"The Dwarf-Tree Culture of Japan" by Percy Collins




      "The Dwarf-Tree Culture of Japan" by Percy Collins in Windsor Magazine (1907):
       Of many well-marked features characteristic of Japan as a nation, none is more noteworthy than her love for tiny things.  It is not that her people fail in the appreciation of what is great and imposing.  Rather it is that they possess a national bias for the dainty and the diminutive.  Little things seem to fascinate them; and littleness, in their eyes, has become a standard of artistic merit.

SPECIES OF FIG TREE, 50 YEARS OLD, WORTH £20.

THUJA, PRICED AT FROM £15 to £20.

       This tendency is nowhere more marked than in Japanese horticulture.  To our Western minds, the ideal garden consists of a vast pleasance with lawns and lakes and mile-long avenues.  But the Jap [sic] designs a garden, perfect in every detail, whose total area is less than that of an English dining-table.  Moreover when completed, it is not a mere window-box -- a thing of the moment made to outlast a few summer days -- but a carefully executed work of art, a daily delight and a joy for ever.  Under the watchful care of its owner, it will grow and thrive for an indefinite period, and pass as an heirloom from one generation to another.
       It was doubtless this love of diminutive gardens which led to the exclusively [sic] Japanese practice of producing and rearing dwarf trees.  It is, of course, quite easy for any gardener to stunt a tree, simply by cutting and starving it.  But such a process merely results in an ugly deformity, and the dwarf trees of Japan are not stunted in this sense of the word.  Their trunks and branches show every sign of gnarled old age; their roots appear above ground in tortuous curves.  They are, in fact, actual living miniatures of forest trees.

       The art of producing trees is a very old one.  No record of its origin remains; but its secrets are handed down from father to son in a few families, and are guarded with scrupulous care.  On the outskirts of Tokio the tree artists have formed a little colony of from twenty to thirty houses, and from this centre their work finds its way to all parts of the world.

       In the old days the trees were exported [541] extensively to China, to be used in the decoration of houses and gardens.  To-day the Celestial taste for the quaint works of art seems to have declined.  Yet the little colony in Tokio still flourishes, for of late years it has had to supply the growing demands of Western civilization.  In England and America especially dwarf trees are finding great favour, being hailed as novel and attractive table decorations.

LARCH TREE, 45 YEARS OLD  FOUR TREES PLANTED
TOGETHER AND BOUGHS TRAINED.


       Exactly how these tiny trees are produced is known only to a score or so of individuals.  But Mr. S. Eida, a Japanese Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, was good enough to supply the writer with some interesting facts relating to the methods employed.  It would seem that the quality essential to the successful dwarf tree grower is patience -- infinite patience, backed by a fund of calm resignation unknown to the Western mind.  Fifty years is named as the shortest period in which a really good and saleable dwarf tree may be grown, while a lifetime is not long enough to produce the highest examples of the art.  The artist merely makes the beginning: his son, or perhaps even his son's son, reaps the rewards of his labours.

A TREE VALUED AT £10 10s.

LARCH TREE, 45 YEARS OLD.

       Dwarf trees are produced from seeds, or -- in cases where this is not practicable -- from carefully selected cuttings.  When the young plant begins to grow, it is tended with ceaseless care, and from the commencement of its career its natural tendencies are subjugated to the will of its master.  Each twig, each [542] leaf, as it makes its appearance, becomes the object of the closest scrutiny.  Shall it be permitted to grow, and if so, in what direction?  May it not be advisable to cut it away altogether and encourage growth elsewhere?  These and a dozen similar questions occupy the mind of the Japanese artist, and upon their correct solution depends the ultimate value of the tree; for, to be perfect, the dwarf must possess a shape and balance equal to the best life-sized models.

"IVY LEAF" MAPLE AT 54 YEARS OF AGE.


AN OAK, PLANTED IN 1852 -- THE YEAR WHICH
SAW THE LOSS OF THE "BIRKENHEAD."


A LITTLE MAKII TREE, 18 IN. HIGH,
PLANTED IN 1859.


