"Dwarf Trees in China" from the Chambers' Edinburgh Journal

       "Freaks Upon Flowers, Fruits, and Trees" (1848) includes the following as its seventh and eighth paragraphs:

        "Not to be further tedious, the last freak we intend to select out of many that might be mentioned, is the extraordinary fancy called the 'Art of Dwarfing.'  The Chinese call the unhappy tree-dwarfs 'Koo Shoo.'  Selecting an appropriate branch of a tree, they remove a ring of bark from it, and then cover the place with a mass of loam, around which some damp moss is gently bound, so as to keep it from becoming dry.*  * Baron Humboldt is said to have availed himself of this method of securing live specimens of trees in the forests of Brazil, finding them well-rooted and able to bear abscission on his return to the spot.  In a little while the branch puts out radicles into the loam, and soon does so in sufficient number to constitute them efficient food-suppliers.  It is then cut off below the ball of earth, and the ball is put into a shallow oblong-square pot filled with broken pieces of alluvial clay.  The plant is now watered in very small quantities, and all its vital powers are kept at a degree only just removed from total cessation: doubtless multitudes of them perish at this period.  Then with patient skill the dwarfer fixes an iron mechanism of wires upon the tender branches, torturing [sic] them by slow degrees into the mimic resemblance of the gnarled and knotted branches of a forest veteran.  The hungry roots turn hither in their narrow cell, seeking food, and finding barely sufficient to support life; and even lest they should be too successful, they are cut and burned, until, weary of wandering, they are all cramped into their place of abode, and must make the most of it.  'Every year,' says one who has seen the process, 'the leaves become less and less, and the buds and radicles are also diminished, until at length the balance between the roots and leaves is obtained which suits the character of the dwarf required.'  Ants are enticed, moreover, to pierce the heart of the unhappy starveling, by means of honey smeared on the bark; and the more hollow and worm-eaten its appearance, the more precious in the cruel imagination of the rearer.  Some varieties of trees long resist these systematic cruelties, and for fifteen or even twenty years maintain a noble but vain opposition to their owners' will; at length they are obliged to yield, and together with others, which gave up the unequal struggle at three or five years, settle down into trees a few inches high.  Think of the heaven-scaling bamboo, of the tall and well-proportioned cypress, of the graceful and appropriate contour of the orange, of the stately form of the elm, 'minished and brought so low as at fifty years old to find ample room for their branches and leaves under an ordinary glass shade!  The poor trees cling with an indissoluble tenacity to the recollections of their childhood.  In the winter they are like dry and contorted twigs, set upright in a tiny flower-pot, but the spring calls even to them to live; their hideous little branches put out the tiniest leaves, with a great effort little flowers follow, and by and by there is actually a show of fruit, and the fruit remains longer on the branches than on their free relatives in the wide orchard or illimit-[312]able forest, though it is only hard, dry, and tasteless.  Autumn shakes it down, and buries it as an untimely abortion, with abortive leaves, and the dwarf-tree sinks back in despair into the icy arms of winter again, to repeat year after year -- until perhaps a hundred are faintly told upon its inner wood -- the same mournful process.  Not, let us gladly say, on the authority of one well competent to speak, that all the Chinese take pleasure in this cruel freak; for it is well known that some wealthy men -- men surely who rightly estimate the blessings of liberty, even if they have not loftier conceptions as to the sensations (?) of vegetable vitality -- spend considerable sums in purchasing dwarf-trees for the express purpose of removing them from their earthen prisons, and setting their cramped-up fibres free.
        "Since the exhibition of one of these starvelings in the Chinese Collection, we have noticed what seems to be an attempt to introduce this perverted taste among ourselves.  We have had the pain of seeing a Tom Thumb rose-tree planted in a pot of an inch and a-half diameter, and struggling up to the altitude of three or four inches in its efforts to expand one or two rose-buds to the size of a small sixpence.  More recently still, our attention has been caught by some funny little green objects, planted in very fiery-looking pots like big thimbles, and set forth in the shop-windows with a placard reading thus, 'Real living miniature plants after the manner of the Chinese, imported from Germany.'  On closer inspection, we were glad to find that there was no systematic cruelty necessary in their production at anyrate, for they appeared to be simply very young members of the family of the cacti.  Many of these little things are full of flower; and being tastefully arranged, put into miniature flower-baskets or upon tiny flower-stands, they have, for those who admire the minute, a pleasing effect.  The art of dwarfing, where it has been confined to reasonable limits, where it has brought flowers in the room of forest-trees into the conservatory, or where it has been beneficial in the orchard and field in restraining the excessive vigour of trees and plants, is a valuable handmaid to the horticulturist: need we say when it is made subservient to an idle whim, or to gratify a morbid taste for the curious, we should be sorry to see it practised, or its practice encouraged in an age and time like ours?" 


1      Chambers' Edinburgh Journal, No. 254, Nov. 11, 1848, pg. 311.

A good portion of the first paragraph above, of course, is derived from Livingstone.

Bonsai enthusiasts today are quite aware that if our trees are not given sufficient seasonal care they will quickly die -- there is no magical way to keep trees alive when their living conditions fall below a certain level; there are no jail cells for plants equivalent to some of the horrible prisons that humans have had to and have been able to survive in.  Knowing the tenderness of some plants, the productions of these early modern Chinese horticulturists should probably deserve our congratulations, not our derision.

This is the first reference we have seen about trees being purchased in order for them to be set free.  Might it be possible that the purchase was actually made in order to have a particular specimen as a landscape planting, along the lines of how we today might buy a plant in a nursery container in order to "set it free" so it can become landscape in our yards?

Per http://www.coinsgb.com/Victoria/93-Sixpence.html and related pages, the sixpence was 19 mm in diameter or about 3/4-inch across.

We have not yet tracked down other references so early in time to "Real living miniature plants after the manner of the Chinese, imported from Germany."  Could that be a reference to Seidel?

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