Exporting Beauty

How the Japanese garden travelled West

By RHS Lindley Library

Japanese Garden, Barrow Hills, Surrey (1920/1921)RHS Lindley Library

A love of all things Japanese

In the late nineteenth century, Japanese plants and gardens became extremely fashionable throughout Europe and the United States. They were part of a larger cultural phenomenon called 'Japonisme', a Western fascination with Japanese art and design that emerged after Japan opened its doors for trade in the 1850s.

Plate 84. Japanese Garden Ornaments (1912/1914) by A. B. StonemanRHS Lindley Library

Japanese gardens were a regular feature in international exhibitions and they received extensive coverage in the gardening press.

Frontispiece (1882) by L. Boehmer & Co.RHS Lindley Library

This led to a flourishing export market in Japanese plants, bulbs and garden ornaments.

Including tōrōs, traditional japanese lanterns made of stone.

'Descriptive Catalogue of the Yokohama Nursery Co, Ltd.' Front Cover (1927/1928) by The Yokohama Nursery Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Export Nurseries

Large export nurseries were established in Japan in the 1880s and 90s, including the American firm, L. Boehmer & Co., and the Yokohama Nursery Company. They produced beautifully illustrated catalogues to whet the appetite of the Western gardener.

'Descriptive Catalogue of the Yokohama Nursery Co, Ltd' Front Cover (1926/1927) by The Yokohama Nursery Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

They were works of art in themselves as much as sales catalogues.

'Descriptive Catalogue of the Yokohama Nursery Co, Ltd.' Front Cover (1922/1923) by The Yokohama Nursery Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Front cover of Yokohama Nursery Co., Ltd. catalogue (1901) by The Yokohama Nursery Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Did you know that Washington DC's famous cherry blossom trees were exported from Japan in 1912 by the Yokohama Nursery Company?

Front cover of 'Descriptive Catalogue of the Yokohama Nursery Co., Ltd.' (1925/1926) by The Yokohama Nursery Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Front cover of Yokohama Nursery Co., Ltd. catalogue (1906) by The Yokohama Nursery Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Lilium auratum (goldband lily) is a much-loved flower in Western gardens, but were you aware of its Japanese origins?

It was introduced to Britain by the plant collector John Gould Veitch and exhibited for the first time in 1862 at the RHS’s South Kensington Garden. Its beauty and scent caused a horticultural sensation.

No.6 Fukumusume (1890/1891) by Seitaro Arai & Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

They've travelled far to get to you

A large number of plants were introduced to the West from Japan throughout the nineteenth century. They are so familiar in our gardens today that we rarely stop to question their origins.

Front cover of 'Iris Kaempferi' catalogue (1890/1891) by Seitaro Arai & Co., Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Native to Japan, Iris ensata (formerly I. kaempferi) is a favourite water garden plant in Western gardens.

Iris fields in George F. Wilson's Wisley garden, 'Oakwood' (1901)RHS Lindley Library

George F. Wilson's garden, Oakwood, in Surrey, UK, (now RHS Garden Wisley) acquired a reputation for its collections of Iris ensata

No. 41 Kokuriu-Nishiki and No.42 Ukare-Jishi (1900/1910) by The Yokohama Nursery Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Along with China, Japan has played a big part in introducing peonies to the world. They were so popular at the turn of the twentieth century that they had their own specialist export catalogues.

No.3 Kigyoku and No.4 Akashigata (1900/1910) by Yokohama Nursery Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Maples of Japan (1898) by The Yokohama Nursery Co. Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Acer (commonly known as maple) leaves are known for their striking autumnal colours and distinctive leaves.

But the Acer palmatum has only been in Britain since the 1820s. It has been cultivated in Japan for centuries.

Japanese porcelain flower pots, bronce vases and jardinieres (1882)RHS Lindley Library

Perfect for balconies and urban gardens, and long associated with Japan, were you aware that the art of bonsai actually originated in China?

'Lydia' collection of lilies (1935) by Bees Ltd.RHS Lindley Library

Japanese plants have seamlessly integrated into our gardens. By the interwar period, plants that first appeared in exotic Japanese nursery catalogues were so familiar that they had become part of every Western nurseryman’s normal stock.

It is hard to imagine any modern-day garden without them.

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The RHS Lindley Library holds the finest collection of horticultural literature in the world and important collections of botanical art, archival papers, photographs and artefacts. Together they cover more than 500 years of garden history, art and science.

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