       The artist has at his disposal several centuries of transmitted experience.  To this he adds the quality that Carlyle mistook for genius -- "an infinite capacity for taking pains."  He cuts and prunes his subject, often mercilessly, but always with infinite care and forethought.  At times, with bass or wire, he draws a wayward twig into its ordained position; then, after two or three years, when the trend of the branch is fully established, the bonds are cut away again.  From time to time, too, the tree is carefully re-potted, and on such occasions its roots are subjected to a careful examination.  Indeed, in their turn they receive as much attention as do the branches.  Unnecessary masses of fibre are cut away, leading rootlets are freed and encouraged, and the whole is then carefully rearranged in a fresh soil.

FIR TREE, LESS THAN A FOOT IN HEIGHT, PLANTED
IN THE YEAR WHICH SAW THE BIRTH OF KING
EDWARD VII
-- 1841.


DWARF MAPLE TREE, ONLY 16 IN. HIGH, PLANTED
IN THE YEAR OF THE GREAT TOOLEY STREET
FIRE
-- 1861.


       Everything is done, in fact, to concentrate the life of the tree within the narrowest [543] possible limits.  And, at last, after years of unremitting labour, the tree begins to respond to the touch of its master.  It loses its tendency to shoot forth lusty and far-reaching twigs.  Its leaves become tiny and proportioned to its dwarfed branches.  It surrenders, as it were, in the fight for liberty, and becomes quiet and tractable.

A 22-INCH BEECH, PLANTED IN THE YEAR OF
THE LAUNCH OF THE "ROYAL GEORGE," AT
DEPTFORD -- 1817.


A POMEGRANATE -- PLANTED IN 1822
-- THE YEAR OF HERSCHEL'S
DEATH.



JUNIPER, 14 IN. HIGH, PLANTED IN 1783 -- THE
YEAR IN WHICH PEACE WITH THE UNITED STATES
WAS PROCLAIMED.



CONIFER (THUJA OBTUSA), 20 IN. HIGH AND
10 IN. ROUND THE TRUNK, PLANTED IN 1707 --
THE YEAR IN WHICH THE UNION OF ENGLAND
AND SCOTLAND
WAS COMPLETED.


LAGERSTRŒMA INDICA, PLANTED IN 1795 -- THE
YEAR IN WHICH THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE WAS
TAKEN FROM THE DUTCH.


STYRAX JAPONICUM, PLANTED IN THE REIGN
OF GEORGE IV.


       Besides forest trees, such as oaks, elms, beeches, and maples, many other kinds are [544] subjected to the dwarfing process; indeed, almost all the native trees of Japan, as well as many imported species, are thus represented in miniature.  Some of the most beautiful examples are the tiny fruit trees -- cherry, plum, and apple -- which, when in full bloom, make the loveliest table decoration imaginable.

MARRIED MAPLES, ABOUT 40 YEARS OLD.  TWO
TREES ENTWINED, VALUED AT £15.


       There is an irresistible charm about these pigmy trees which is peculiarly their own.  When looking at one of them for the first time, one hardly knows whether to laugh or to look solemn.  The tree is ridiculously small and insignificant.  Yet it was alive and flourishing when one's great grandparents were babies in arms!

OBTUSA CEDAR, VALUED AT £20.

       To many minds there is something distasteful -- not to say uncanny -- in this treatment of trees.  But this is generally found to arise from misapprehension.  Regarded simply as trees, these dwarfs are the personification of unnaturalness.  But to the Japanese mind they are not so much trees as pictures.  "No one objects to a landscape painting because its mountains are not a mile high," says Mr. Eida, in defense of his art.  "In a landscape painting the rivers and mountains are not as they are in Nature; they are, in fact, representatives in miniature, just as they dwarf trees are."
LARCH TREE, 85 YEARS OLD, £20.

       It is a fact that many of the choicest and most ancient trees have of recent been brought from Japan to England, and are now in possession of private collectors, or else are on view at one of the [545] London establishments where these curiosities are "stocked for sale."  Moreover, purchasers of the trees are usually informed that their specimens may at any time be sent “to hospital” at a small monthly cost; and this provision is very necessary, seeing that the life of a valuable dwarf tree, which for some reason may have become sickly, may often be saved by a little timely treatment at the hands of an expert.  Indeed, the hospital branch of the dwarf tree business is so important that a few years ago an enterprising firm actually fetched Segiro Takagi, perhaps the most distinguished dwarf tree trainer now alive, from far Japan, and installed him as reigning spirit in a nursery in Acton.

