"Miniature Trees" by Athol Maude

      "Miniature Trees" by Athol Maude in Pearson's Magazine (1900):

Photographs taken to show the relative size of an ordinary maple tree and one that has been dwarfed by the Japanese method.  Both these trees are more than twenty years old.

       Just why the Japanese should be the only [sic] people in the world who stunt the growth of their trees is difficult to explain.  The probability is that, being of such small size themselves, they like to magnify their inches by comparison with the artificially dwarfed trees of their gardens.
       The correct method of dwarfing trees is not, by any means, common knowledge in Japan.  Its secret is carefully guarded by guilds of florists, formed several hundreds of years ago, whose chief idea of art lies in defying, distorting, or exaggerating nature.  In the primitive stage of the guilds' existence they satisfied themselves by clipping trees into the weird shapes of idols, boats, houses — anything opposed to the shrub's natural growth.  But gradually, as the members of the guilds advanced in knowledge, they became more ambitious in their experiments, with the result that they can now produce trees (which in this country grow to a height of 40ft. or 50ft.) not more than a foot high.
       This, however, is not the most wonderful of their achievements.  They can not only dwarf ihe trees to a chance height, but they will stunt them to any set height they please.  If you want a tree 18in. high, they will get one for you; but at the same time they would be just as ready to make it only 9in. high.
       This power to produce trees of any size the Japanese use to the utmost advantage in the making of miniature gardens.  Taking as a model a European painting of a landscape, they set to work and reproduce it in life to the smallest detail.  I say "a European painting" advisedly, though the landscape is invariably of Japanese scenery; for Japanese paintings, as everyone knows, are practically devoid of perspective.
       So, having hit upon the subject, they commence on the foreground by planting trees a few inches in height.  Seven or eight yards away a background of [237] miniature mountains is built of beautifully colored rockery.  From the foot of these mountains a tiny trickle of water winds around, forming cascades and lakes.  Marble bridges span the few inches from bank to bank, and queer-shaped pagodas nestle amidst the dwarfed foliage, within sound of its lapping waters.  As the river nears the foreground it expands into a raging cataract, quite a foot in width, eventually disappearing by the aid of a drain pipe beneath the base of a young Mont Blanc.

A pine tree, 200 years old.                                                                                                                                A beech, 60 years old.

The diminutive size of the three trees is well shown by comparison with the lead pencil and coins in the photographs.

       The perspective of the whole picture is marvellous.  The distance is obtained by a diminution in the size of the river, the temples and the trees.  These latter dwindle from 2ft. in height to 5in. or 6in., so that the effect of groves a mile long may be gained in one seventeen-sixtieth part of the distance.  Nor does variety suffer from the general uniformity.  Up out of vast plains, at least a yard square, stand ridiculous little palm or cactus plants.  Here, half smothering the ruins of a temple, cluster mimosa trees, bursting their tiny selves with bloom and perfume.  In short, the whole effect is a gem to please both eyes and sense of smell.
       The general rules by which trees are dwarfed are, to all intents and purposes, common property; but, of course, the guilds are in possession of trade secrets by the use of which the dwarfing is more quickly and better done.  To begin with, when possible a seed is taken and planted in a pot an inch deep.  If a seed cannot be obtained, a tiny cutting, taken from any tree in the neighborhood, is used instead.  In a few weeks the roots commence to grow, and, as the layer of earth is only an inch deep, they [238] They force their way upwards in search of greater nourishment.  These are promptly clipped or nipped off as fast as they appear.
Six maples, each 30 years old.  A fine dwarf fir, 300 years old.  A variegated maple, 30 years old.  Note the artificially twisted trunk.

These three dwarf trees have been photographed by the side of a yard measure to show their diminutive size.  The upper tree is 40 years old, the centre -- a jasmine -- 100 years, and the lower -- a beech -- is 55 years old, and has been forced to grow through solid rock.

       The new shoots of dwarf pines must be cleanly cut off with a knife, but, curiously enough, it would be absolutely fatal to the life of a maple tree to even touch it with a metal instrument.  In this case the pruning of the roots has to be done with the finger nails.
       The trees are by no means misshapened.  Merely to stunt a tree by cutting it down is equally easy and ugly; but to produce a dwarf tree perfect as to the proportion of leaf, blossom, twig, and trunk, and growing, perhaps, for hundreds of years, requires considerable skill.
       Whilst keeping the roots at one fixed size, one must not forget to perform the same operation on the branches and upper parts of the tree.  The plant must be forcibly kept from growing.  The nourishment should be just sufficient to keep the tree alive.  To judge this to a nicety is an art in itself; one has to keep a mental finger on the tree's pulse, taking care that the beats neither increase nor decrease.  If the tree shows a tendency to fade it needs more nourishment -- a teaspoonful of manure is more than sufficient.  If it grows too fast it must be starved.
       After a time the inch of earth in which the tree is planted becomes worn out, and the pot too shallow for its occupant.  The earth is then carefully plucked away from around the roots, and the shrub is repotted in comparatively deep soil -- quite an inch and a half in depth.  Of course, different sorts of trees need different treatment: the oak and the pine, for instance, need broad, long, shallow pots, as their roots spread more and do not strike so deeply into the ground as do those of the maple and many others.
       It is in the early stage of a dwarf tree's life that the Japanese introduce the future novelties of its existence.  They will graft different colors into its roots, so that when it becomes a full-grown plant its leaves are as variegated as a rainbow.
      The grafting process is as follows: a skilled gardener will take tiny pieces of various roots and bind them firmly with clay to the parent stock.  In a few weeks the [239] whole bundle forms one big root.  Maples seem to lend themselves best to this treatment; and it is by no means unusual to see leaves on this plant of at least half-a-dozen different colors and shades.  Then they will operate upon the trunks, twisting and turning them into scores of different shapes.  And, not content with this, they reach a climax in the art by forcing -- by means best known to themselves -- an unfortunate tree to grow through solid pumice stone!

