Japanese Plants in American Gardens

PLANTS are in some respects like men and women : their eccentricities as well as evil manners live in brass, while their virtues we write in water.

When one hears of Japanese trees, it is not the great hemlock forests of Lake Yumoto nor the giant Cryptomerias of Nikkoō that come before the mind, not the blossoming trees of Elizabeth’s German Garden nor even the little yellow-tipped evergreens of our own lawns, but a horticultural curio, — a miniature tree, marvelously gnarled and dwarfed, with a pedigree going back to the time of Cromwell; a result of Japanese brains and Japanese ingenuity, but certainly no adequate representative of nature’s work on Japanese soil. There are even heretics among us, who regard the curious little tree in much the same light that Sir Francis Bacon regarded the yews, carved in the shapes of animals, which adorned Queen Elizabeth’s gardens. “ These be for children,” said he.

But the ancient dwarf in its blue-andwhite jardinière is the smallest part of our debt to Japan in horticulture. It is now nearly forty years since her plants were first brought to this country, and in that time the different varieties have become so diffused, so assimilated with our own species, that only those plant lovers whose affection extends to the prosaic details of botanic name and origin realize how many of the natives of Japan have made their home with us. Doubtless their very adaptability has kept them unnoticed, for they thrive without any petting. Unlike the English Rhododendrons and the French Standard Roses, they need neither shade by day in summer, nor defense by night in winter.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Japanese plant, compared with its American brothers, is a sort of holiday appearance, a touch of an older civilization and culture than ours : as if a country lass, who had been educated away from home, given a year or two of Paris by way of " finishing,” should come back and stand again among her sisters who had never left the home farm ; they might have the same rosy cheeks, the same features, but would lack the indescribable touch of culture, the grace of manner, which would make her perfectly at ease where her sisters would feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Beautiful as our apple tree is in blossom time, it should never leave the orchard. A New England spinster is not more settled in her habits. Stiff and unbending, the smallest tree never looks really young ; the infectious gayety of a March wind, which makes an old elm forget his years, and toss his boughs like a birch sapling, will only set its smallest twigs aflutter, in a vain attempt to enter into the spirit of the thing; the branches remain in unmoved primness. But the Japanese apple tree from its infancy is a thing of gracefulness and charm ; and the blossoms, — there are none like them in all the beautiful race of flowering trees ! The profusion of apple blossoms combined with the delicacy of a wild rose ! The leaves are small, shining, and more abundant than those of the common apple, and the blossoms hang in clusters from the lower side of the branches, each like a tiny rosebud.

Our cherry tree escapes the spinster-like aspect of the apple, but it is under the same ban. It may be picturesque in its old age,covered with snowy blossoms; it may even be one of those motherly looking trees which Madame de Sévigné wished to embrace ; still it is as hopelessly out of place on a smooth-shaven lawn as a dear old " mammy ” at an afternoon tea. On the other hand, the Japanese cherry sways its drooping branches with the air of one “ to the manner born,” and is charming to look on at all times, especially in May, when, to the tip of the smallest branchlet, it is hidden under a mist of delicate rose-colored blossoms, the whole tree having the airy lightness of an acacia.

Although an early settler, the Japanese Dogwood (Cornus Kousa) is little known. In horticulture as in literature a gem may lie unnoticed, while its less deserving brethren are reaching toward the three-hundred-thousand mark. For thirty years the Benthamia, as we used to call it, has been passed by on the other side, while Spireas and Weigelias by the thousand have gone to adorn the gardens of the priests and Levites. The native Dogwood (Cornus florida) blossoms before the leaves are fully out ; the branches are level or tending upward, and the flowers lift their faces to the sun, without a thought of turning so that the passer-by may have a better look ; but its Japanese rival pursues another course, and makes the most of its advantages. The foliage of the Cornus Kousa is richer and more abundant, and the blossoms have no idea of showing themselves until a proper setting is provided ; but when they do appear, creamy white, the edges of the petals daintily crimped to give an added softness, they are well worth the waiting. Again in the autumn the Japanese Dogwood makes a brave showing ; its branches are hung with crimson seed vessels, which give the effect of large, luscious-looking strawberries.

Beside the native Judas tree the Japanese variety again shows superiority : its form is more symmetrical, its blossoms more delicate and of a finer color. Indeed, “ time would fail me to tell of Gedeon and of Barak, " of Hydrangeas and Spireas, Larches and Viburnums, all having the same difference, and giving the effect of the native species done in an édition de luxe.

