"Japanese Dwarf Plants at Paris" from Garden and Forest


       It is well known that the Japanese landscape-gardener prides himself on his treatment of areas so small that we should give them up to a gravel walk and a couple of Geranium beds.  So it was a disappointment not to find, on the soil of the Japanese Horticultural Section in the Exhibition grounds at Paris, some illustration of his practice. 
       The Japanese Horticultural Section was only a small space on a rather steep part of the Trocadéro slope, surrounded by a rough bamboo fence which would doubtless have looked pretty amid consonant surroundings, but seemed a little slovenly and poor by contrast with neighboring French arrangements, which were scrupulously trim and durable looking.  Almost the whole of the enclosed space was laid out in a series of low terraces, each of which bore a row of potted plants.
       I was not wise enough to know whether any of these plants had especial interest for the European botanist.  But I soon saw that some of them were extremely interesting to the cultivator and the student of art.  These were the examples of dwarfed trees.  We have become familiar, in our own gardens, with certain dwarf varieties of trees produced in Japan, as with many kinds of little Maples; but I speak especially of dwarfed specimens of individuals which, if left to themselves, would have been large, but which generations of gardeners had patiently restricted to the most exiguous proportions.  These we constantly see in Japanese pictures, but there is seldom a chance to behold them alive.
       In the Bulletin de la Société Botanique de la France some facts were recently given with regard to the method of their production, on the authority of two Japanese connoisseurs, one of whom was an exhibitor in Paris.  The chief point is that the trees are grown in the smallest possible quantity of soil.  The baby plants are put in pots so small that their roots soon fill them entirely, and, seeking further nourishment, break out above the surface.  Then a somewhat larger pot is given, in which, however, the same want of sufficient nourishment soon produces the same result; and this treatment is perpetually continued.  Moreover, only just so much water is supplied as is absolutely needful to preserve life.  The main root thus becomes bent and the lateral roots develop neither quickly enough nor profusely enough for vigorous growth, and all the processes of life are very greatly retarded.  The roots are never cut off; and through their gradual elevation the whole plant is sometimes raised on what looks like a system of aërial roots.
       Again, the twigs are early bent, so that they cross one another, or the stem, in abrupt or zigzag ways, Bamboo-fibres being used to bind them temporarily in place. Thus all growth which does take place is kept within dwarf dimensions, so that the stem, after fifty or one hundred years of life, is often but from an inch and a half to three inches in diameter and about ten times as high.  If a bent twig dies it is cut off, and the new one which springs from below it is forced to take its place.  This sometimes produces the look of a graft.  Frequently a piece of Fern-stem or a bit of tufa or coral is so placed that the main stem bends around it.  If all the twisted branches die, new ones are then grafted on the old stock.  Conifers bear this sort of treatment much better than dicotyledonous plants, as the tendency of these to throw out side shoots can tire the patience even of Japanese gardeners.  For no detail of free growth out of harmony with the forms of the main branches can be allowed.  Every smallest twig must scrupulously accommodate itself to the general effect.  Thuyopsis dolobrata, Chamæcyparis obtusa, Pinus parviflora and P. densifolia are among the conifers most commonly chosen for dwarfing.  Some of those exhibited in Paris were nearly 150 years old, and were valued at hundreds of dollars.  They tempted the purse of many observers, but I doubt whether any one was rash enough to buy, for it was plain that their value depended on a continuance of the Japanese cultivator's skill -- they might as well die at once as live to lose their character through unregulated growth.
       What now was the artistic interest of these specimens?  Sometimes it was merely the charm that lies in anything quaint, bizarre, grotesque.  But often we saw forms so beautiful in their way and so clearly illustrative of one phase of Japanese artistic endeavor that it was a pure delight to study them.  Often these little trees were not bizarre and patently deformed, but as fine in their outlines, as grand in their masses, as imposing in their effect, as suggestive of ideas of long existence and vigorous development, as could be the most mighty specimen seen out-of-doors.  It needed a little effort to put one's self at the right point of view.  But it soon was easy to look at them as the Japanese himself must look -- to consider them as miniature representations which the eye knew to be small, but the imagination accepted as large -- that is, it was soon easy to look at them as we look at little pictures or at statuettes.  If a reproduction of a large form on canvas can satisfy eye and mind, although it measures but a few inches itself, why cannot one be likewise accepted when wrought in the same material as the original?  