"Japanese Dwarfed Trees" in The World of Wonders

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"Japanese Dwarfed Trees" (1883):

PERHAPS no people are more remarkable than the Chinese and Japanese for the minute care and attention which they bestow upon their agricultural undertakings.  This is not only the case as regards the production of cereals, pulses, and other useful plants, but they devote not a little care to purely ornamental cultivation, and especially delight in the production of quaint and abnormal growths.  The old Swedish traveller, Thunberg, for instance, describes the beauty of the Japanese flowering almonds and peaches, which, as well as plum, cherry, apple, and pear trees, were covered with a [106] mass of double and single blossoms, of the former of which the Japanese were particularly proud.
       Both in Japan and in China it is the custom to produce dwarf fruit-trees, such as have of late years become not uncommon in our own greenhouses, while in many of the houses in Japan may be met with tiny specimens of the orange-tree, which are seldom above six inches in height, and bear oranges only of the size of a cherry, "and yet sweet and palatable."
       Distinguished as they are by what we should consider the grotesque in art, they are, also, remarkable for the strange liberties which they take with the natural growth of plants, not only producing, by clipping, those hideous monsters in the shape of dragons, serpents, lizards, and the like, of which the counterparts might to some extent be seen in England about a century ago [i.e., topiaries], but actually altering and retarding their normal development.  In this art of producing monstrous growths in plants the Japanese excel all others, and by their mode of treatment induce such strange results in the forms of their victims as to leave them hardly recognisable as the things they are.
       How these results are obtained appears now to be tolerably clear.  The production of dwarfs is indeed based upon one of the commonest principles of vegetable physiology, namely, the retardation of the flow of sap in the young trees.  Where the dwarfs are raised from suckers, as is frequently the case, the main stem is in most cases twisted in a zigzag form, which at once checks the free circulation of the sap, and at the same time promotes the growth of side branches at those points of the stem at which their production is most desired.  But should the branches, thus encouraged, fail to grow symmetrically [sic], the labour of the arboriculturist will have been thrown away, for neither by the Chinese nor by the Japanese is a one-sided dwarf tree considered of any value.  When the trees are raised from seed, those seeds are selected which are themselves the smallest, and which have been gathered from the smallest trees.  The supply of water is reduced to the smallest possible quantity, and as new branches are in the act of formation their growth is retarded in various ways, the points of the leaders being generally nipped out, while every means is adopted to prevent the production of young shoots possessing any degree of vigour.  Doubtless, too, those plants are selected for the purpose which lend themselves most readily to the operation, and are capable of retaining their vitality under the most adverse conditions.  Nearly all the vegetable monstrosities are dwarfed in size, and consequently must to no inconsiderable extent have been deprived of requisite nourishment, and in some cases almost of the absolute necessities of life.  Added to this, they are frequently further modified in form, the branches being bent and intertwined, or tied together in order to force them into some unnatural and grotesque position.  By this means the appearance of great age is often imparted to comparatively young plants, while by the simple process of dwarfing a semblance of sickly youth is preserved, even when the plant has reached a considerable age.  It is possible that the climate of Japan favours to some extent the growth of plants under these most unfavourable conditions; and probably [sic] in countries colder, more arid, and more isolated, the production of such monstrosities would be attended with much greater difficulty.  Still, there can be no question that both the Japanese and the Chinese are gifted with special skill in this branch of arboriculture, and indeed can hardly be said to have any competitors in the art.
