Japanese Garden Plants: A Fixed Choice
Japanese gardens are very important to the Japanese people. All of the gardens are representations of nature. The purpose of these gardens is to capture nature in the utmost natural way, and do it with a touch of artistic feeling. Japanese gardens are built for endurance and to withstand and harmonize with the typically wet weather of Japan. As mentioned, the essential elements to a Japanese garden – water, garden plants, stones, waterfalls, trees, and bridges – create this symbolism. Because Japanese garden plants are one of the basic elements of the garden, you cannot choose every kind of plants to put in Japanese garden.
Japanese garden plants are used almost architecturally, and shape and texture are very important. As with Japanese gardening in general, contrast and balance are key – for example, the contrast between hard rocks and soft plants, or upright lanterns and flat moss. When planning the planting for your Japanese garden, choose some plants that will provide vertical lines and some that will provide horizontal ones, and make sure that you have plants for low, mid and high levels.
Let’s start with good Japanese plants for high levels, and move down to low levels.
High level plants: Trees – Bamboos – Climbers
Mid level plants: Shrubs – Flowers
Low level plants: Mosses – Ferns – Grasses
Types of Japanese Garden Plants
Japanese garden trees – There are some classic Japanese garden trees: maples, pines, cherries. But as always, if those don’t flourish in your habitat, it’s entirely in keeping with the Japanese approach to choose other trees that do.
The cherry tree – sakura – is so important in Japanese culture that the word for flower, ‘hana’, used on its own, is understood to mean cherry blossom. Every spring, crowds of people go cherry blossom viewing in Japan, some following the fall of the blossoms from the north to the south of the country. Japanese poetry is full of references to sakura. Cherries are actually more common in Japanese parks than Japanese gardens, because their period of interest is shorter than other plants. So if you’re striving for total authenticity you may want to consider another tree. Personally I love cherry trees, so authenticity be damned!
There are tons of varieties of cherry tree. Most flower in spring, but there are some beautiful winter flowering cherries which can rescue a garden from the winter blues. There are also weeping cherries, which add some extra interest in the form of their shape. Whichever kind you choose, do place them somewhere where you’ll be able to sit and watch the blossom fall in the spring.
The plum -ume – is another truly classic Japanese garden tree. So classic, in fact, that plum, pine and bamboo are known as ‘the three worthies’, or ‘the three friends of winter’, as they’re beautiful even in the middle of winter. The plum represents purity of character, the pine longevity, and bamboo flexibility. The three together is a very auspicious grouping.
The next of the three worthies, pines are especially great for shape, and can be trained into gorgeous architectural fantasies. Maples, this classic Japanese tree adds wonderful texture to the high level of your garden. Well, I say high level, but there are many beautiful dwarf maples too which you can use for your mid-level planting. Maples also offer color, as you can buy maples in a spectacular range of colors from dark red to pale green, and every gold and green in between.
Bamboos – Bamboos are an archetypical Japanese garden plant, and the third of the three worthies (see plum). They have tons of shape and structure – always important in a Japanese garden. You have to be really careful with them, though; not only do some of them grow incredibly tall, they all tend to spread like crazy and will completely take over if you’re not careful. The safest thing to do is grow them in pots, but if you really want them planted in the earth, you might want to consider submerging large pots in the ground and planting the bamboo in that, so it can’t run wild. If you want tall bamboo, look for ‘screening bamboo’. If you want small bamboo, look for ‘dwarf bamboo’. Shibataea kumasaca is a nice dwarf bamboo, 3 feet tall, evergreen, and not too aggressive.
Climbers – No list of Japanese plants would be complete without wisteria. It’s so classically Japanese that there’s even a Wisteria Maiden in Japanese legend, complete with accompanying dance. The profusion of gorgeous purple flowers every spring – the heavy scent – the twisting trunks and branches – wisteria provides great shape, structure, and drama for your garden. Wisteria is spectacular if you train it somewhere where the flowers can hang down – for example along a veranda. Wherever you grow it, make sure there’s plenty of really strong support for it, because it grows like mad. The weight of a fully grown wisteria is just crazy, and it will easily break latticework and strangle trees. So you need plenty of space if you want a wisteria in your Japanese garden, and you need to be prepared to cut and shape it every autumn to keep it in check, train it where you want, and make sure it doesn’t damage buildings or strangle plants. It’s not the easiest plant in the world – but it’s so worth the effort.