The Magnolias would have slight chance of social prominence — if one may use the expression — were their claims based solely upon the American members of the family. The beautiful Southern grandiflora cannot, of course, have a place here among the hardy trees, and the stronger auriculata, macrophylla, and glauca make but a slender showing beside the brilliant Chinese and Japanese varieties. Earliest not only of the Magnolias, but of all the flowering trees, is the Chinese Magnolia stellata, which comes out with only the scarlet maples for company; the blossoms, with the daring which in nature belongs especially to the fragile, trust themselves in all their dainty whiteness to the treacherous smiles of an April morning which may “ black out in one blot their brief life’s pleasantness.” The buds, gray and soft and downy, crowd along the branches like overgrown pussy-willows, and burst suddenly into blossom ; the flowers, with their slender, pure white, transparent petals, look like idealized and etherealized daisies, making the plant a mass of dazzling fragrance. After the stellata lias pointed the way and proved if blossoming is safe, the other Magnolias crowd into place. First the conspicua — but the Chinese varieties are “ another story : ” the stellata comes in by a special license ; for although it has recently been made to own the Flowery Kingdom as its birthplace, it came to us from Japan, and during the forty years of its American residence has been called Japanese, so one cannot write of Japanese Magnolias and leave out this bravest one which has so long held an honored place in their ranks. Prominent among the Japanese Magnolias are the fragrant hypoleuca, with its great creamy petals ; the delicate purpurea, its pale violet blossoms shading into white within ; nigricans, darkest of all; the heavy blossoms of Watsonii, whose scarlet centre and large white petals are strikingly contrasted; and last of all to show themselves are the dark purple blossoms of the gracilis. Despite their tropical appearance, the Magnolias adapt themselves to our climate with true Japanese courtesy. Magnolia Kobus endures New England winters without a murmur, as if in Japan blizzards were things of every-day occurrence. The rarest of the family, the parviflora, not only shows no exclusiveness, but is most generous with its charms, blossoming in June and again in September, when other plants consider their duties at an end. The flowers are little larger than Dogwood blossoms, delicately fragrant, and carefully set in the rich soft leaves to show to best advantage the pure white petals which surround the heart of scarlet and gold.

Beside the Magnolias and the flowering trees which seem like the native species attained unto a higher state, there are those plants on which the stamp of Japan is more patent; some having a marked regularity of form, others curious leaves, deeply cut, or as oddly variegated as the clothes of the Pied Piper. Chiefest of these, standing among the American plants like veritable foreigners in their native costume, are the Japanese maples. With the exception of a few of the cut-leaved sorts, which have a graceful drooping elegance, these little maples have the characteristic Japanese stiffness, — not, however, from any painful acquaintance with the shears. Theirs is the stiffness of intention, never of necessity ; the consciousness of a child in a fresh frock and crisp ribbons, quite aware of its fine appearance. The leaves are distinct: some are lacelike in their delicacy, scarcely more than the veins outlined ; others are like miniature palms. Acer Japonicum aureum has the leaves of a tiny fan ; there is the curling leaf of cucullatum, the curiously beautiful ribbed leaf of carpinifolium; and there is crispum, whose small leaves are each mounted on a stiff red stem, each lobe curled together, reminding one of the claw of a dove and its neat little scarlet leg. But the most remarkable feature of the Japanese maples is not the stiffness nor the curious leaves, but the color. In this no plant can surpass them. There is a faint hint in our own maple’s young growth of the autumn splendor it has in store, — a “ substance of things hoped for; ” but the Japanese maples are not content with a hint, — they are veritable spendthrifts of color. To many, the Alpha and Omega of Japanese maples are the blood-red sanguineum and the atropurpureum, whose coloring is well known, the fine crimson of the latter only deepening, as the season advances, into a rich purple ; but rarer than these is pinnatifidum, with its airy graceful branches and deep claret tint, the delicate feathery softness of the cut-leaved variety of atropurpureum ; and beside it is dissectum viridis, — “ the same thing in green,” as a dry-goods clerk would say. There is nigricans, dark as the purple beech, the golden Japonicum aureum, and unique not only among the maples, but among all the trees, is the clear bronze tint of carpinifolium. One of the most charming varieties in color is roseum. This is an odd little tree, growing hardly more than two feet in twenty years, gnarled and twisted, not comparing with the other maples in habit; but in May, when it clothes itself with tiny leaves of the purest rose color, all deficiencies of character are forgotten; for surface beauty, no less than charity, is a cloak that covers many sins, — a fact one can learn elsewhere than among the Japanese maples.

