A trip to East Asia isn’t complete without wandering around stunning Japan. From spring’s picturesque cherry blossoms to tall bamboo forests, Japanese plants have a lot to offer in terms of beauty and spiritual significance.
Today’s guest blogger, Sasha Ivanova, is a London gardener, blogger and martial artist. She is passionate about growing from seed and propagating plants. Sasha wants to inspire people to garden in small urban spaces and make gardening fun by introducing new varieties of plants and unusual edibles on her blog, London Plantology.
Mindful coexistence with nature is an essential part of Buddhist and Shinto religions in Japan. In Shinto, spirits called kami inhabit the world around us. They live in giant trees and in the tiniest plants, ride joyfully on the wind and in water springs and even make their homes in mountains and rocks.
I want to find out if any mischievous kami are hidden in everyday plants you come across in Japan.
1. Japanese plants: Azalea
Cherry blossom season is a most celebrated time in Japan. However, it is fleeting, and after Sakura flowers fade another plant takes centre stage.
Azalea celebrates spring with bright pink trumpet blooms. Its kami is bold and loud and impatient for the hot and humid summer. Pink looks striking against grey colours of the metropolis and really brightens up urban spaces.
Azalea prefers living near trees and is also found in Japanese gardens thriving amongst mossy rocks under Japanese pines. Twisted Azalea branches, straight solemn pines and shiny green mosses create a cool contrast of shapes, forms and colours!
2. Japanese plants: Japanese Cedar, Sugi
Red cedar trees known as Sugi, endemic to Japan, are considered sacred and animated with most powerful kami.
These trees were planted centuries ago by monks around temples and shrines. The Cedar Avenue of Nikko, the most famous and stretching for many kilometres, was planted 400 years ago.
The red giant tree trunks dominate the space with enormous branches reaching out into the misty air. You feel so small and insignificant visiting the Nikko Tosho-gu shrine. I wonder if this was the idea behind planting them!
3. Japanese plants: Hydrangea, Ajisai
In the middle of June, rainy season arrives in Japan. With it arrives gorgeous blue flower balls of Hydrangea or Ajisai, “Gathering of Blues” in Japanese.
The heavier the downpours, the more intense the blue of Hydrangea. The flower is loved by Japanese people and there are temples in Kamakura district dedicated to it.
Ajisai-dera (Hydrangea Temple) is a well known spot to enjoy vibrant blue blooms. The nearby Hase-dera temple features a Hydrangea garden with 40 different varieties, including delicate lacecap ones, planted within its grounds. Don’t forget to bring your umbrella!
Cool fact about Hydrangeas: their petals change colour depending on the soil acidity and the amount of rainfall. The warrior class in feudal Japan despised Hydrangeas for this trait as a samurai’s loyalty never changes!
4. Japanese plants: Hakonechloa
For me the sound of a Japanese garden is rustling of bamboo and grass in the wind. My absolutely favourite grass is Hakonechloa, Japanese forest grass, which originates from the Hakone mountains. I like its elegant look with thin leaves rising on wiry stems, and admire its super tough nature.
It grows in volcanic rock but can survive successfully even in the middle of a fast mountain stream.
In London I am propagating the variety Beni Kaze, which means Red Wind. As cold temperatures approach in the autumn, leaf blades of this grass turn into red spiky flames; hence the name. Originally a gift from UK National Collection of Hakonechloa, this is the most prized grass in my garden.
5. Japanese plants: Iris
Japanese call the iris ‘fleeting flower of summer’. Its blooms only last a few days, but are they worth it? Absolutely!
When planted on an enormous scale, irises reflect a sea of colours. Today people come to capture their ephemeral beauty with cameras as they did in ancient Japan with woodblock prints and paintings.
The famous work by Japanese artist Ogata Korin “Irises” portrays a splendid field of irises rhythmically repeated across the panels. It is a truly modern piece of art revealing how beautiful the iris is. What a pity it doesn’t last!
