"Dwarf Vegetation" from Henry Charles Sirr's Book China and the Chinese

          Henry Charles Sirr (1807-1872) was a British lawyer, diplomat and writer.  He was a barrister who qualified at Lincoln's Inn, London and eventually went into government service.  Sirr served as British Vice-Consul in Hong Kong from 1843.  He described his experiences in the book, China and the Chinese, Their religion, character, customs and manufactures; the evils arising from the opium trade; with a glance at our religious, moral, political and commercial intercourse with the country.  The book provides important contemporary insights into the nature of the opium trade and the endemic smuggling that took place in the Pearl River region.  He also worked as Deputy Queen's Advocate for the Southern Circuit of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) in the mid-19th century.  He is perhaps best known for writing Ceylon and the Cingalese, their History, Government and Religion; the Antiquities, Institutions, Revenue and Capabilities of the Island; and a full Account of the late Rebellion; with Anecdotes illustrating the Manners and Customs of the People. This two-volume book was published in 1850 and was widely regarded as an authoritative account of life in Ceylon.  It was cited by Jules Verne in his 1870 classic, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  In chapter 2 of the Second Part, the book's narrator, Professor Aronnax, tells the reader that while searching for a description of Ceylon in Captain Nemo's library aboard the Nautilus, "I found a book by H.C. Sirr, Esq, entitled Ceylon and the Cingalese." 1

      China and the Chinese by Henry Charles Sirr (1849):

       "One of the lions invariably visited are the Faa-tee, or " flowery land" gardens, which are situated two miles and a half above the city of Canton, and on the opposite side of the river; these are in fact nursery-gardens, and the Chinese proprietors cultivate flowers for sale.  The head gardener drives a lucrative business, by furnishing seeds to foreigners; but most unfortunately, the seeds sold by this old gentleman rarely thrive, and he has frequently been accused of baking or boiling them to prevent their germinating, possibly with injustice, as Mr. Fortune states, at page 156, "I am quite certain that he does everything in his power to preserve them, but very likely some may be a year or two old before they are despatched to Europe.  Besides, the long voyage round the Cape, during which the seeds have twice to cross the tropics, is very prejudicial to their germination."  There are ten of these Faa-tee or nursery-gardens; none of them large, and the proprietors say they are not very profitable; [100] the dwellings of the tenants of these gardens are situate [sic] at the entrance through which visitors pass: the walks of these gardens are narrow, and the plants are in ornamental jars, placed on either side.  Various patches of ground serve as stock-beds for the dwarf vegetation (which will be hereafter described in another part of this work), oranges, roses, camellias, azaleas, and that curious citron which grows in the form of an extended hand; this fruit is much valued by the Chinese for its delicious perfume, and is used by them to ornament their temples and dwellings.  In spring these gardens are seen to great perfection, they are then ripe with all Flora's most exquisite gifts, and we cannot do better than quote the words of her talented disciple and celebrated botanist, Robert Fortune, page 158, "They are then gay with the tree poeny, azaleas, camellias, and various other plants.  The azaleas are splendid, and reminded me of the exhibitions of the Horticultural Society at Chiswick, but the Faa-tee exhibitions were on a much larger scale and every garden was one mass of blossom, and the different colors of red, white, and purple blended together, had a most beautiful imposing effect.  The principal kinds were azalea indica, indica alba, ph?nicea, lateritia, variegata, and the yellow azalea amenais.  I may mention in passing, that I found the latter plant wild on the Ning-po hills, so there is no doubt of its being a genuine Chinese species.  The air at this season, around Faa-tee is perfumed with the sweet flowers of the Olea fragrans, and the Magnolia fuscata, both of which are grown extensively in these gardens.  Dwarf trees, as may be supposed, occupied a principal station; [101] they are trained into the most grotesque and curious forms.  The plants, which stand next to dwarf trees in importance with the Chinese are certainly chrysanthemums, which they manage extremely well, perhaps better than they do any other plant, so high do these plants stand in favour of the Chinese gardener, that he will cultivate them extensively, even against the wishes of his employer; and in many instances rather leave his situation than give up the growth of his favourite flower.  I was told that the late Mr. Beale used to say that he grew chrysanthemums in his garden for no other purpose than to please his gardener, not having any taste for this particular flower himself." (pp. 99-101)