Not content with the work in single colors, the Japanese maples are deep in nature’s printer’s craft, and give us reticulatum, carefully outlining the veins in green on a white background ; albovariegatum, the tiny green leaves edged with white and a trace of pink; versicolor, blotched rather arbitrarily with white and pink and green ; roseo-pictis, gayest of all, with even a touch of yellow in addition to the other colors; and roseo - marginatum, on whose smallest leaf the brush has laid a dainty edge of pink. These are a few of the more noticeable members of a large family, each variety distinct, and each little leaf as perfectly finished as a line of Tennyson’s.

Another vivid bit of Japanese coloring is the Evonymus alatus, whose autumn brilliance almost rivals the tints of the little maples. The foliage in October becomes a deep rose color, and the stiff corklike branches are thickly hung on the under side with tiny scarlet berries. Here the foreign touch is not in curious leaves, but in a peculiar formation of the bark, — an odd winglike structure extending on each side of the branches. The Evonymus alatus has the stiff regularity of form characteristic of so many of the Japanese plants, and seems to have been made solely for decorative purposes, and with an eye single to its autumn effect.

A very familiar shrub is the Japanese Barberry (Berberis Thunbergii), not so unusual in color or form, but its crimson leaves do not, as those of the Evonymus alatus, fall off at the first touch of winter; on the contrary, they cling as long as possible, and the scarlet berries remain until spring, when the fresh green leaves relieve them of their duty.

Among the vines the Japanese varieties hold a larger place, in proportion to the American, than among the flowering trees and shrubs, — from the Creeping Evonymus to the Climbing Hydrangea, which, on its native soil, festoons the trees as the trumpet vine the Southern oaks. The Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera Halleana) has earned a place not accorded to any native species, simply because it is better, — stronger, more luxuriant, and almost evergreen. The golden variety, reticulata aurea, has the same excellencies with the additional charm of brilliant color. Perhaps the best is the Japanese Ivy {Ampelopsis Veitchii), that friendliest of all vines, growing without coaxing in the most unlikely places, covering ugliness with astonishing rapidity, — the

“ bald red bricks draped, nothing loth,
In lappets of tangle they laugh between.”

In its tender green there is nothing of the sombreness of the English Ivy, and its October crimson strikes something of its life into the stones themselves, making many an old wall throb. Another Japanese vine, the Actinidia, has by no means had the welcome of the Ampelopsis accorded to it; perhaps it has not earned it. One variety, the polygama, although more inclined to sprawl than climb, is valuable for a curious fall effect. Its supply of chlorophyll does not last all summer, so, as autumn approaches, the ends of the sprays turn yellow, contrasting oddly with the dark shining green of the branches nearer the stem, and the vine, at a little distance, gives the effect of a large shrub covered with long racemes of yellow blossoms. Arguta, the other variety, bears a small, yellowish fruit, much used by the Japanese, although as yet unappreciated by Americans, and has far better success as a climber, beside having the faculty of thriving on a supply of sunlight in which many another vine would die in utter discouragement.

Kindly as our climate has been to the flowering trees, the vines, and the little maples, it has given an even warmer welcome to the Japanese evergreens. Not only have they found the soil to their liking, but they seem to have become imbued with the spirit of democracy ; exhibiting what one might call the Irish faculty of attaining positions of prominence undreamed of on their native soil. A Japanese would be surprised to find Picea polita, the bristling Tiger’s Tail Spruce, in the dignified ranks of the “ ornamentals ; ” for it is a scraggy tree in its native Japan, an outcast from the gardens, — without honor in its own country.

One might have expected that the Umbrella Pine {Sciadopitys verticillata) would be properly received here ; for it is a rare tree even in Japan, often found planted near a temple, and carefully inclosed by a fence beside. The Sciadopitys is perhaps the most distinct of the Japanese evergreens, and is so regular in form that it might have stepped bodily from some conventionalized design on a book cover. It has the fresh, vivid green of young corn, and every possible branchlet is crowned by a curious little structure like a tiny skeleton umbrella.

There are notable Japanese among the Pines, the Firs, the Spruces, the Hemlocks, the Yews and Junipers, but most valuable of all the Japanese evergreens which have recently come into notice is the Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata).

