"Dwarf Trees" from Mary E. Unger's
The Favorite Flowers of Japan

        Mary Elizabeth Unger (1871-1944) was born in Cleveland, Ohio.  She later became the wife of Alfred Unger (1865-1938) in Cleveland on 27 January 1900.  He had arrived in Yokohama in 1890 to assist Louis Boehmer in managing his successful nursery business, located on the Bluff.  Boehmer was a German citizen who had immigrated to America around 1866 and become a successful gardener in Rochester, New York.  He next moved to Japan in 1872 to head a government-owned farm that was operated by American agricultural officials.  After the break-up of this farm, Boehmer established his own nursery in 1882, trading under the name of L. Boehmer & Company.  The firm specialized in exporting Japanese plantsto Europe and the United States, and supplied plants and flowers to the German emperor.  (Existing until 1908, the Boehmer nursery advertised bonsai in their "original pots" for three to fifty yen, according to shape, age and general attractiveness.)  Boehmer retired in 1890, selling the business to Unger.  During the decade of the 1890s, the business of selling Japanese plants and flowers had grown more competitive, especially with the advent of a cooperative of Japanese growers who traded under the name of the Yokohama Nursery Company. 
       The most successful exporter of plants from Japan was the Yokohama Nursery Company.  It was founded in 1890 by four nurserymen, including the father-and-son team Uhei and Hamakichi Suzuki.  Uhei had worked for Boehmer for seven years previously.  The Nursery appears to have been a conglomerate of small-scale nurseries in the Yokohama area; James Herbert Veitch, who travelled in Japan in 1892, wrote about a Gardeners’ Association there, and the company referred in its catalogues to 'our stocks grown in Yokohama and local nurseries.'  In 1892, the Association issued its first English catalogue, during the next year or two it was re-organized, and by the end of the decade, the Yokohama Nursery Company was producing handsome catalogues with full-color illustrations.  These would continue through the mid-1920s, impressive documents written in flawless English and beautifully illustrated with colored plates, line drawings, and photographs of classic Japanese garden plants.  The section on dwarfed plants was typically only a small part of the cataloguem which often ran over eighty pages long and featured an incredible array of plants, seeds and bulbs.  They sold both wild species and horticultural varieties, along with an amazing selection of pots and other decorative objects for the garden and greenhouse.
        Alfred Unger was under pressure to respond to such marketing considerations, and he turned to the innovative publisher Takejiro Hasegawa (1853-1938) to help him develop a comparable product using wood-block illustrations that would be combined with text written for Western consumers by his wife, Mary.  The growth of Hasegawa's business during the decade of the 1890s was part of the explosion of interest in published material about Japan, especially newspapers and literary journals.  Hasegawa, particularly from 1885-1912, was interested in publishing Western-language (English, German, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish) translations of traditional Japanese poetry and folktales.   He had a selection of books available at the Japanese bazaar in the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, as well as for other Japanese and International Fairs.  Now, although not an original concept, The Favorite Flowers of Japan in 1901 was a landmark publication from which numerous other items were developed.  The wood-block printer was Tokujiro Kaneko.  The Ungers and Hasegawa then decided to make use of the many illustrations by Shoso Mishima to produce a catalog for the nursery business in 1903.  A second edition of Flowers was set for 1906.  Between January and October of that year the Ungers were in Europe.  A third edition of Flowers was called for in 1911 and contained an advertisement at the end for the Boehmer nursery.

      The Favorite Flowers of Japan (1901):


Magnolia (rear specimen, pg. 11)

      With the remembrance of the deep purplish-red, white and pink peonies of my grandmother's garden in mind, I started very unenthusiastically one morning in April for my first visit to a celebrated paeony garden in Tokyo.  As we crossed the small front garden, I stopped to look at the dwarf trees, always fascinating to a new-comer, wondering why my friends pushed forward so eagerly.  (pg. 17)

      Marvels of patience are these little trees which so attract the new-comer, who admires them from [sic] entirely different reasons from those of the Japanese.  In them he sees simply their daintiness, growing enthusiastic over the small cherry or plum trees covered with blossoms, the azaleas, the maples and pines, or a maple forest, a group of ten miniature trees, standing in a tray one foot long and an inch high, whose coloring in autumn brings to mind all the glories of the mountain-side.
       However if sympathetic and open to impressions, the visitor may perhaps before he leaves Japan, begin to understand why it is that the Japanese so love these trees and why it is that the most highly prized specimens rarely leave the country.  Governed by immemorial principles, the trees must conform absolutely to rigid rules in order to have value [sic] Japanese eyes; the right number of leaves in the right place, the right number of flowers, the right curve and bend to branch and trunk -- all requiring skill and many, many years of loving care.

       The process, which to the stranger seems so mysterious, is really rather a simple one.  The gardener prefers to select his trees from the forest and, after severely trimming back the branches and roots, he plants this skeleton in a very small receptacle, the size and shape of which is dictated.  The branches are tied down and if a branch grows out of proportion it is judiciously clipped so that this diminutive tree may resemble its brother of the forest.  The plant is left in the same earth as long as possible and is only repotted when absolutely necessary.  Just enough water and nourishment are given to keep it barely alive and in this very tenacity with which the tree fights for existence is seen reproduced that tale of a long life of strife and struggle against adversities, which makes those gnarled old mountain trees so dear to the Japanese. 

(pp. 49-51)

Cycas revoluta   (left specimen, pg. 56) 1


1       Unger, Mary E.   The Favorite Flowers of Japan (Tokyo: Hasegawa Publishing Co.; November 1901, May 1906, June 1911.)  Third edition;  Per personal e-mail from Marc Kahn to RJB on April 4, 2006, see also David Bull's "Hanga Treasure Chest" Print #20;  Per personal e-mail to RJB from Alfred and Elly Unger of Mount Macedon (near Melbourne), Australia on February 28, 2007, his grandparents Mary and Alfred Unger's birth, marriage, and death dates, plus the correction that the name of Mary's husband was Alfred, not Albert as our researches had earlier found elsewheres.

Sharf, Frederic A.  Takejiro Hasegawa: Meiji Japan's Preeminent  Publisher of Wood-Block-Illustrated Crepe-Paper Books (Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum; 1994), pp. 12, 14-15, 20-21, 27, 30, 55-58, 71-72;

Creech, Dr. John L.  The Bonsai Saga: How the Bicentennial Collection Came to America (Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Arboretum; April 2001), pg. 9 mentions Boehmer and bonsai, and states that "There is a sketch in the 1899 catalog of a dwarf maple that was sold to HRH The Princess of Wales."  That HRH was Alexandra of Denmark, who would become the British queen when her husband became King Edward VII in 1902.

Del Tredici, Peter  "From Temple to Terrace, The Remarkable Journey of the Oldest Bonsai in America" (Jamaica, MA: Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University: Arnoldia 64/2-3, 2006), pp. 3-4.

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