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 Bonsai Articles: "Dwarf Trees" and The Industries of Japan (1889)

 By Johann Justus Rein

Johann Justus Rein (1835-1918) was a German scholar who spent over ten years in apparently unhindered research all over Japan.

       Japanese art-gardening is carried on with very few implements -- and these few but poorly adapted to their purpose -- but with great manual skill.  It does not compare with European gardening in perfection of taste and execution, nor in the ways and means which are at the command of our gardeners.  It must be regarded, however, as a sample of Japanese taste, just like some specimens of their art industry.  Our gardeners have learned with great care the requirements of all the plant-life in their domain, and seek by fulfilling these conditions to bring all to their highest natural perfection.  On the other hand, the Japanese gardener tries to keep all bushes and trees constantly pruned and trimmed, and in many other ways to obstruct their natural development; now to produce symmetrical forms, after the fashion of old French gardening, and again to prevent symmetry by fanciful creations, dwarfed and deformed figures, and to work in a way utterly incomprehensible to us.  There is now-a-days a tendency in Europe to imitate this sort of gardening in its quaint artificiality; but it is not according to our taste, and only admissible in exceptional cases.  Our gardeners help nature; the Japanese do her violence [sic].  But Japanese gardening is praised in many books, just for this unnatural tendency, while to us it appears like incomprehensible trifling and waste of effort.
       Dwarfing or enlarging one part at the expense of the other, variegation and cultivation of every accident or trick of nature, are, as has been intimated, the careful occupation of the Japanese gardener.  He distinguished himself in these efforts, and even becomes, in one or the other, a specialist.  He works with great enjoyment to himself, and knows also that he is pleasing the taste of his customers, among whom he counts not only the educated and the rich, but also the ordinary labourer.
       The Japanese not only take great pleasure in this artificial deformation, but they admire and collect also natural malformations of every kind.  They admire a stone, e.g., through which water has worn a hole, or an old decaying tree-trunk with one or more plants growing out of a knothole where seeds have been accidentally lodged.  This is due to the same intellectual laziness [sic], and is an example of the charm which striking phenomena have for many people with us also, and which the uneducated admire everywhere, but with us the admiration is usually diverted from nature to other objects.
       Dwarfing or Nanisation is the name which we give to the various operations for producing dwarfed forms, an art in which the Chinese and Japanese are masters, and which they employ more with ornamental plants than with fruit trees.  Chinese girls cripple and deform their feet in tiny shoes, and the art and trade gardeners of Eastern Asia frequently check the growth of plants by forcing them into small jars, by frequent transplanting, and by scanty nourishment and close pruning.  Their exertions seem directly either to reduction of size, while retaining the form, or to the production of monstrosities of different kinds.
       To produce a slow growth they choose particularly small seeds from a poorly developed individual plant.  Frequent cutting back has been found even more effective, also planting in pots of insufficient size.  Twisting the twigs and stems in a horizontal spiral direction has the same effect, and the refrigeration of the ground and roots by evaporation, using porous pots.  Grafting is often also a means to this end, i.e. it serves to check natural development.  It is employed especially in the many varieties of Momiji (Acer polymorphum), and is usually effected according to the oldest methods known to gardening -- grafting by juxtaposition, a sort of "greffe par approche" as it is called by the French.  The cutting which is to be engrafted is sharpened on one side and laid in an incision cut diagonally in the wild tree, or attached to the wild stock by a sort of splicing, and then carefully bound.
       Some of the results obtained in Chinese and Japanese gardening in dwarfing species are very surprising.  Kaempfer relates that he once saw growing together in a small box, 4 inches long, 1-1/2 inches broad, and 6 inches high, a bamboo cane, a pine tree, and a blooming Mume-plum tree.  The price of this group of dwarfs was 1,200 Dutch gulden or nearly 100: an evidence of the difficulty and tediousness of the accomplishment, also a token of the high estimation of such abnormal form; for what nurseryman in Europe would think of asking one-tenth of this sum for this sort of production?
       The employment of this peculiar art of Nanisation on some of the coniferae is very popular, especially on the Matsu (Pinus Massoniana and P. densiflora), the Nagi (Podocarpus Nageia) and Koyamaki (Sciadopitys verticillata), also on Mume (Prunus Mume), Sakura (P. pseudocerasus), Kaki (Diospyros kaki), Momo (Amygdalus persica), Masaki (Euonymus japonicus), and several other ornamental plants, among them the bamboo cane.  Particularly scarce varieties of such dwarf plants are put up in finely decorated blue porcelain pots, and bring high prices.

       [A particular nonedible tree-fungus] bears the name of Reishi, and is a dry, hard, and really worthless sort of hood-mushroom, in appearance related to the Polyporus lucidus, Fries. or P. amboinensis of Farther India and the Malay Archipelago.  Reishi is the size of our champignon (A. campestris), and has a stalk which grows occasionally 15 cm. long, and is dark brown like the hood.  If it perchance grows to be a curiosity on the stem of an old dwarf-tree in a gardener's pot or tub, the tree is straightaway taxed [sic] from one to two yen (4 to 8 shillings) higher, and looked upon as a sign of luck, Medetai, and an occasion for congratulation.  Reishi counts, too, as a good omen in general, and is used to decorate the Tokonoma or slightly raised projection of a room.

       It is worthy of note the dwarf training, so popular in Japan with decorative plants, is seldom applied to fruit trees.  The same is true of pyramidal, cordon, and wall-fruit training which are so much esteemed and so widely known in Europe. 1

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