As a hedge plant the Ilex is universally used in Japan, and there is scarcely a garden in which a plant is not to be found trained into some marvelous shape ; for the Ilex, as becomes a good hedge plant, beareth all things, endureth all things, from the pruning shears. If there are books in the running brooks, surely there are poems in blossoming trees, sonnets and quatrains in the little maples, and the Ilex is destined to become a classic, beside which our Privet will be but ephemeral literature ; in fact, the Privet has had the sale of a popular novel, and its glory is the glory of the large editions, not of the test of years. The Japanese Holly has all the excellencies of an evergreen, with none of the defects : denseness with lights and shadows, uniformity without monotony. Horticultural prophets are predicting a wide popularity for it, but “ the wind bloweth where it listeth ; ” it is easier to prophesy correctly of the value of real estate or the course of the human affections than to foretell which tree or shrub will take the popular fancy.

In coloring, the evergreens are naturally more restricted than the deciduous plants, although there are some beautiful tints among them. Picea Alcockiana on the under side of the leaves has the silvery blue tint of the Colorado Blue Spruce, contrasting charmingly with the rich green of the upper side of the branches. None of our native pines excel in foliage the heavy softness of the Japanese. Pinus densiflora, and its rare seedling densiflora aurea, is the only perfectly hardy golden pine we have. Among the Retinosporas, a large family which are entirely Japanese, the variegations are usually of white or yellow, although the soft feathery branches of Retinospora ericoides become a reddish violet in the winter, and the squarrosa has dusted its green fluffy branches with a silver gray. Some of the Retinosporas give distinctness to their variegations by peculiarity of form: thus the filifera aurea exaggerates even Wouter Van Twiller’s proportions, having two feet in breadth for every one in height, and is a mound of green heavily overlaid and hung with golden threads, with the gorgeousness of a much-decorated warrior. Doubtless obtusa nana, the Retinospora used by the Japanese in making their miniature trees, is best known in that character, although it is a charming little plant when left to its own devices. There is the plumosa aurea, with its soft rich foliage and golden tint, and a score or more of others ; each variety having the argentea or aurea variegations or the dwarf species, and all worthy of far more than a casual acquaintance.

There is a certain feminine unexpectedness about the Japanese evergreens. In November, Andromeda Japonica, with its racemes of tiny white bell-shaped buds, looks like a lily of the valley which had been turned shrub by some Japanese sorcerer, and having lost its reckoning in consequence, had mistaken the season ; the holly-like leaves of Mahonia Japonica may be found in February holding determinedly to their October crimson; the little golden-tipped evergreens make slight change in their yellow bravery when the mercury is creeping into its bulb, and the snow lies heavily on their branches, and even the Rhododendrons are curling their leaves together and looking “ sleepy,” as the gardeners say.

To entitle a tree or shrub to a place where the eye must fall daily upon it, it is not enough that during a few weeks in the year it should be a thing of beauty ; it must, like Cyrano, be at all times “ always admirable.” It is in this quality of being “ admirable,” and at all seasons of unfailing interest, that the Japanese plants are preëminent. They have a piquancy which prevents their beauty from ever becoming monotonous, an infinite variety which “ age cannot wither, nor custom stale ; ” they have a way of catching one’s heart in the rebound, blossoming when the petals of our own species have fallen and are lying dead; sometimes, like Magnolia parviflora, they endear themselves by " coming to us when the world is gone.” They go through no “ awkward age ; ” in their infancy they are miniatures rather than unfinished pictures.

The Italian garden is suited to but few of our villas and country houses. It is true that we lack the architectural accompaniments, the balustrades and terraces, but still more do we lack the patience to wait the necessary years of growth. We Americans do not plant for posterity ; our children may live abroad, or they may pull down our barns, and build greater, demolishing the gardens at the same time. But the Japanese plants are especially adapted to American lawns and gardens ; they give a touch of ornateness to the simplest cottage, and harmonize perfectly with the more pretentious mansion.

But whether our windows overlook broad acres or only a few yards of lawn and the village street, there is the one necessity to be met in a greater or less degree, — the necessity of making the bit of earth we call our own as beautiful as our taste can suggest and our means admit.

The present revival of interest in gardening is one of the most hopeful signs of the new century. It is a return to Edenic conditions ; for “ God Almighty first planted a garden, . . . and a man shall ever see that when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were the greater perfection.” For the buildings and palaces are wrought but with the bodies of trees, but he who plants a garden comes in touch with the living organism, linked to the past through centuries, and to the future with untold possibilities ; he must learn of Nature, and in patient study find that love of her which the poets and artists of all ages will tell him is the beginning of much wisdom.

Frances Duncan.