Trees in a Japanese Garden: an Idealized Vision of Nature

Spring in the garden
Spring in the garden

Small maples bring gracefulness, movement and change to the garden -  so important to the designer's goal of interpreting nature and capturing its essence. Photo: Aurora Santiago.

In the U.S. and other Western countries, plants have traditionally been seen as highly important garden elements, valued for their structural roles (such as topiary & hedges) and ornamental qualities -- including flower color, fragrance and season of bloom. Their role within the gardens of Japan is less decorative and more nuanced. Austere Zen Gardens -- with their expanses of raked gravel, carefully chosen and placed stones, and minimal plantings – come to mind.

Japanese gardens are inspired by a deep respect for nature, but they’re certainly not “natural.” Instead, they’re works of art that aim to achieve a balance between wildness and control – in other words, to distill the essence of nature. Plants are pruned and “controlled,” but not as a demonstration of human supremacy. When we enter a Japanese-style garden, we engage with an idealized vision of nature that helps us to discover our place within it.

Although most Japanese gardens contain both evergreen and deciduous plants, there’s a greater emphasis on broadleaf and coniferous evergreens. Small deciduous trees and shrubs are also used -- particularly cherries, plums and Japanese maples. Herbaceous perennials are less important, with the exception of moss and other evergreen groundcovers.

I’ll focus here on trees, and the roles they play, in Japanese gardens. The following are some of the most important kinds:

Pines (Pinus) – Known as matsu in Japan, these evergreen conifers are associated with permanence and longevity. The ancient Taoist image of the pine-covered Horai “island of the immortals” is a striking evocation of these qualities. The word matsu is also the pronunciation for the word “to wait.” Thus, pines also suggest the idea of waiting for a lover -- or for the resolution of a frustrating or impossible situation.

The two pine species most important in Japanese gardens are Pinus thunbergii (Japanese black pine, native to the seashore) and Pinus densiflora (Japanese red pine, native to mountainous areas). Each is used in the garden to suggest its native habitat. In addition, the black pine is referred to as on-matsu (the male pine), and the red pine as men-matsu (the female pine). Their bark colors, branching and needle qualities are significantly different – and historically have been seen to reflect the perceived “masculine” or “feminine” nature of each. Both are pruned heavily, to suggest the effects of wind and other environmental conditions. Black pines, in particular, are shaped to represent the dwarf, contorted forms created by battering seacoast winds.

Flowering deciduous trees, such as plums and cherries (both are species of Prunus) – These spring-blooming trees embody the fleeting nature of life and beauty. They’ve been favorite garden plants since the Heian period (794-1185), which added the importance of the four seasons to garden design theory. Plum trees take well to heavy pruning, and are shaped to represent the look of age -- a gnarled old trunk with slender young shoots. Cherry trees, less tolerant of pruning, are allowed to grow to a more natural size, and are valued for the brief perfection of their flowering.

Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum) – For over 300 years, the Japanese have revered this small deciduous tree, developing hundreds of cultivated varieties. They selected for color (of spring & fall foliage; of trunk & branches) and form (leaf size & shape; plant size & habit), and have bred a remarkable diversity of cultivars. Prized in Japan and in Japanese-style gardens elsewhere, they grow particularly well in our Pacific Northwest climate.

Small maples bring gracefulness, movement and change to the garden – so important to the designer’s goal of interpreting nature and capturing its essence. Their leaves undergo color changes from spring to summer to fall, and the color of their bark changes with age and depending upon the amount of sun and shade they receive. The Japanese style of pruning is to open up the tree so its living architecture can be appreciated in all seasons. This pruning is especially remarkable on the weeping laceleaf types (Acer palmatum Dissectum Group). Unpruned, as they are in so many U.S. gardens, they often resemble shapeless mops.

Two words are used by the Japanese to indicate Japanese maple species and cultivars, and these words reveal something of the reverence they evoke: Momiji (usually refers to maples which have leaves with deeply separated lobes) and Kaede (usually refers to most other maples).

“Kaede” stems from the ancient language term “Kaerude” – (Kaeru = frog, de = hand). The lobed leaves of maples brought to mind the webbed hand of a frog. As the centuries passed, this was shortened to “Kaede.”

“Momiji” may literally be translated ‘baby’s hand”, but it is not correct in this case to apply the meaning directly. Instead, one may apply it as “Little baby extends his tiny hands which are like the leaves of momiji (maple).”

On the other hand, in ancient times there was a verb “momizu”, meaning “becomes crimson leaves.” In more modern times the word changed to “Momiji” which is in use today. (Information provided by Hideo Suzuki in Japanese Maples: Second Edition, J.D. Vertrees, 1987)

bamboo in the garden
bamboo in the garden

Bamboo is highly valued in Japanese gardens for its qualities of movement and sound. Photo: Mami H.

Bamboo – These are giant grasses rather than botanical trees, but their role and importance in Japanese gardens is similar to that of small trees. There are many species of bamboo native to Japan’s temperate regions, but only the shorter and less aggressive types are commonly used. As a grass with a hollow stem, bamboo is valued for its supple nature and represents the quality of resilience. It’s valued especially when the wind blows -- for its qualities of movement and sound. In addition, its woody stems are used to construct garden elements such as fences, gates and walls.

Serving as a docent of Seattle’s Japanese Garden for the past three years has deepened my understanding of the roles plants, and particularly trees, can have in our gardens and lives. In the past, I’ve tended to focus on plants’ decorative qualities. As a garden designer, I’ve made choices based on striking contrasts of color, texture and form. I’ve planned for flowering in all seasons, not just spring and summer. However, it’s good to be reminded that gardens are much more than a collection of plants. Japanese-style gardens, by a radical process of simplification and even stylization, remove distractions and pull us back into something essential about the living elements within the garden – and about our own nature as well.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.