A Naturalist In Western ChinaE. H. Wilson

Gardens And Gardening

In previous posts we excerpted 3 chapters from Aristocrats Of The Garden (1917) by Ernest H. Wilson and included links to pages where you can download the 2 volumes of his other famous book, A Naturalist In Western China (here & here). In this post I have excerpted Chapter 5 from A Naturalist In Western China, vol. 2, entitled Gardens And Gardening – Favourite Flowers Cultivated By The Chinese in which he discusses the origin of many of the plants used by the Chinese and their influence on Japanese gardening traditions as well as upon our own.

There is a wealth of information in these two volumes and, hopefully, we can return to them some day for further excerpts; the next post will also be an excerpt from the same book.

Jim Thorleifson


E. H. Wilson (1876 – 1930)



Favourite Flowers Cultivated By The Chinese

Ornamental gardening has been practised in China from time immemorial, and the people are endowed with an innate love for flowers and gardens. Floral calendars are kept in every house above the poorest, and volumes of poems have been written in praise of the Moutan Paeony, Camellia, Plum, Chrysanthemum, Lotus-lily, Bamboo, and other flowers. The appearance of the blooms on the more conspicuous flowering shrubs is eagerly watched for, and excursions into the country are taken to enjoy the sight of the first bursting into blossom of favourite plants. The dwelling of the poorest peasant is usually enlivened by an odd plant or two, and the courtyard of the shopkeeper and innkeeper always boasts a few flowers of one sort or another. The temple grounds are frequently very beautiful, and attached to the houses of the cultured and wealthy are gardens often of great interest. In the neighbourhood of wealthy cities like Soochou, Hanchou, and Canton, are public and private gardens which are famed throughout the length and breadth of the Empire. The finest example I have seen is fittingly associated with the emperor’s summer palace, a few miles outside Peking. There Chinese gardening may be seen at its best, and it calls forth admiration from all visitors.

Chinese landscape-gardening is represented at its best in the so-called ” Japanese gardens ” of to-day. The Japanese have undoubtedly carried the art to a higher state of perfection than the Chinese, but the latter unquestionably originated it. In all these gardens the love of the grotesque predominates, and the landscape effect is essentially artificial; yet in accordance with their own ideals the Chinese are most skilful and accomplished gardeners. Given a piece of ground, no matter if it be small, and devoid of all natural beauty, or badly situated, they will patiently transform it into a mountain-landscape in miniature. With strange-looking, weather-worn rocks, dwarfed trees, bamboos, herbs, and water, a piece of wild country-side is evolved replete with mountain and stream, forest and field, plateau and lake, grotto and dell. A network of narrow winding paths traverses the garden, and rustic bridges in various designs are thrown across the infantine streams. The whole effect is often encompassed within a comparatively few square yards, though the perspective is one of seemingly many miles. In all the larger gardens, closely associated with and usually in part overhanging a pool where the Lotus-lily is grown, a small pavilion is erected. Here the proprietor and his guests resort to drink tea or wine, chat, and admire the various flowers. When no male guests are present the garden is frequented by the female members of the family, with whom it is ever a favourite sanctum.

The Chinese do not cultivate a very great variety of plants, and the contents of the various gardens are much the same, though necessarily the selection is modified by climate and locality. To all the flowers grown in Chinese gardens some peculiar significance or aesthetic value is attached. An orchid (Cymbidium ensifolium), called ” Lan hwa,” is regarded as the “king of flowers,” the modest appearance of the plant, and the delicate odour of its blossoms, representing the very essence of refinement. The ” Mei hwa ” (Prunus mume), owing to the beauty and perfume of its flowers, which are produced in winter when few plants are in blossom, is very highly prized and regarded as a ” flower of refinement.” Around Peking the same vernacular name and attributes are attached to P. triloba and its double-flowered form. The Winter-sweet, ” La-mei hwa ” (Meratia praecox), is similarly esteemed.

The various Bamboos, emblems of grace and culture, and beautiful at all seasons of the year, are indispensable garden plants. ” No man can live without a Bamboo tree in the immediate vicinity of his house, but he can live without meat,” is a favourite Taouist saying. The Chrysanthemum, ” Chu hwa,” and Moutan Paeony are other ” flowers of refinement ” almost reverently appreciated for the colour and beautiful form of their flowers. The Lotus-lily, ” Lien hwa ” (Nelumbium speciosum) , is regarded as an emblem of purity, and the Goddess of Mercy (Kwanyin) is always represented seated in the centre of a Lotus flower. The Chinese ” Luck Lily ” or ” Water Fairy” (Narcissus tazetta) is cultivated in vast quantities, more especially throughout the eastern part of the Empire, and is in blossom for the New Year festival. It is appreciated for its odoriferous flowers, and its luxurious growth is considered prophetic of wealth and prosperity. This Narcissus is not a Chinese plant, but is a native of the Mediterranean region, from whence it was long ago introduced into China by Portuguese traders, and it together with the Pomegranate are virtually the only exotic flowers in high favour with the Chinese.

The Pearl Orchid, ” Chu-lan hwa ” (Chloranthus inconspicuus), is valued for the delicate odour of its flowers, which are used in the Anhui province in scenting green tea for the Chinese market. Table grass (Liriope spicata) is admired for its graceful habit, and is placed on a desk or table, to afford rest to the eyes when reading or studying. Lastly in this relation may be mentioned the ” Hoary Pine,” which is emblematical of revered old age. This name is applied to several kinds of Conifers other than Pinus proper.

