"The Horticultural Comprachicos of Japan at the Paris Exhibition"

       "In that fascinating nightmare, L'Homme qui Rit, Victor Hugo tells us that in the seventeenth century there existed in Europe a band of nomads, known by the name of comprachicos, or children buyers, whose special handicraft was the transformation of their unhappy purchases into dwarfs and monsters for the particular delectation and amusement of popes and princes.  In the nineteenth century, in our own corner of the world, at any rate, the comprachicos are luckily as obsolete as the rack and the thumbscrew; but the practice of interfering with Dame Nature in her benevolent occupation of strewing our path with things of beauty which are joys for ever still thrives in Japan.  The daimios of Yokohama and Nagasaki are not content with the countless beautiful gems of the plant world with which their favoured islands are studded, but they must also have dwarfs and monsters of the vegetable kingdom.  They must have Pine trees with the best part of their roots leaping up into the air several feet higher than their topmost twigs, or Kakis with their branches so contorted as to resemble tangled masses of cordage instead of the graceful trees which we know them to be.  In the 'Revue Horticole' for July 16, Mons. E.A. Carrière gives a long and interesting account of the dwarf and monster plants shown in the Japanese section of the Paris Exhibition.  These vegetable abortions [sic] have hitherto only been known to us through the medium of the metal and fictile wares of that wonderful country. 
Fig. 1.--Two young plants of Pinus densiflora, deformed.
Fig. 2.--Specimen of Pinus densiflora, with the larger portion of the roots growing in the air.

M. Carrière admits at starting that he can only guess [sic] at the methods used by the Japanese comprachicos for producing these vegetable monstrosities, which not only include dwarf plants, but also shrubs and bushes of tender years, which wear a feeble and venerable appearance long before the natural time.  Figs. 1, 2, and 3 are good examples of this peculiar development of the art of horticulture.  M. Carrière supposes that when the Japanese wish to dwarf any particular subject they naturally choose those varieties which most lend themselves to being checked in their growth by various means.  By training their shoots, and branches with the utmost patience, they are able to produce the most monstrous forms, while by limiting the amount of nourishment which the plants receive within the narrowest possible limits they become dwarfs.  Hence, by adopting the latter method, of checking their growth, they succeed in producing plants which, although they may be over a century old, are still small enough to live and thrive in a medium-sized flower-pot.  We must also remember that the climate of Japan is peculiarly favourable to this description of horticulture, and it is doubtful [sic] whether this kind of culture could be carried out in hot, dry, sunshiny countries.  Of all hardy subjects the Conifers seem to have produced the most successful specimens of dwarfs and monsters, either because they are more fitted for this mode of treatment, or because they are more in favour in Japanese gardens.  Amongst the Conifers again Pines seem to produce the happiest results.  As seen in figs. 2 and 3, the stem, which is reduced to its very simplest expression, grows at a distance from the surface of the soil, and is supported by a number of simple or branched roots supported by sticks, which float about in the air as if they belonged to it.  The results shown in figs. 1, 2, and 3 are difficult to explain, especially that which, as will be seen, sends up a root from b, which, bending round in the form of a syphon at a distance of 2 ft. or 3 ft. above the plants, descends once more as far as a, where it splits into a number of branches, if such a word may be applied to a root, and descends into the soil contained in the pot, whence it conveys nourishment to the plant by the circuitous path shown in the cut.  In the majority of cases it is difficult to fix the exact spot at which the root ends and the stem begins, as they seem to run into each other.  If we carefully examine fig. 3 we shall apparently find that the end of the root-stalk is at a, and that from thence to the point b, where the cotyledons formerly existed, the part may be considered the collar, so that below this point we may still find a portion of the root-stalk, which, becoming thinner, is easily confounded with the roots properly so called.

Fig. 3.--Pinus densiflora, submitted to the same treatment as the specimen shown in fig.2 (1-8th the natural size).

As shown in figs. 4, 5, and 6, the branches and shoots constituting the head of the tree may be contorted by training into the most extraordinary dwarf and monstrous forms; in fact, everything is done to prevent them from growing in a vertical or horizontal direction.  This system of cultivation seems to be very widespread throughout Japan, and must be practised by a large number of persons, for such specimens as the one shown in fig. 1 are exhibited by hundreds.  Worried literally half out of their lives by ill treatment and starvation, it is not to be wondered at if the size of some of these unhappy victims are wholly out of proportion to their age.  For instance, the puny-looking plant shown in fig. 1 is ten years old, while that represented in fig. 2 has seen at least eighteen summers; and the Pinus in fig. 3 nearly trebles that age.  The monstrosity shown in fig. 4 is thirty-four years old, and the Nageia (fig. 5) is only five years younger.  These ages, it must be observed, are only approximative.  Although the Pines seem to be particularly amenable to this mode of treatment, there are other members of the family of the Coniferæ which are also capable of gratifying the perverted tastes of the Japanese aristocracy, such, for instance, as the Chamæcyparis, the Podocarpus, and even the Nageia (as shown in fig. 5). 

