"Dwarf Trees in Japan" from the Transactions of the Worcester County Horticultural Society

       James Comley (1835-1902) "was born at Perry Hill, England, and in his early childhood he became very fond of horticulture, so much so that he was apprenticed for six years to learn the profession of gardening in all its branches.  But at the end of five years he had become so proficient, under the instructions he had received at the Marquis of Landsdowned establishment -- next door to his father's freehold -- that he was allowed to graduate a fully competent gardener.  Shortly after this he came to America, and becoming acquainted with Mr. Evers, a copartnership was formed under the name of Evers & Comley, as flower merchants and decorators [by 1860].  They had the honor of decorating the Revere House when the Prince of Wales was there, also the Boston Theatre, on the occasion of the grand ball given in honor of the Prince, now King Edward VII of England.  After remaining in business in Boston for several years, he removed to Worcester, where he devoted himself to the general florist's business for three years and then returned to Boston.  About this time he became acquainted with the late Francis B. Hayes.  This was in 1870 and Mr. Comley was in Mr. Hayes' employ for many years after.  In the year 1892 Mr. Comley took a trip to Japan and on his return brought with him many rare plants and seeds from that interesting country.  He [had] been also very fortunate in producing some fine seedling roses, rhododendrons, and other plants, which added materially to his reputation as an enthusiastic horticulturist.  Mr. Comley was a large exhibitor at the shows of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and his exhibits of rare and curious flowers and plants added very materially to the success of the exhibitions.  Mr. Comley was a man one could depend upon, for his word was as good as his bond.  He was genial in his intercourse with mankind and generally beloved by all who knew him.  His last exhibition before the Massachusetts Horticultural Society was at the Chrysanthemum Show in the fall of 1901, when he was awarded a silver medal.  While busily engaged in the vocation he loved, apparently in good health, on February 1, 1902, he suddenly expired, deeply regretted by all who knew him." 1

       "My Visit to Japan; Its Chrysanthemums and other Flowers" by James Comley (1894) includes these paragraphs:

        "[Seen in late October 1893, t]he Yokohama Gardeners' Association grounds cover 200 acres of land; include greenhouses and stores too numerous to mention, and the floral and nursery business is carried on in the most perfect manner.  Palms, pćonies, plums, cherries, evergreens, magnolias, and all classes of shrubs are in cultivation; also 600 to 800 varieties of chrysanthemums, including about seventy altogether new ones, which I obtained.  But the most curious feature of all, was the hundreds of thousands of dwarf trees from five to 500 years old, the most beautiful collection of its kind in the world.  It is impossible to buy any plants from a private garden.  The gentry are as proud as the most ancient of British nobility.  It is necessary to cultivate personal acquaintance with the proprietor, who, if assured the plant desired is only for private use in another country, may present a specimen.  I visited nearly 100 such places in Yokohama, and every commercial place of note, gathering one or two choice things in each.
        "Tokio, the capital of Japan, was the next point visited.  There are many temples with grandly timbered grounds, where many children, with their dapper little mothers, meet and pass the hours in the happiest manner possible.  The palace of the Mikado is a large and handsome structure, surrounded by most beautiful grounds.  Tokio contains many other gardens scarcely inferior, all of which are carefully kept, and contain most curious trees and shrubs.  The imperial gardens are difficult of access, even when the Mikado is absent.  However, I managed to gain favor, and feasted my eyes on the vision of beauty for a time.  Tokio abounds in elegant parks and drives, and possesses a museum which would put to shame many of those seen in Europe.  In the great park may be seen almost every kind of animal known in zoology.  The Imperial Botanic Garden contains one of the largest collections of named plants in the world.  A botanical student, whom I met there, told me there were no less than 18,000 named varieties of plants in those grounds.  Dangozaka, the great chrysanthemum garden, is on the slope of a hill.  In this place it has long been a custom to arrange these flowers to represent living notable persons, also birds and animals, or to tell of some historical event.  On entering the grounds, flags and bunting seem to invite the visitor [61] in a particular direction, and showmen say they have a display of skill to show.  The faces of the persons represented are carved in wood or plaster, but all else is illustrated by arrangement of chrysanthemum flowers.  They are done in this manner: A frame is made of bamboo; the flowers -- still on the plants, which are arranged behind the frame -- are drawn through the frame and held in place by a packing of moss; all the colors are used necessary to complete the costume and the character illustrated, and being still attached to the stems and roots of the plants on which they grew, which are invisible to the visitor, retain their freshness thirty days.  This is a very popular exhibition, to which the populace go in crowds, as one of the great events of the year..."

        [63] "In Yokohama there are about 6,000 Europeans, many of whom have married native women.  The theatres of Tokio are grand.  I was surprised by the size and beauty of the Imperial Opera House, and as much pleased with the music and dancing.  Japanese gardens are the most fairy-like places.  You see in them tiny trees and flowering plants, ponds, bridges, summer-houses, lanterns; here, dwarf pines six or eight inches high, but 125 years old; there, others one foot high, but 500 years old.  In the garden of Yeiju-in -- within the temple grounds -- there are many pćony plants, mostly old, but one is 100 years old, and is eight feet high -- quite a tree.  Most of the soil of Japan is a rich peaty loam; this is interspersed with a yellow light clayey soil.  Both are extremely fertile, and in each there seems to be planted that which is peculiar to that soil.  The fertilizer most used is rice straw, cut into small pieces, as with a hay cutter.  But cultivators depend mostly upon irrigation from the rivers, and most careful cultivation; not a weed nor a waste piece of land will be seen in a long railroad journey.  The farmer utilizes every bit of land he possesses.  But farm tools are very crude.  The bog-hoe is the chief tool used; occasionally a black bull may be seen hitched to what is called a plough, but the implement is so small it looks like a toy.  [64] With the hoe, the blade of which is four inches wide, the soil is turned over, left a few days exposed to the sun, then levelled and seed put in.  Every crop but rice is planted in rows, straight as an arrow.  Men and women work in the fields.  I saw some rice-threshing going on.  Young women and children drew the rice straw across the teeth of a saw-like blade, by which the seeds were dislodged.  It is a matter of wonder to our gardeners, how it is the Japanese curtail the growth of plants as they do.  After noticing the plants in Japan, and the appliances and treatment, and considering all observed circumstances therewith connected, it is my opinion that the glazed, or marble pots they use, and which are not porous, retain moisture longer without watering, and also make frequent repotting unnecessary.  I mean to experiment on this line.  One can learn nothing from the Japanese gardener about it; I noticed all over Japan that they use very finely sifted soil for potting, and press the soil down very firmly about the plant roots.  They seem to understand the true art of watering plants, and this seems to me to be the main secret of their success." 1


1     "In Memory of James Comley," Transactions of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, 1902, Part I (Boston), September 6, 1902, pp. 125.

2     James Comley  "My Visit to Japan; Its Chrysanthemums and other Flowers," (Transactions of the Worcester County Horticultural Society, 1893-94, Part II (Worcester, MA: Worcester County Horticultural Society), 22nd February, A.D. 1894, pp. 60-61 and 63-64.

This is our earliest known mention of a Westerner's visit to the Imperial Gardens.  Other travelers remarked on the scant amount of moisture given to dwarfed plants in training in Japan and China -- does the non-porosity of the pots aid in this?

See also the Feb 7 Bonsai Book of Days listing for a short history about the Yokohama Gardeners Association.

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