Open main menu

Flowers. An enemy has said that Japanese flowers have no scent. The assertion is incorrect; witness the plum-blossom, the wild rose, and the many sweet-smelling lilies and orchids. But granting even—for the sake of argument, if for nothing more—that the fragrance of flowers greets one less often in Japan than at home, it must be allowed on the other side that the Japanese show a more genuine appreciation of flowers than we do. The whole population turns out several times in the year for no other purpose than to visit places which are noted for certain kinds of blossom. It is round these that the national holiday-makings of the most holiday-loving of nations revolve, and no visitor to Japan should fail to see one or other—all, if possible—of these charming flower festivals. The principal flowers cultivated in Tōkyō are:—the plum-blossom, which comes into flower about the end of January, and lasts on into March; the cherry-blossom, first half of April; the tree-peony, end of April or beginning of May; the azalea, early in May; the wistaria, ditto; the iris, early in June; the convolvulus, end of July and beginning of August; the lotus, early in August; the chrysanthemum, first three weeks of November; the maple (for such bright leaves are included under the general designation of flowers), all November.

The Japanese care but little for some flowers which to Europeans commend themselves as the fairest, and they make much of others which we should scarcely notice. All sorts of considerations come into play besides mere "look-see" (if we may for once be allowed the use of a convenient Pidjin-English term). The insignificant blossom of the straggling lespedeza shrub is a favourite, on account of ancient poetic fables touching the amours of the lespedeza, as a fair maiden, and of the stag her lover. The camellia is neglected, because it is considered unlucky. It is considered unlucky, because its red blossoms fall off whole in a way which reminds people—at least it reminds Japanese people—of decapitated heads. And so on in other cases. Of wildflowers generally the Japanese take little account, which is strange; for the hills and valleys of their beautiful country bear them in profusion.

A very curious sight is to be seen at Dango-zaka in Tōkyō at the proper season. It consists of chrysanthemums worked into all sorts of shapes, men and gods, boats, bridges, castles, etc., etc. Generally some historical or mythological scene is pourtrayed, or else some tableau from a popular drama. There, too, may be seen very fine natural chrysanthemums, though not quite so fine as the élite of Tōkyō society is admitted to gaze on once a year in the beautiful grounds of the old palace at Akasaka. The mere variety is amazing. There is not only every colour, but every shape. Some of the blossoms are immense,—larger across than a man's hand can stretch. Some are like large snow balls,—the petals all smooth, and curved in one on the top of the other. Others resemble the tousled head of a Scotch terrier. Some have long filaments stretched out like star-fish, and some, as if to counterbalance the giants, have their petals atrophied into mere drooping hairs. But the strangest thing of all is to see five or six kinds, of various colours and sizes, growing together on the same plant, a nosegay with only one stem,—the result of judicious grafting. Of the same kind of blossoms, as many as thirteen hundred and twenty have been known to be produced on one plant! In other cases the triumph is just the opposite way:—the whole energies of a plant are made to concentrate on the production of a single blossom, a tawny, dishevelled monster, perhaps, called "Sleepy Head" (for each variety has some quaint name), or else the "Golden Dew," or the "White Dragon," or the "Fisher's Lantern" a dark russet this or the "Robe of Feathers," a richly clustering pink and white, or, loveliest of all, the "Starlit Night," a delicately fretted creature, looking like Iceland moss covered with hoar-frost. These results are obtained only by the accumulated toil of years, and especially by care, repeated many times daily, during the seven months that precede the period of blossoming. Such care is amply rewarded; for the chrysanthemum is a flower which will last several weeks if duly sheltered from the early frosts.

Much of the above, doubtless, will be no news to the professional European chrysanthemum-grower, who is accustomed nowadays to handle numerous splendid varieties of this beautiful flower. Let him remember, however, that the impulse towards chrysanthemum-growing, and even most of the actual varieties now shown, came from Japan scarcely more than twenty years ago.

Bouquet-making is not left in the Far-East, as it is in Europe, to individual caprice. Europeans are, in this respect, wild children of nature. The Chinese and Japanese have made an art of it, not to say a mystery demanding long and arduous study. Indeed, they invoke the aid of Confucianism itself, and arrange flowers philosophically, with due regard to the active and passive principles of nature, and in obedience to certain traditional rules which have been jealously handed down in the various flower-schools. It is well-worth the while of any intelligent enquirer to peruse Mr. Conder's beautifully illustrated work on this subject, though, to be sure, the whole gist of the matter may be given in half-a-dozen words:—a "floral composition" must consist of three sprays, the longest in the middle generally bent bow-like, a second half its length branching out on one side, and a third, a quarter of its length, on the other. To obtain proper curvature, the stems are heated over a brazier, or else kept in position by means of wires and other artifices. Whatever may be thought of the so-called flower philosophy, the reader will at least have gained acquaintance with a graceful and intricate art, and with a curious chapter in the history of the human mind. Linear effect, and a certain balance or proportion achieved by means of studied irregularity, are the key-note and the dominant of Japanese floral compositions. The guiding principle is not harmony of colour.

An enthusiastic local critic, who is up to the ears in love with all things Japanese, opines that the Japanese linear arrangement of stems and leaves stands "at an unmeasurable height above the barbaric massing of colours that constitutes the whole of the corresponding art in the West. Such a verdict will scarcely find acceptance with those who esteem colour to be nature's most glorious gift to man, and the grouping of colours (unless we set above it the grouping of sounds in music) to be the most divine of human arts. Neither does sober enquiry into botanical fact produce any warrant for the hard-and-fast set of linear rules elaborated by a coterie of dilettanti in the fifteenth century, who had never looked at nature but when "to advantage dressed." Still, Japanese floral design offers a subject as attractive as it is original. If not, as its more zealous and intolerant sectaries claim, the way of treating flowers, at least it is a way, a totally new way; and we are greatly mistaken if it and Japanese gardening do not soon make many European converts. The very flower-pots are delightful, with their velvety blue and white designs.

Books recommended. The Floral Art of Japan, by Josiah Conder. See also a preliminary article by the same author in Vol. XVII. Part II. of the "Asiatic Transactions."—The Garden of Japan, by F. T. Piggott.