6. Japanese plants: Japanese pine, Matsu
Japanese pine trees have always fascinated me! Each tree is a living work of art, beautifully sculptured and carefully trained for generations.
Twisted trunks, a cracked bark, giant branches stretching out horizontally all add to creating its ancient image. I have great respect for these trees but also find them incredibly cool! Reflecting in the water, pines bring a mysterious element to Japanese gardens.
Matsu means “waiting for a god” and indeed it is the most treasured tree in Japan. You rarely come across a garden without a pine tree. Constant work of removing needles and pruning branches is being done to create dramatic shapes imitating trees bent by winds on mountains and seashores in the wild.
7. Japanese plants: Lotus
The ability to rise above the water is what makes this plant so special and also distinguishes it from the water lily. Even when not in flower, lotus plants create a stunning display!
Do you feel the leaves waving at you? Kami spirit of the lotus is enlightened, pure and impermanent. In early July, Kanrensetsu (lotus flower viewing) celebration is held in Japan when flowers open for a brief passing moment.
Cool fact about the Lotus: deep in the water, plants hide their massive roots which can grow up to three metres long and are also edible and prized for their cute geometric appearance in the Japanese kitchen. I am a bit wary though: perfect outside and monstrous inside, add the supernatural ability of the plant to regulate the temperature of its flowers. Spooky!
8. Japanese plants: Japanese maple, Momiji
Myriad of tree forms, leaf shapes and colours exist in the world of maple. When autumn descends on the islands, maple trees turn Japanese hills, mountains and city gardens ablaze with fiery colours. Deep red and bronze orange, golden yellow and burgundy purple, all mixed together!
For Japanese people, autumn maple tree viewing is a special form of communication and establishing a spiritual bond with spirits living in these trees. But if you are not scared of kami ghosts haunting you, go ahead and try Osaka delicacy “momiji tempura”, maple leaves fried in sugared or salted batter.
9. Japanese plants: Horsetail
Don’t throw your garden gloves at me but Horsetail is a common plant in Japan. In Kyoto people grow Horsetail as an ornamental plant in pots, proudly displaying it in their front gardens.
Popular for its resemblance to bamboo, it can reach an impressive height and is very invasive! Surprisingly, you can find Horsetail along the stone paths and near ponds in many temple gardens.
After a trip to Japan I couldn’t resist introducing Horsetail to my London garden. It lives in the pond, so hopefully there’s no chance of escape!
10. Japanese plants: Street plants
There are small plant arrangements everywhere in Japan: cactus enjoying sunshine in the buzzing Asakusa district and an old man growing vegetables in his tiny front garden by the Sannenzaka tourist street in Kyoto. I don’t know if he knows anything about fancy urban vertical gardening, but I am sure he has plenty of healthy tomatoes and beans to harvest in the summer.
It is all about giving plants a bit of care and respect and not upsetting their kami. Without a doubt, Japanese people have mastered these skills!
Sasha likes reading and doing research about rare and exotic plants and their history and tries to find seeds and grow them, of course! She has practised martial arts for many years and her Aikido training often takes her to foreign places where she is constantly on the lookout for the next botanical wonder.
She is in love with Japan and Japanese plants and training with a Samurai sword – but not in the garden as it is dangerous for plants! You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
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Richard and Simon
I loved walking around Japanese streets. People have so little space that they pack shelves with plants on the front of their houses – the cactus obsessive, the fuchsia fan, the bonsai nut etc.
The chrysanthemum is also so popular. I remember a temple in Niigata that had an annual festival. Growers, professional and amateur, filled the compound with blossoms of all shapes and sizes
Great article Sasha!
Thanks for introducing us to the everyday plants in Japan. So many of these plants are a popular feature of our own back gardens. It was nice to know that they originate in Japan- the likes of Azalea, Iris and Hydrangea. Waiting for them to shower colour to the gardens now that spring is around the corner!
I can’t find Sasha Ivanova on Instagram? I would like to follow her. What is her Instagram name? Thank you.
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