"Dwarfed Forest-Trees" by James Main

        James Main (fl. 1794) was a Scottish botanist who visited the Canton area in 1793-94 on the behalf of Captain Gilbert Slater of Essex, another avid gardener and collector, and a director of the East India Company.  (Slater introduced the "Crimson Rose" to Britain, which was later named "Slater's China Rose.")  In China, Main purchased very few camellias because he thought those already being developed in Britain were superior.  (Scottish surgeon James Cuninghame had also been in the employ of the East India Company almost a hundred years earlier and had sent about 600 varieties of Oriental plants — including camellias -- back to England.)  As Slater died before Main returned, London merchant and amateur horticulturist George Hibbert bought at least some of the Chinese plants that had been collected by Main.  (Hibbert also had others collecting for him in South Africa, Australia, and Jamaica.  Ironically, after an uneventful voyage from China, Slater's ship carrying Main's plants was involved in a collision with a navy frigate in the English Channel.  Much of the plant collection was wrecked before the vessel was towed up the Thames River.  The remaining specimens were purchased by Hibbert.)  Main apparently also wrote at least eight works on various aspects of agriculture, landscape and flower gardening, forestry, and poultry which were published between 1835 and 1850. 1

       The Journal of James Main (1794), as an excerpt in a horticultural magazine article (1827):

      “There is one curiosity in Chinese gardening which rarely escapes the notice of Europeans, viz., their specimens of dwarfed forest-trees.  To train such, they plant a young tree in a small porcelain pot, either round, square, or most commonly [sic] an elongated square, twelve or fourteen inches long, eight inches wide, and about five in depth.  Along with the tree they place pieces of rugged stone to represent rocks, among which moss and lichens are introduced.  The tree thus planted is not allowed to rise higher than about a foot or fifteen inches.  No greater supply of water is given than is just sufficient to keep it alive; and as the pot soon acts as a prison, its growth is necessarily impeded; at the same time every means are used [sic] to check its enlargement.  The points of the shoots, and the half of every new leaf, are constantly and carefully cut off; the stem and branches, which are allowed to extend only a certain length, are bound, and fantastically distorted, by means of wire; the bark is lacerated to produce protuberances, asperities, and cracks.  One branch is partly broken through, and allowed to hang down, as if by accident; another is mutilated, to represent a dead stump : in short, every exertion of the plant is checked by some studied violence or other.  This treatment produces, in course of time, a forest-tree in perfect miniature!  Stunted and deformed by the above means, it certainly becomes a curious object, bearing all the marks of extreme old age.  Its writhed and knotty stem, weather-stained and scabrous bark, its distorted and partly-dead branches, its diminutive shoots and leaves, all give it the aspect of an antique vegetable dwarf!  Various kinds of trees are chosen for this purpose; but two most commonly met with are the Ulmus parvifolia sinensis *, and a species of Ficus, very much like the Indica.”

* This tree bears the rigour of our winters, as appears from one now growing in the garden of the Reverend Mr. Norris, of Grove Street, Hackney.  2


1     Cozens, Ken  "George Hibbert, of Clapham - 18th Century Merchant and 'Amateur Horticulturalist'," http://www.merchantnetworks.com.au/periods/1775after/hibbertgeorge.htm ;

Stallsmith, Audrey  "Tea-sing Camellia," http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/historical_plants/95987%20/2.

2     "Art. II. Observations on Chinese Scenery, Plants, and Gardening, made on a Visit to the City of Canton and its Environs, in the Years 1793 and 1794 ; being an Extract from the Journal of Mr. James Main, sent thither by the late Gilbert Slater, Esq. of Layton, Essex, to collect the Double Camellias, &c.  Communicated by Mr. Main." (pp. 135-140), The Gardener’s Magazine, Vol. II, March 1827, Chelsea, London, specifically pp. 138-139.

Also reproduced in Bonsai Bulletin (Newsletter of Surrey Heath Bonsai Society) for July 2001 under heading "Long long ago" (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/peter.holt/SHBS/bulletin_Jul01.htm) with the introduction that "In 1827 [sic] a gentleman called James Main was sent to China to collect double camellias.  During his travels he kept a journal.  Commenting upon the variety of Chinese gardens he had viewed he recorded these opinions of bonsai."

Home  > Bonsai History  >  Travellers  >  Main