       "The dwarf vegetation of China is peculiar to that country; for although we now have in England dwarfed specimens of the cactii, and other plants, nothing as yet has been produced, that can either compete, or compare with the extraordinary specimens of dwarfed and distorted vegetation, which are common in the Celestial Empire.
       "We have had in our possession an oak tree two feet high, bearing acorns, the trunk exhibiting all the external marks of an aged tree; orange and citron trees of the same size, which produced diminutive fruit of remarkably fine flavour: one of these orange trees used to produce, or have upon it at the same period, incipient buds, blossoms in full flower, fruit newly set, and of full size, in an unripe and ripened condition.*  (* We have heard of an orange tree, which had been distorted into the complete representation of the human hand, and we deeply regret that we were prevented seeing the curiosity by illness.)  But the greatest curiosity we had was a bamboo tree, two feet and a half in height, which was distorted into the representation of a dragon, with a youth seated upon his back.  We have seen a leichu tree [lychee?], whose natural size equals that of a full-grown mulberry-tree, dwarfed into one of three feet, the branches tapered similar to those of an ordinary tree, and the trunk presented the appearance of old timber.
       "The mode of dwarfing and distorting trees, as practised by the Chinese, is simple: the branch of a full- [341] grown, healthy tree, is covered with mould, which is bound round tightly with cloth or matting; the fibres of the branch thus covered soon shoot into the mould, when the branch is carefully cut from the tree; the bandage is then removed, and the stripling is planted in fresh earth: the fibres then become roots, and thus that which was previously a branch on the parent tree, becomes a trunk, bearing flowers and fruit.  The buds at the extremity of the branches which are intended to be dwarfed are torn off as soon as they appear, and by this means the branches are arrested in their growth, other buds and branches shooting out: after a certain tune, molasses, or sugar-juice is applied to the trunk of a dwarf tree, by which means insects are attracted; thus the bark is injured, and that knotted appearance is produced which is peculiar to aged trees.
       "When it is purposed to distort, or give any particular form to a tree, the branches are bent into the shape, and retained in it by means of slips of bamboo, which are made into a kind of frame.  We had a very curious and perfect camelia japonica, which we never before heard of, or saw one like it while we were in China: the flower was exceedingly large, and its form was perfect, and the colour was a unique bright purple, or mazarine blue: the natives could not have practised deception, or dyed the flower, as it bloomed in our possession.*  (* We have been asked repeatedly by botanists, if we were quite sure that we did not mistake the colour of this extraordinary flower; our reply was, Do you think that we would tell a lie?)  This beautiful and extraordinary flower, as well as [342] the dwarfs and distortions of the vegetable world, were the gifts of a valued friend, who took much trouble to procure them from the interior: the pestilential air of Hong-Kong destroyed them (as it does everything living belonging to animate or inanimate creation), to our deep regret." 2



1    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Charles_Sirr

2      Sirr, Henry Charles, M.A.  China and the Chinese: Their Religion, Character, Customs, and Manufactures (London: Wm. S. Orr & Co.; 1849), pp. 99-101 and 340-341

About 50 of the pages from the book were first printed in Dublin Magazine, such as "China and the Chinese," The Dublin University Magazine, A Literary and Political Journal (Dublin: James McGlashan), Vol. XXXII, Sept 1848, pp. 296-297.

The Dublin article was then reprinted in the Sept-Nov 1848 issues of The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art (New York: W. H. Bidwell), Vol. XV, with the Dwarf Vegetation section on pg. 324.

The Dwarf Vegetation section was also specifically reprinted in The Daguerreotype: A Magazine of Foreign Literature and Science (Boston: Crosby & Nichols), Vol. III, No. 3, November 25, 1848, pp. 94-95.

Some of the material, in slightly different order, is largely reproduced in "Dwarf Trees of China" in The Genesee Farmer (Rochester, NY), Vol. XVIII, No. 7, July 1857, pg. 221.

       See also Abel, Tiffany, and Hickok.

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