Here was a portrait, so to say, of a great Thuyopsis or Pine, which, in a pot scarce twelve inches across, we could have perpetually at hand not merely to suggest, but actually to show, the beauty of its original.  Here in portable shape we had form, color, substance, movement, odor -- everything but size; and when we had learned how to look we missed size even less than in one of Barye's tigers or in a miniature of a familiar face.  The best of these little trees were not mere curiosities, but true works of art.  If simply kept small they would have been the former; but kept small and looking gigantic, they were artistic in intention and result.  Of course such an effect could be produced only by the twisting processes employed.  Mere retardation of development would not answer.  If we could keep a six-year-old White Pine forever of the same size and shape it would never look like a century-old one.  It must be forced to take a shape characteristic of maturity.  Nor does it matter, I think, whether or not the shape achieved is precisely that of a freely-developed individual of the same species.  So long as the dwarfed tree looks as though a freely-grown large one might have assumed this shape, the artistic ideal is achieved.
       But still more interesting than these isolated dwarfs were certain arrangements where a number had been grown together.  Several creations of this sort had been brought to Paris, but so far as I saw, only one remained in perfect condition.  This was exhibited in August at one of the flower shows in the great tent, and may have been noticed there even by visitors who did not penetrate the Japanese section.  It consisted of a board about as big as a tea-tray with a raised rim around the back and sides.  At the right hand back corner was a thick irregular group of conifers, some eighteen inches in height, massed around a large stone.  So carefully had the shape of this stone been chosen and the shape and arrangement of the plants been studied that the effect was precisely the same as though we saw a great precipitous rock surrounded by graceful yet imposing trees of natural size.  A lower mass of foliage formed the centre of the background, and to the left was another higher mass of conifers interspersed with deciduous trees, seen beyond a lofty bridge.  The foreground was composed of moss and low grasses broken by taller tufts and by patches of a tiny flowering plant -- as I remember, an Oxalis -- and foreground and background were united by plants of intermediate sizes in the most thoroughly artistic way.  The horticultural skill displayed was marvelous; for not only the trees but the grasses and everything else must have been dwarfed to bring them to such fairy-like proportions, an inch counting for a considerable elevation, and the flowers being no bigger than pin-heads, yet each and every plant being in perfect condition, and the general effect luxuriant and rich.  It was not a little toy-shop garden -- it was a little living picture of a broad landscape of incomparable beauty and grandeur.  If one took a moment to get absorbed in the scene before him, he thought no more of dimensions than if he had been looking at painted canvas.  What he saw was a shadowy glen where rich green grass was starred with yellow flowers, where coolness and freshness breathed from the air, and in the background great masses of rock and foliage that stirred the imagination as well as refreshed the eye.  The marvelous skill of the horticulturist was forgotten in wonder at the power of the artist who could conceive so beautiful a landscape.  The way in which foreground, middle distance and background had been contrasted yet harmonized, the grandeur yet softness of the massing, the loveliness of the sky-line, the variety and beauty of the color, all kept in a low, quiet tone with no crude notes -- these merits impressed one as in the work of some great painter; and what a painter would have supplied in the way of atmosphere and perspective was added by the modeling and shadowing of Nature herself.  Of course the result had not the suggested poetry that we find in a Corot; nor could such a living picture on a board ever give effects of distance or supply the canopy of heaven.  But within the limits possible to such work, there seemed nothing that the Japanese artist had not accomplished.  As a "realistic" picture of a rocky glen no painter could begin to equal it, for it was as perfect to the tiniest detail as it was in the effect of its largest masses.  In short, if on the soil the Japanese landscape-gardener had shown us nothing, here he showed us something in which we could read an account of his larger enterprises.
       There was nothing I saw in all the Paris Exhibition that I coveted as I did this exquisite, and, to my eyes, novel work of art.  But if it would have been rash to think a single dwarfed tree might survive in European hands, how should one dare to touch this far more complex bit of art-created life?  It seemed a pure marvel that it had been brought half way round the world even by those competent to care for it at home. 1


1    "Japanese Dwarf Plants at Paris" by George Cumming, New Brunswick, N.J., Garden and Forest, March 19, 1890, pp. 138 - 139

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