A splendid specimen of a dwarf tree, 200 years old, photographed between two tulips.

       The Princess of Wales has taken a great interest in these tiny old trees, and has purchased several specimens.
       Practically the only man out of Japan who makes it his business to import these curious trees is a Mr. Eida, of London, England.  And one cannot spend a more interesting hour than by going to his nursery, deep in the "Wilds of Suburbia," and examining his collection.
       His nursery would, perhaps, be better called a hospital.  It is here that the plants -- many of them two or three centuries old -- arrive from Japan with their animation suspended, if one may use the term in connection with plants.  They come, four or five hundred at a time [sic], carefully packed in straw and typical Japanese bales.  Five thousand dollars' worth of these trees, heaped up on the ground, look like so much rubbish, hardly worth their weight in firewood.  In this form they resemble little gnarled pieces of iron; but give them a month's proper treatment and see what happens.  The twig-like branches burst into leaf and bloom; the shrivelled trunk takes upon itself a well-fed air; indeed, the whole plant rapidly assumes a flourishing appearance.
       On their arrival they are revived by a combination of much water and little manure, for if they were fed up too much they would grow to their natural sizes again.  They are then potted in their own shallow pans, thoroughly soaked for several minutes, and placed in a hot-house to recover.  At their own good time -- and with the gardener's assistance -- they become as healthy as ever.
       Apart from the above general rule of re-invigoration, each particular tree undergoes a special course of nursing.  The dwarf Cycas -- a species of palm, which in its wild state grows to a height of over 30ft., while the dwarf, of which we give an illustration, is but 6in. high -- is brought to life by burying a nail, or other piece of iron, just beneath the surface of the earth in which it is planted; as the iron rusts, so will the tree survive.  This is one of the many "wrinkles" to which the Japanese horticultural clique pins its faith and stakes its reputation.
       As to the prices and chances of these plants living in this country, Mr. Eida says:
       "To insure their remaining healthy, the trees intended for indoor use must have a [240] proper allowance of sunlight and open air.  The more they are thus refreshed the more vitality and energy do they store up for use while confined in rooms; and the healthier and more handsome will their leaves or flowers be.  People whose knowledge of horticulture is limited to their taste for queer plants are apt to overwork these dwarf trees, keeping one alone to do decorative duty all day and every day.  In Japan it is customary to keep a small series of trees, so that while some are on duty within, so to speak, the others are recuperating themselves in the open air.  With very ordinary precautions dwarf trees can be preserved for hundreds of years, provided that they be properly acclimatised -- a subject, by the way, to which I have given considerable attention."
       "And what do you charge for these trees?" I asked.
       "That, of course, depends upon the kind and its age," replied Mr. Eida, picking up a ridiculous little oak, very different to those of the New Forest.  "Here is a baby, only six years old; it is worth about two or three dollars.  But that pine over there is at least 300 years of age, so that $125 is hardly an exorbitant price to ask for the trouble and time it has taken to raise it.  If similar trees could be grown here it would be impossible to buy a fairly old tree under five hundred dollars.  It is only the extreme cheapness of labor in Japan which allows them to be sold for so small a price.  My cheapest trees are half-a-dollar each; my most expensive $150.
       "Maples sell best.  They are the prettiest in some respects, the hardiest, and the most reasonable in price.  Funnily enough, although people bring me many ailing trees for reinvigoration in my nursery, I seldom get maples amongst them.
       "Now, here are a couple of trees," concluded Mr. Eida, pointing to leafless trunks which looked as dead as possible, "I can tell by tapping the wood whether they can be revivified or not.  This one is all right; that one is quite dead.  Do you notice the difference in the sound?"
       But I regret to say that my knowledge of horticulture did not carry me so far.  Which was unfortunate.
A miniature garden, built in Japan.  The whole is contained in a glass case, two feet high.


1    Maude, Athol “Miniature Trees,” Pearson's Magazine (New York: The Pearson Publishing Company), September 1900, pp. 236-240.

So far all we know about the author is that he wrote one article for The Wide World Magazine in 1901 and four articles for Pearson's Magazine (1900-1902), one of which was expanded into a book, The Keeper of Britain's Honor, Account of the office of King's Champion of Great Britain held by the Dymoke family (1901).

See also this reference in Collins seven years later to a Mr. Eida.

Compare pg. 237 above with this early China reference to dwarf potted tree guilds.

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