident maple) was introduced to Japan from China between 1716 and 1745. It is often used for bonsai culture and is widely used as a street tree. Magnolia grandiflora (large-flowered magnolia), introduced to Japan in 1873, is planted in parks and used as a street tree. Michelia figo (banana shrub) is a Chinese shrub often planted around Shinto shrines and in traditional Japanese gardens. Gardens and temples around Japan would look bare without the showy flowers of two Chinese magnolias, Magnolia denudata (lily tree) and M. liliiflora (lily-flowered magnolia), to brighten up the gardens in springtime. Another delightful Chinese shrub is Osmanthus fragrans f. aurantiacus (sweet olive). In October, sweet fragrance from the tiny orange flowers fills the air in gardens around Japan.
Englishman John Henry Brooke (1826–1902) imported seed of Cedrus deodara (Himalayan cedar) to Japan in 1879. From this humble beginning the cedar tree has become very popular and is even used in Japanese-style gardens. In restricted spaces Himalayan cedars have their branches shortened once a year. It is surprising just how fast these trees grow, so trees must be pruned back hard.
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