MAPLE TREE PLANTED IN 1697.  IT IS 3 FT. HIGH
AND 18 IN. ROUND THE THICKEST PART OF THE
TRUNK.


PODOCARPUS OKINA.  £25.

       Curious as to the prices obtainable for Japanese dwarf trees in this country, the writer, upon inquiry, was informed that these depend both upon the age of the tree and upon its size and contour.  For a well grown veteran maple planted, let us say, in the reign of William and Mary, £32 would be considered a fair price.  A nice little oak, numbering only some eighty-six summers, may be had for £12; while young beginners, in their fortieth year or so, command only a few pounds.

DWARF CAMELLIA.  £6 6s.

       But these prices fade into insignificance when compared with the sums which have been given for trees of extraordinary age or great perfection.  On page 546, for example, is reproduced the photograph of a thuja tree whose age is not less than three hundred years, and whose price is one hundred guineas.  The maple tree shown [546] on page 545, too, is valued at some eighty guineas on account of its strangely shaped, gnarled old trunk.
       These high-priced trees, however, do not find much favour in the eyes of purchasers in the Western Hemisphere.  We are so far imbued with the desire to obtain tangible value for money expended that most of us would look long and lovingly at one hundred guineas ere we should barter it in exchange for a "mere plant," no matter how quaint and artistic that plant might be.  The same remark applies to dwarf trees of a grotesque character.  We fail to see why an especial value should attach to these.  Yet if we once fully realized the amount of time and thought which the tree artist gives to the production of the more bizarre examples, we might, perhaps, be disposed to alter our minds.  In Japan, where tree dwarfing and training is regarded as a high art, those who wish to possess a good specimen pay the high price without demur.

CONIFER TREE, 125 YEARS OLD, £25.

CLUMP OF NAUTEN PLANTED THREE YEARS BEFORE
THE LATE QUEEN VICTORIA CAME TO THE THRONE.


THUJA.  800 YEARS OLD.  100 GUINEAS.

       In conclusion, a few words may be added respecting the making of grotesque trees.  These, like the larch trees shown on page 541, often resemble birds or animals, and are generally formed by means of three, four, or more trees planted in the same vessel and combined.  A common plan is to select a number of likely looking branches upon a full-sized tree as a beginning.  A ring of bark is then removed from the base of each of these, and the stripped part is surrounded with a mass of clay, which is then covered with moss, the whole being bound about with wire or bass.  The moss and clay are kept constantly moist, and after a period varying according to the kind of tree from three months to two years, roots are sent out by the branch into the clay.  All this time close attention has been paid to the growth beyond the cuts, [547] so that when at length the rooted branch is severed from the parent tree, it is already in an advanced stage of treatment.  Three or four such branches, which have now become independent trees, are planted together in a shallow vessel filled with suitable soil, and the work of training and combining is continued.  In this way the time necessary for the production of a good grotesque tree is materially lessened; yet, even so, a period of thirty or forty years must elapse ere the tree will be regarded as perfect.
       Another kind of dwarf tree very popular in the East is the so-called "married tree."  This is produced by entwining two small trees in such a manner that, while they still retain their separate growth, they are in other respects inseparable.  A young married maple, little more than a foot in height, will command as much as £15 to £20.

SEGIRO TAKAGI (ON THE LEFT), A DISTINGUISHED DWARF TREE TRAINER FROM TOKIO, AT WORK WITH
HIS ASSISTANTS IN A GARDEN AT ACTON.



NOTES

1    Collins, Percy "The Dwarf-Tree Culture of Japan," The Windsor Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly for Men and Women (London: Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd.), Vol. XXVI, October 1907, pp. 540-547.

We do not know if Segiro Takagi was related to Reiji Takagi, founder of the Takagi Bonsai Museum (see Book of Days for Jan. 4).

More information about Mr. Eida can be found here.


Mention of this article quoting from "There is an irresistible charm..." through "...reigning spirit in a nursery in Acton" can be found in "The Old Fence Corner" section of Gardening (Chicago), Vol. XVI, No. 364, Nov. 1, 1907, pg. 55.

And as the three paragraph article "Growing Dwarf Trees" in The Canadian Horticulturist, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, January 1908, pg. 4.


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