       The English botanist, Fortum[sic], in his travels in China and Japan, had frequently an opportunity of admiring the skill and knowledge with which their singular gardening was performed.  Of Japan he writes as follows:--"As the lower parts of the Japanese houses and shops are open both before and behind, I had peeps of their pretty little gardens as I passed along the streets, and whenever I observed one better than the rest I did not fail to pay it a visit.  Many of these places are exceedingly small, some not much larger than a good-sized dining-room; but the surface is rendered varied and pleasing by means of little mounds of turf, on which are planted dwarf trees, kept clipped into fancy forms, and by miniature lakes, in which gold and silver fish disport themselves."  Among the plants which he noticed in these tiny plantations were azaleas, pines, junipers, some ferns, and a pretty little dwarf variegated bamboo.  These little gardens, with their dwarfed, but well-tended plants, belonged for the most part to the poorer classes, but in the outskirts of the larger towns plantations of greater extent may be occasionally seen, the property of the wealthy nobles.  In these, however, the dwarfs are by no means absent, while here and there may be seen a giant of its kind, amongst which may be mentioned a huge azalea, which measured no less than forty feet in circumference, and must, when in flower, have presented the most magnificent appearance.
       It is upon the conifers (pines, firs, &c.) that the Japanese chiefly exercise their ingenuity in the production of these monstrosities, the pines being apparently the best able to withstand the effects of such unnatural treatment.  In the figure (Fig. 4) is represented a dwarf pine (Pinus densiflora), which is known to be certainly a hundred years old.  The pot in which it is contained is but 19-1/2 inches in diameter, and is completely filled up by the growing stem.  Notwithstanding its age, the dwarfed tree reaches in height only 47 inches, and though to all seeming healthy, will [107] probably never attain to any much greater development.
       Another example of the very remarkable results obtained upon vegetable growth by the abnormal treatment practised by the Japanese is that shown in Fig. 3.  Here the trunk of the dwarfed and misshapen tree (also Pinus densiflora) appears suspended in mid air, while the long bare roots, supported by props, and here and there tied to keep them in the desired position, at length reach the earth, whence they draw up the nourishment requisite to sustain the life of the diminutive tree.  In this example it is not easy to distinguish the root of the pine from the stem, nor to tell where the one terminates and the other begins.  Though at least forty years old, the total height of the plant, including the bare suspended roots, did not exceed twenty-eight inches.
       In Fig. 2 is shown a young pine (Rhynchospermum japonicum), perhaps ten years of age, which was brought to the Paris Exhibition of 1878, while in Fig. I is another example of a dwarfed and deformed Pinus densiflora.
       But perhaps one of the most remarkable instances of dwarfed trees of which any account has reached us is that related by President Meylan, who in 1826 saw a box which he states to have been but one inch square and three inches high, in which, nevertheless, were growing a fir, a bamboo, and a tiny plum-tree, the last being thickly covered with blossom.  The happy possessor of this vegetable curiosity was willing to dispose of it, but for a sum of no less than one hundred pounds.  If the amount of patient labour, and the degree of skill, necessary to produce such a wonder be duly considered, the sum may not appear exorbitant: nay, it may be doubted if such a curiosity of vegetation could be profitably produced for the money.
       Though the production of some of the dwarfed fruit-trees already referred to is no doubt advantageous, and is performed more with a view to utility than ornament, the artificial formation of such vegetable monstrosities as those exhibited in the figures can be regarded only in the light of a singular caprice.  It certainly cannot be claimed for them that they are ornamental, but there is a quaintness about some of them which is more or less attractive, while it is interesting to see to what extent the direct agency of man is capable of altering the normal growth of trees which, in their natural state of existence, present so uniform a character as the pines.  When therefore we see one of these trees with the respectable girth of about five feet, and yet having a height of under four feet, it is an object not only of curiosity but of interest, and leads us to consider what changes, under peculiar circumstances, might be gradually brought about on even our most familiar and common plants.


1     "Japanese Dwarfed Trees,"  The World of Wonders, A Record of Things Wonderful in Nature, Science, and Art, Part I (London, Paris & New York: Cassell, Petter, Galpin, & Co.; 1883), pp. 105-107.

The figures are, of course, from the 1878 article "Essai Sur L'Horticulture Japonaise" by E.-A. Carriere.

The reference to Fortune quotes his 1863 work Yedo and Peking.

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