To complete the list of favourite Chinese flowers we may enumerate Camellia, Heavenly Bamboo, ” Tien-ch’u ” (Nandina domestica), ” Kuei hwa ” (Osmanthus fragrans), ” Tzu-ching ” (Lagerstroemia indica), ” Tiao-chung ” (Enkianthus quinqueflorus), ” Chin-yin hwa” (Lonicera japonica), numerous varieties of Azaleas, Roses, Balsams, Cockscombs, double-flowered Peaches, various Conifers, and Box (Buxus japonica). Some or all of the above are to be found in every Chinese garden of note. Though the cultural skill expended on many of them is in the direction of dwarfing and training into grotesque shapes, this treatment in no sense robs the flowers of the qualities attributed to them in literature and song. The decoration found on Chinese porcelain well illustrates the nation’s love of beautiful flowers and quaint-shaped trees.

China is a land of contrariety – a land whereof no general statement or observation holds good. In spite of their love for the grotesque and the artificial landscapes seen in their gardens, the Chinese have a strong appreciation of natural beauty. This is evidenced by the sites chosen for their temples and shrines and for the tombs of the wealthy. Apart from situation, which is usually perfect, such sanctuaries always nestle beneath the shade of magnificent trees, and are approached as a rule through avenues or groves of large trees. Though a few deciduous trees are commonly found, evergreens always have distinctive preference. In the temple grounds around Peking are noble avenues of Arbor-vitae (Thuya orientalis), Juniper (Juniperus chinensis), Elm (Ulmus pumila), and Sophora (S. japonica); in the south, centre, and west of the Empire, Pine (Pinus Massoniana), China Fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata), Cypress (Cupressus funebris), Nanmu (Machilus nanmu, and allied species) , ” Yu-la shu ” (Photinia Davidsoniae) , Wintergreen (Xylosma racemosum) , Banyan (Ficus infectoria), and a few other kinds of trees are always present. Many of these trees are extremely rare, except in the precincts of religious sanctuaries.

The world at large does not realize how deeply it is indebted to religious communities for the preservation of many trees. In Europe, for example, most of the best varieties of Pears originated in the gardens attached to religious establishments in France and Belgium and were introduced into England and other countries after the battle of Waterloo. In China, where every available bit of land is devoted to agriculture, quite a number of trees must long ago have become extinct but for the timely intervention of Buddhist and Taouist priests. The most noteworthy example of this benevolent preservation is the Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba). This strikingly beautiful tree is associated with temples, shrines, courtyards of palaces, and mansions of the wealthy throughout the length and breadth of China, and also in parts of Japan. But it is nowhere truly wild, and is a relic of a very ancient flora. Geological evidence shows that it is the last survivor of an ancient family, which flourished during Secondary times, and can even be traced back to the Primary rocks. In Mesozoic times this genus played an important part in the arborescent flora of north-temperate regions. Fossil remains, almost identical with the present existing species, have been found, not only in this country and North America, but also in Greenland.

Though to-day Chinese gardens, nurseries, and temple grounds do not contain anything new in the way of ornamental or economic plants, it was otherwise up to the middle of the last century. Our early knowledge of the Chinese flora was based on plants procured from gardens, notably from those around Canton. The plants were brought to Europe by trading vessels, especially those of the East India Company, at the end of the eighteenth and early in the nineteenth centuries. Different patrons of horticultural and botanical institutions in England lent financial assistance, and collectors were dispatched to investigate and send home all that they could possibly find.

By these means our gardens first secured the early varieties of Roses, Camellias, Azaleas, greenhouse Primroses, Gardenias, Moutan Paeonies, Chrysanthemums, Chinese Asters, and such-like familiar plants. The Chrysanthemum, for instance, has been cultivated in China and Japan from time immemorial, and its parent forms (Chrysanthemum sinense and C. indicum) are common wild flowers around Ichang and elsewhere in China. In Europe C. sinense was first cultivated in Dutch gardens as early as 1689, no less than six kinds being then known. But these were subsequently lost, and when the plant was again introduced in 1789, through the agency of Sir Joseph Banks, the plant was unknown to Dutch gardeners. The famous gardener, Philip Miller, cultivated C. indicum in the Chelsea Physic Gardens in 1764, it having been discovered in 1751, near Macao, south China, by Osbeck. This species has, however, had much less to do in the evolution of our present-day Chrysanthemum than C. sinense.

The parent of our Tea Roses is Rosa indica, the Chinese Monthly Rose, long cultivated in China and still to be found wild in the central and western parts of the Empire. It was introduced into England through the efforts of Sir Joseph Banks in 1789. The parent of our greenhouse Primroses (Primula sinensis) was introduced from Canton into the garden of Thomas Palmer, Esq., of Bromley, Kent, by John Reeves about 1820. It is a native of Hupeh, where it occurs in great abundance on the dry, precipitous, limestone cliffs of the Ichang Gorge and its lateral glens. The wildling is a true perennial with flowers of a uniform mauve-pink colour. Another greenhouse Primrose (P. obconica) occurs in the same region but in moist loamy situations.

The Indian and Mollis Azaleas and a score of other favourite plants of our gardens all came originally from Chinese gardens through various agencies. It is true we have developed most of these introductions almost beyond recognition, and the Chinese are now acquiring new forms and varieties from us, yet without these early arrivals how much poorer our gardens and conservatories would be to-day! In bygone times, even only about a century ago, that part of the world which we know as China was loosely spoken of as the ” Indies,” and this geographical blunder is perpetuated in the specific name ” indica ” which botanists have attached to some of these plants. In the middle of last century many ornamental plants were received from the gardens of Japan, and botanists, assuming that these were natives of the country, gave the specific name “japonica” to certain of them. Subsequent knowledge has, however, conclusively proved that a number of the so-called Japanese plants are only cultivated forms of plants originally natives of China. Thus has the geographer and botanist unwittingly obscured China’s right to be termed the ” Kingdom of Flowers.”