The Landscape Guide

Flowers in Japanese Garden Design 

It was a fortunate circumstance in ancient Japanese civilisation that its calendar was a lunar one and made New Year’s Day fall in February, so that the day and the month of the new year combined to create a feast of welcome. On this happy day the first plum-blossom, Prunus mume, so dear to the Japanese heart, was greeted with great rejoicings.

The tree itself, dark and gnarled, and in old age often quaint-looking, is a great contrast to its delicate flowers, with their snow-white or blood-red bloom, appearing before the leaves. The people come in crowds, and though some are noisy, others gaze with silent rapture. Poets of all times have taken this tree for their theme, and it seems to embody hopes for the coming year in the endless allegories and legends that are bound up with it. Royal princes and great men alike planted parts of their parks with the mume, afterwards admitting the common people, and receiving the nobility on certain special days marked for ceremonial fêtes. Rejoicings are still more vehement when the Japanese cherry, Prunus pseudocerasus, is in flower in April. Both these trees are grown for the sake of their flowers, not for their fruit, which is of little use. The year has come to its chief beauty, and now even the very poorest person brings out a gay dress, to share with friends and children a humble picnic under the flowering trees (Fig. 566).

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The double cherry, with its large white and pale pink flowers, is exceedingly beautiful. In the old garden, the Fukiage, which once belonged to the Shogun, and is now the property of the Mikado, are held the annual ceremonial feasts of the Cherry-blossoms. There is a saying, “ If anyone asks where is the heart of a true Japanese, point to the wild cherry blossom, where it glows upon the tree.” Thus the Japanese people, like the Chinese, have a complete flower-calendar according to their favourite blossoms; and every month is indicated by its own most beautiful flower. Flowering trees are cultivated in both countries entirely for the sake of the beauty of the blossom (Fig. 567).
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 Between plum and cherry comes peach, in the month of March. In May appear the flowers of the fuji, the wistaria, after which the Japanese have named the most beautiful of their hills, the Fujiyama. The most distinguished of Japanese families, which, like the Mikado himself, traces back its origin to the gods, bears the name of Fuji-wara, i.e. wistaria-field. All the arbours are covered with this tree, in fact the verandas are only there at all so that they may show from below the great beauty of the bunches of flowers (Fig. 568).

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In June the iris follows; and in the fields of iris herons are to be seen, slender birds, tame, and fond of company. In July there is the lotus, changing every pond as with a magician's wand into a charming garden of flowers. In the days of Li-Tai-pe the Chinese also used to go out to the rivers and lakes which were so famous for water-lilies. They went in hosts, to admire and to pluck the flowers, as is told in the tender poem. On the Banks of the Yo-Yeh. June brings peonies, which are also much delighted in by poets. August and September are the months when the many kinds of hibiscus are in flower. In October the chrysanthemums bloom, and again people come together, to see the exhibitions of these flowers. Once more the nobility hold festivals, which are really one mass of tradition, in the imperial gardens. The chrysanthemum appears in the emperor’s coat of arms. Now also the fine foliage of the maple takes colour, and is the pride of many places. November and December produce a particular sort of camellia, and also the flowers of the Chinese tea-plant. Last of all, in January, we have gardens full of the more common kinds of camellias.

Japan has not a very large number of different kinds of flowers, and the attempt to cultivate a greater variety only began with the influence of the West. But we can add to the list of the popular flowers already named both azaleas and orchids. Such Western methods of training as they could not actually. see were quite unknown to the Japanese. Even in their imperial flower, the chrysanthemum, they were surpassed by gardeners of the West. Yet Europe has had no notion of the innate, profound, and highly developed love for flowers that is felt by the Japanese, and which is remarkably exhibited in one branch of art, viz, the way that flowers are arranged. This they call Ike-bana, or living flowers (Fig. 569). 

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The notion is to find for a flower, which is taken out of the earth, some place wherein it is as far as possible in its natural atmosphere. Because it has been moved and placed in a vessel it has to be under special protection and care, The stalk or the branch must keep its own particular form, The vase must above all be suitable for the flower, and must, so to speak, counter- balance it as did its native earth before, while at the same time it must add some- thing to its beauty, and set it in the right light. It is easily understood that the trained eye of the Japanese detects the idiosyncrasy of any plant; and as Nature does not often give these forms in their perfection, art must be summoned to her aid.

The art of arranging flowers is closely connected with the underlying symbolism that we shall find in Japanese gardening. There is faithful observation at work, together with delicate æsthetic sensibility, both for line and for symbolic meanings. This is always present with the Japanese; and out of it there arises some form which is sanctified by their tradition, and has been elaborated in many volumes of theoretical treatises. Thus the very curves which the plant is to take are prescribed, and also the little branches with three, five, or seven blossoms or leaves, All the details are systematically worked out, and each has its definite symbolic importance. Moreover, care has to be taken about the surroundings in the room, and where the vase is to be placed. Seeing that the room looks out upon a garden, it really belongs in a sense to that; and so this garden must not be neglected in the scheme.

It follows from the relation of the Japanese both to Nature as a whole and to trees and flowers in particular, that theirs are not flower-gardens in the same sense as ours are. The fundamental principle of Chinese art is so to bring Nature before the eyes that only selected beauties are seen, and this is the end and sum of Japanese art also. This art, as indeed were all the arts, was at its height in the military epoch of Japanese history. But the Japanese received their style as such ready-made, for it was delivered over to them from China at the same time that the country was penetrated by Buddhism. At any rate, it was then that attention was first directed towards the building of temples, and Buddhist monks have from the beginning been wont to take the utmost care of the surroundings of their temples and monasteries. Japanese writers do indeed talk of a primitive style, existing before the Chinese influence came in, and we read of a lake with island, bridge, and plum- and orange-trees; but as there was no written literature at the time they would have been made and planted, this tradition is too vague.