The Hokkaido University Botanic Garden is situated right in the heart of Sapporo, within easy reach of Sapporo Station. I really love to see trees grown at their best, and for those of you who feel the same, a visit to this garden is essential.

In fact, the garden was established around the remnants of the very large forest, which until the beginning of the Meiji Period covered the whole Ishikari Plain. This forest comprised mainly deciduous trees such as the very tall and majestic Japanese elm (haru-nire, Ulmus davidiana var. japonica). Some of the Japanese elms in the botanic garden are over 35 meters tall and are estimated to be between 150 and 200 years old.

Another tree that grows to more than 30 meters in the botanical garden and at other locations in Sapporo is the Japanese oak (mizu-nara, Quercus mongolica). The mono maple (itaya kaede, Acer mono) grows to a height of 15-20 meters, while the hari-giri tree (Aralia kalopanax) attains a height of more than 25 meters.

Two conifers that once were common on the fertile Ishikari Plain are the Sakhalin fir (todomatsu, Abies sachalinensis), which can attain a height of 35 meters, and the Sakhalin spruce (aka-ezomatsu, Picea glehnii), which reaches 30 meters. The natural distribution of the Sakhalin spruce is from Mount Hayachine (1,914 meters) in Iwate Prefecture, north of Hokkaido and Sakhalin. They are dominant, tall evergreen trees, once common on the Ishikari Plain.

Sapporo now covers a good part of the plain. It is interesting to note that the serious development of Hokkaido was started only in 1869 (just over 130 years ago) by the Meiji government under the control of the Kaitakushi (colonization commission). Before then there were very few mainland Japanese living on Hokkaido, which was still the land of the Ainu people. The museums in Sapporo show photos of men clearing forests from what is now the central of Sapporo City.

In 1892, Sapporo had a population of only 9,000 or 2,400 houses. Today the population has exceeded 1.8 million. The city was modeled mainly after Kyoto, but the design was also influenced by American and European cities. It is gifted with wide streets and footpaths. The main avenue in front of the station was planted in 1892 with black locust (nise-akashiya, Robinia pseudoacacia), originally a North American tree, known for its scented white flowers that open in May-June.

Sapporo and Vancouver have certain similarities. Just over 100 years ago virgin forests were felled in both cities, but both have taken initiatives to preserve some of the old natural forest within the city boundaries.

The university’s 13.3-hectare botanic garden was founded by Dr. Kingo Miyabe (1860-1951) in 1886. He wrote the book on the flora of the Kuril islands and Hokkaido; his name is commemorated in the scientific name for the kurobi-itaya maple tree, Acer miyabe, one of which grows outside the museum in the center of the garden.

The natural woodland has now been reinforced with many different species of trees from other cold temperate regions of the world and from other areas of Japan. Japanese beech trees (buna, Fagus crenata) grow to a great height here, though its most northerly natural habitat is on the Oshima Peninsula, west of Sapporo.

Another introduced tree is the very ornamental Japanese wingnut (sawagurumi, Pterocarya rhoifolia), also not normally found north of the Oshima Peninsula. In this garden, Japanese wingnuts nonetheless attain a height of around 25 to 30 meters. Male and female flowers are carried on long showy catkins in May or June. The fruit is also carried in catkins, up to 30 cm long. Wingnut timber is made into wooden clogs, buckets and matchsticks.

The tall red oak trees (aka-nara, Quercus rubra) are famed for their display of autumn colors. Red oak was introduced to Japan at the beginning of the Meiji Period, and the avenue in front of the main gate is lined with them. The branches on this fast-growing tree can grow as much as 2 meters during the growing season. In North America this tree is valued for its pale reddish timber.

Lurking in the woodland are shade-loving herbaceous plants. Perhaps the most striking is the giant lily (o-ubayuri, Cardiocrinum cordatum var. glehnii), with its thick stems and tall flowering stalk, some 1.2-2 meters high. The large, funnel-shaped, cream-white flowers start to open in July in these gardens. Their heart-shaped leaves measure 30 x 30 cm. Aside from shade, the giant lilies require deep, very rich humus soil which needs to be always moist, but not waterlogged.

Beyond the natural woodland there is a compact, square rose garden, edged with flower beds contain many different types of herbaceous perennials. When I visited this garden on the lovely sunny August morning, the tall aster (shirayama-giku, Aster scaber) was in flower. This Japanese wildflower grows to 1.5 meters tall; the individual white flowers are only 1.8-2.4 cm wide. Shirayama-giku grows wild all over Japan.

The “Japanese anemone,” or shumei-giku in Japanese (Anemone hupehenis var. japonica), was also in full bloom. Originally from China, this has long been a favorite autumn flowering plant to cultivate in Japanese and European gardens.

The perennial Gaura lindhemeri has very attractive white flowers and grows to a height of 1 meter, but it has no Japanese or English common name. The coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) from North America has bright yellow petals with a dark center. The plant in the garden was about 2 meters tall, but the plant is capable of growing to 3 meters.

Behind the rose garden is a section with more herbaceous perennials, and then the ethnobotanical “Ainu garden,” an important and comprehensive collection of plants that the Ainu people used in their daily life. There are trees that Ainu use to construct houses with, herbs for medicine, and food plants. Cercidiphyllum japonicum trees (katsura in Japanese or ranko in Ainu), for example, were used to make dug-out canoes. The Ainu museum close to the entrance is well worth a visit.

The official Sapporo flower is the lilac (murasaki-hashidoi, Syringa vulgaris). In the botanical garden you can still see the original lilac that was planted in 1890, the oldest in Japan. The plant was given to the garden by Sally Smith, the founder of the girls’ school presently called Hokusei Gakuen. The garden has a very large collection of lilacs, at their best in June.

The big rock garden was started in 1937. When I visited, a brand-new section was under construction. The rock garden is open to the public from spring until the end of autumn, but it too is at its best in June.