Fig. 4.--Stunted and deformed specimen of Rhynchospermum japonicum.

It is clear that other species of Coniferæ may be submitted to the same process with similar results.  This peculiarity of the Coniferæ, no doubt, is caused by the fact of their having excessively long roots, as any one who has grown Pines in pots can readily testify.  Without positively asserting anything, M. Carrière gives it as his opinion that the whole secret lies in the choice of subjects with extremely long roots; and in support of it he instances the fact of a seedling Cedar, which was sown in heat in a tube containing Moss, out of contact with the air, and which, in a very short time, produced roots 18 in. or 20 in. in length.  It must also be remembered that as the Japanese do all they can to check the growth of the aërial half of the plant, the subterranean portion must necessarily become unnaturally developed.  The singular results shown in figs.1 and 3 lead one to inquire as to whether the effects are obtained before or after the plants are placed in pots.

Fig. 5.--Nageia ovata in a Japanese flower-pot, with the branches growing downwards (1-8th the natural size).

Be this as it may, it is perfectly evident that some means are taken to draw the roots out of the soil gradually, without in any way damaging the rootlets, so as to expose all their ramifications to the air, leaving only a small portion of their extremities in the soil.  It is not only in ornamental plants that the Japanese Comprachicos work their wicked will, for they apply the same system of dwarfing to fruit trees -- first of all in a natural way, by tying the branches together in such a manner that they grow inwards instead of outwards; and, secondly, in an unnatural manner, by excessive pruning, or by checking their growth one way or another.  Judging from the specimens shown in the Trocadero and at the Jardin Fleuriste, the fruit trees best adapted for this method of treatment seems to be Kakis, Peaches, Plums, and Cherries.  The Kaki seems to be designed by Nature for the especial purpose of being dwarfed and otherwise deformed.  Some of the specimens exhibited are very dwarf, being only from 16 in. to 30 in. in height, but they are covered with flowers, and, judging from the condition of the shoots, they must have fruited abundantly.  In growing fruit trees, the Japanese follow the method adopted by our western fruit growers, and leave only from six to twelve fruits on each tree, according to its natural vigour.  Another peculiarity of these dwarfed and deformed trees is that their roots, as a whole, are very small, the subterranean portions being comprised in a few small tufts of rootlets.

Fig. 6.--Full-grown Kaki, with the branches deformed by pruning and training, bearing here and there fructiferous peduncles.

It is impossible to say whether this is the result of checking the growth of the aërial part of the plant or of perpetual transplanting, so as to keep the subject, so to speak, in a constant state of ill-health.  In the absence of any trustworthy information on the subject, we can only surmise that both these methods are practised.

C. W. QUIN 1


1    Quin, C.W.  "The Horticultural Comprachicos of Japan at the Paris Exhibition," The Garden, Aug. 24, 1878, pp. 174-175.  Five illustrations.  This article was brought to my attention by Lorenzo Sonzini, Secretary of the Bonsai Club Martesana, Italy, who kindly sent me a color photocopy along with the November/December 2002 issue of Bonsai & News.  That magazine's issue contained an Italian translation of this article plus commentary on it, "I comprachicos giapponesi" di Lorenzo Sonzini, pp. 58-60.  Note that the container in Fig. 4 is a section of a log, apparently the actual wood rather than an earthenware pot with that design.  The reference to "specimens shown in the Trocadero and at the Jardin Fleuriste" seems to call for further comment.  Anyone? 
      The copy used for the Italian did not include a half-column of the text with Fig. 5.  RJB tried unsuccessfully to get a full copy of the English article through InterLibrary Loan.  Lorenzo subsequently located a collection which held the magazine, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida.  Through e-mail to www.selby.org and standard post, RJB was able to obtain a black and white hard copy of the entire article, by way of the much appreciated assistance of Collections Director Bruce Holst and Research Librarian Priscilla Ruddiman.  (Lorenzo was subsequently e-mailed a scanned copy of the entire b&w article.)

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