The Kyoto Botanic Gardens were first opened to the public on Jan. 11, 1924. Located in Sakyo Ward in northern Kyoto City along the banks of the scenic Kamo River, they are run by Kyoto’s prefectural government.

The gardens’ almost 24 hectares contain a very good collection of over 120,000 plants representing 12,000 different species. Four and a half thousand species and 25,000 plants are found in its greenhouse alone.

When first opened to the public, they were known as the Taiten Kinen Kyoto Shokubutsuen, named to celebrate the enthronement of Emperor Taisho. After World War II, this oasis of greenery was taken over by the American military and the grounds were used to house members of the armed forces.

In 1957, it was returned to the Kyoto prefectural government and renamed Kyoto Furitsu Shokubutsuen (Kyoto Prefectural Botanical Gardens) in December 1959. The gardens were completely redesigned; an entry fee system was set up when it reopened April 25, 1961, and today over 11 million people visit it every year.

One of my favorite areas in the garden is the Nihon no Mori, or the Japanese Ecological Garden, as it is known in English. This section in the center of the gardens was opened in July 1966 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Kyoto prefectural government. The 15,000-sq.-meter Nihon no Mori contains over 1,000 species of plants, roughly divided into eight geographic areas. Plants that can survive the Kyoto climate have been collected from all over the Japanese archipelago and are cultivated here in almost natural surroundings.

Not just native species are found there, but also plants that have been cultivated in Japan for hundreds of years, such as the tall, autumn-flowering herbaceous perennial boneset, also called thoroughwort or agueweed (fujibakama, Eupatorium fortunei). Boneset, once used as a medicinal herb, is native to China, but is now considered one of the Seven Flowers of Autumn in Japan.

I have been to Kyoto Botanic Gardens many times, but it was only in January of this year that I “discovered” a very special area called Nakaragi no Mori. I had gone to the office near the main gate to make an inquiry about an old tree in the small Japanese tea garden that nobody is allowed to enter, a Japanese hackberry (enoki, Celtis sinensis), estimated to be around 150 years old. Hackberry is a tall deciduous tree and belongs to the elm family (nire-ka, Ulmaceae).

The director, Shigetoshi Takabayashi, showed me a photo taken in 1913, before the garden was constructed. In the center of the photograph is a small wooded area surrounding a shrine called Nakaragi Jinja. Today we can still see this same wooded area (about 5,000 sq. meters), just as it was in the photograph. The woods are surrounded by water on three sides and there are three small bridges spanning a small pond. Its oldest trees are muku (Aphananthe aspera), which also belong to the elm family; they are estimated to be 150-200 years old.

Nakaragi no Mori also offers well-grown keyaki (Zelkova serrata), saikachi (Gleditsia japonica), katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) and some Japanese maples, kaede (Acer sp.). The Gleditsia japonica is armed with very long spines, up to 8 cm long. The evergreen kago no ki (Actinodaphne lancifolia), a member of the laurel family (kusunoki-ka, Lauraceae) found only in warm, temperate areas of Japan, has the nicest bark. Smooth to the touch, the trunk is a patchwork of different shades of white, green and brown as the old bark flakes off in tiny patches to reveal new white bark.

The greenhouse was rebuilt in 1992, and is supposed to look like Kinkakuji Temple, because, like the Kyoto temple, it sits on water. Plants flower inside it all year round.

Here you can see the Victoria water lily (Paraguai onibasu, Victoria cruziana), with its enormous large flat leaves floating on top of the water, and the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), the natural source of chocolate. Cacao is native to South America, where it grows in the shade of other taller trees; its fruit is borne on the trunk and large branches. Today, most of the world’s supply of cocoa is cultivated in Nigeria and Ghana.

Some plants were grown in Japan for the first time in this greenhouse, such as Thunbergia mysorensis that was introduced from Hawaii in 1976. This Indian native has yellow tube-shaped flowers with a red base that hang in pendants 3-5 cm long, open from March to May.

Immediately outside the greenhouse on the left, there is a collection of the famous Tokyo cherries, somei Yoshino (Prunus x yedoensis). The pure white flowers open in April. Across from them are three weeping pagoda trees (shidare enju, Sophora japonica), grown from scions (tsugiho) imported from China in 1934 and grafted onto prepared rootstock. The fragrant white-cream colored flowers open between July and August. Beyond the pagoda trees a large lawn can be used for picnics; the view of Mount Hiei in the distance is lovely.

In the European-style garden on the right from the main entrance there is a rose garden containing 2,000 bushes of over 300 rose varieties, with a fountain in the center. Some of the tall Himalayan cedars (Himalaya sugi, Cedrus deodara) in this part of the garden were damaged by typhoons in 1997 and 1998. Though tall and stately, these trees are shallow rooted and vulnerable to high winds.

Between the rose garden and the north gate, the Japanese water-irises start to bloom from the middle of June and continue through mid-July. The collection shows some 250 cultivars and 3,000 plants, including old classic varieties from Ise, Higo (present-day Kumamoto) and Edo.

The perennial and medicinal plant collection includes over 1,000 different species. The Chinese peonies (botan, Paeonia suffruticosa; shakuyaku, Paeonia lactiflora) begin to flower around the end of April and run through mid-May. You can also see the foxtail lily (Eremurus olgae) with its 70-100 cm-tall flower stems and white flowers, from late May through June. The genus Eremurus includes 40-50 species, found wild from Turkey east to the Himalayas, with one species in China.

In 1994, a visitors’ center was built to celebrate the gardens’ 70th anniversary. The two-story building contains a restaurant on the second floor, a lecture room and the “gardeners’ salon” with a library of botany and horticulture books. The gardens’ main office is on the first floor, by the shop. Exhibitions are held throughout the year: tuberous begonias at the beginning of April, followed by the Kyoto bonsai exhibition, the Chinese peonies and toward the end of April until the first week of May, an ebine (Calanthe sp.) exhibition.