WASHINGTON — It seems an improbable notion of landscape architecture: Create a big pond to control the tide, surround it with 1,700 Japanese flowering cherry trees, and place it near a Roman monument to a president who never saw a Japanese cherry and didn't care that much for Washington. And yet the Tidal Basin works as a beloved civic space, a 2-mile promenade that calls us back year after year at blossom time.
Perhaps it's the openness of the Tidal Basin, the reflective quality of water or the absence of skyscrapers, but the grand scale doesn't overwhelm the abiding sense of serenity.
Indeed, our whole relationship with Japanese plants is an unwitting Zen experience: Forget the flowering cherries for a moment — our landscapes, our lives are imbued with hundreds of garden plants from the Land of the Rising Sun.
The most striking example is the azalea, but others abound. Peruse your garden, and what do you see? A massing of the evergreen aucuba sits next to a camellia in full crimson bloom. Soon the lemon- yellow blossoms of the winter hazel will appear above the small white blooms of the ground cover pachysandra, while the pieris shrub will produce gorgeous red leaves along with cascading clusters of bell-like flowers.
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Japanese plants have become integral to some of our most iconic American landscapes with the use of stunning Japanese maples, fall chrysanthemums and springy star magnolias.
We might not realize it, but "an American garden without Japanese plants would be unrecognizable," said Todd Forrest, vice president of horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden.
Most of our azaleas and many of our lilies came from Japan, along with the lacecap and mophead hydrangeas of summer. In April, the Japanese wisteria blooms along with crab apples bred with Japanese species, and in May, the rugosa rose opens with its intoxicating fragrance.
From Japan came common evergreens, the boxwood-lookalike Japanese holly, the elegant and towering Japanese cedar, the Japanese yew, and the Hinoki and Sawara false cypresses.
There are so many varieties of Japanese maple that entire nurseries are devoted to them. Gardeners turn to such Japanese beauties as the snowbell, the kousa dogwood, the umbrella pine and the stewartia. The ginkgo tree, thought of as Chinese, made its way first from Japan.
How did so many Japanese plants find their way into our gardens?
Anyone in search of the origins of Japanese plants in Western gardens soon comes to this conclusion: The floral floodgates opened relatively recently, as these things go.
Colonial Americans cultivated Old World plants such as apples, boxwood and parsley, as well as venerable New World beauties including Southern magnolias, bald cypresses and flowering dogwoods.
Until the 1850s, the rest of the world knew little about the flora of Japan, though its horticultural practices were advanced, and 18th-century residents of Tokyo, then known as Edo, and Kyoto would have known the glory of avenues of flowering cherry trees. Garden historian Christopher Thacker wrote that the Japanese garden was already "infinitely sophisticated while we in the west were still in bearskins."
Japan had closed itself in reaction to Portuguese Christian missionaries who arrived in the 16th century.
The Japanese rulers allowed Dutch traders, who wanted Japanese goods, not souls. For more than two centuries, successive members of the Dutch East India Co. provided the rest of the world with any knowledge of Japanese society, natural history and culture. Three of the company's physician-naturalists became pivotal in introducing the West to Japanese flora.
One of them did the most to unlock Japanese floral secrets. Philipp Franz von Siebold arrived in Japan in 1823. He stayed for six years and on his return published books that established him as the leading Western authority on Japan.
Siebold was allowed to work in Nagasaki and through Japanese friends received plants from wide and far. He gave us the mophead hydrangea and named it for his Japanese wife, Taki. He traveled to Tokyo and along the way observed the wild and cultivated plants. Every little house had a sacred garden, some ornamented with bonsai.
"These dwarf trees are reared in flower pots ... ," he wrote, "and when they bear luxuriant branches upon a distorted stem, the very acme of perfection is attained."
He also observed the delight with which Japanese gardeners grew excessively large vegetables, including a radish weighing 50 pounds.
Of Siebold's eight books, none was more important to botany than Flora Japonica, a lavish two-volume work first published in 1835. It contains descriptions and hand-colored lithographic plates of 150 Japanese plants, the final 22 not issued until 1870, four years after Siebold's death.
The book gave botanists the first full measure of the trove of the Japanese garden at a time when Western interest in this inscrutable land was reaching a peak.
When Flora Japonica appeared, those lucky enough to have seen it might have thought Siebold exaggerated the beauty of the plants, but a young American botanist named Asa Gray saw something else.
Gray sailed to Europe in 1838, when he was 28, to meet some of the great botanists of his day. In Munich, he met Siebold's co-author, J.G. Zuccarini, who gave Gray a copy of Flora Japonica as a gift. Gray, who spent his career at Harvard, saw the strange kinship between many Japanese species and those native to the eastern United States.
He developed a view that tallied with the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. In 1859, the same year as Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Gray published his theory that plants from Japan and the eastern United States share a common ancestry.
One obvious example was Virginia creeper, an American native, and Boston ivy, from Japan. There were obvious parallels, too, between Japanese and American pachysandra, rhododendron, viburnum and stewartia, to name a few. Gray concluded that the glaciers of the Pleistocene period cleaved such species, and they evolved separately afterward.
"Gray's work showed that Darwin was right about the transmutation of species," wrote A. Hunter Dupree, author of Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin.
This was all very interesting botanical brainstorming, but to get long-lost Japanese plants into our gardens, something else had to happen.
Enter Commodore Matthew Perry, who negotiated a treaty to end Japanese isolationism. Almost immediately, plant collectors arrived from America and Europe to capitalize on the pent-up demand for the Japanese plants.
During the 1860s, an American living in Yokohama, George Hall, sent back seeds and plants of ornamentals, including Japanese maples, yew and false cypress. Others brought back Boston ivy, Japanese hemlock and dogwood. A Scots American named Thomas Hogg returned with stewartias, snowbells and katsura. Within 30 years, the floodgates of Japanese flora were fully open.
"We have Chinese plants and European plants," said Forrest, of the New York Botanical Garden, "but if you subtracted any geographic source, none would be so missed by American gardeners as Japanese plants."