Shrubs – Along with dwarf trees, shrubs provide the mid-level interest in your Japanese garden planting. They’re also a good way to include flowers in your garden, as Japanese gardens use flowering shrubs and trees rather than the annuals of a Western garden. The azalea is probably the most important flowering shrub for a Japanese garden. Others are the peony, hydrangea, rhododendron, and camellia. Boxwood and privet are great for shape and structure. All can be trimmed into wonderful shapes.
Flowers – Most Japanese garden flowering plants are shrubs and trees, but there are some others. Irises are a classic – like cherry blossom and chrysanthemum, you’ll often see them in Japanese crests. Irises are used in water gardens, around the edge of a pool – or in dry gardens, where rock, moss and gravel may be used to symbolize a lake or an ocean, irises may be planted around the edges to further the illusion. No list of Japanese plants would be complete without mentioning the chrysanthemum – the national flower of Japan, and symbol of autumn.
Mosses (and moss substitutes for drier climates) – Last by very definitely not least, plants for the low level. Every Japanese garden needs good groundcover plants. Mosses are a real feature in Japanese gardens, and one of the quickest ways to give your garden a Japanese feel is to use moss. Mosses are soft and fresh and make everything feel lust and moist – water, of course, being another important Japanese garden feature. In Japanese gardens, moss is often used as groundcover the way Western gardens use grass. It’s also used in a very natural way to soften rocks, boulders, and stone lanterns. And in miniature landscapes it can be used to represent ‘land’, with gravel representing ‘sea’. You can buy moss almost the way you would buy turf, but another option is to ‘seed’ and area from a small patch of moss by drying it out, crumbling it up, then mixing it with water and sprinkling it over the area you want to cover. Either way, you’ll need to keep it very moist while it settles in. As with everything else, try to find moss native to your area if possible. Dicranum flagellare / scoparium is a useful moss because it’s not too fussy – it’s happy in dappled light or full shade, average or moist climates, and it stays green even when it dries out. Other not-too-fussy mosses are leucobryum glaucum and polytrichum commune / juniperinum / piliferum. Japanese conditions are great for moss, but that’s not necessarily the case in other parts of the world, especially with the climate changing. The Pacific Northwest of America is still a great environment for moss, but elsewhere you may want to consider substituting other forms of groundcover, such as alpines and dwarf herbs. I used dwarf spreading thyme in mine, and it worked really well.
Ferns – Ferns go naturally with mosses, both being fond of shade, and their textures complement each other. They’re especially beautiful planted around the base of a Japanese garden ornament such as a stone lantern, stone basin, or tsukubai. As for species, as always, the best thing to do is choose ones that are native to your area, but some that are happy in a wide range of areas are athyrium filix-femina (lady fern), athyrium niponicum (Japanese painted fern), matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern), osmunda regalis (royal fern).
Grasses – Grasses bring wonderful texture, grace and movement to a Japanese garden, and are great for blending the spaces between other plants. There’s a huge variety of grasses, golden and feathery, blue and spiky, red and sculptural – you can really find whatever you fancy, and they contrast wonderfully with each other. Festuca glauca (Elijah Blue) is a wonderful spiky blue grass, with spikes of blue flowers in summer which fade to beige. If the sun is full, it will fully hardy. Anemanthele lessoniana – Pheasant’s Tail Grass turns gold and copper in autumn, hence the name. Full sun or part shade, it will be frost hardy. Carex dolichostachya ‘Kaga nishiki’ – Gold Fountain Grass is a Japanese grass, native to woody slopes. It has green leaves with gold edges, and a nice arching habit.
Keep in mind that a Japanese garden is a quiet place, allowing people to look back and reflect or meditate. That’s why we have to choose Japanese garden plants correctly. The use of soft flower colors in pink and white are often the choice. In a Japanese garden there is a respect for nature. The understatement and simplicity of design add dignity and grace to Japanese gardens, making a clean and unique statement. These gardens give many impressions to those who appreciate them and they move people in various ways.