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Sapporo Municipal Botanic Garden, better known as Toyohira Garden, is well off the tourist trail, but highly recommended. The garden is situated in Toyohira-ku, approximately 3 km south of Sapporo Station, just across the wide Toyohira River.

The 3.7-hectare garden was opened to the public in 1979. Before that, the area was used by a government institute for research into timber-producing trees that would be suitable to cultivate in Hokkaido. This is why there are so many different species of mature trees growing in this garden, which give it its unusual character.

Garden director Miyako Wakushima says that many of the trees are impossible to accurately name, because they are hybrids created when the garden belonged to the research institute. The institute, owned by the Hokkaido government, has now moved to the outskirts of Sapporo.

The Toyohira Garden is divided into a number of different sections. Close to the main entrance there is a greenhouse and, in an adjoining building, a well-stocked horticulture library and reading room, open to the public, with some 2,000 books, periodicals and magazines.

In the garden’s Advice Center retired horticulture professionals give free garden advice on garden problems: pests, weeds, fertilizer, pruning of roses and lawn maintenance, among others. Plants are sold to the public on a small scale inside the greenhouse.

The greenhouse has displays of orchids and other indoor ornamental plants. When you consider that the winter in Sapporo is so long and that outside work is impossible to do from the end of October until April because of all the snow, this greenhouse, library and Advice Center are a great treasure to the garden.

Apart from being the director of the garden, Wakushima, who moved to the Toyohira Garden from Amagasaki City Botanic Garden in Hyogo Prefecture some 14 years ago, is also in charge of the model herb garden and model flower garden outside the greenhouse. These are intended to give visitors some ideas on how to use the space in their own gardens. By observing these model gardens, you can get an instant impression as to what plants grow tall and vigorous and which plants are best situated toward the front or rear of the flower or herb bed.

The climate of southeast Hokkaido, including Sapporo, is ideal for growing hardy herbs and herbaceous perennials. There is great potential for adding an English-style herbaceous border here in Toyohira. Unfortunately the present garden budget prohibits such flowery ideas, but Wakushima is hoping to make such a border in Toyohira at some time in the future.

He pointed out to me that plants that we may take for granted in Kansai and Kanto regions are impossible to grow outside in Sapporo, because of the harsh climate. Tsubaki (camellia), kinmokusei (Osmanthus aurantiacus), yama-momo (Myrica rubra), nanten (Nandina domestica) and satsuki (azalea, Rhododendron indicum) are just some of the plants that are associated with the warm-temperature region of Japan and cannot be grown outside in Hokkaido. One section of the garden is devoted to different types of hedges that can be used in gardens in Hokkaido or in the Tohoku region.

Basically gardening is just different in Hokkaido. Spring and summer are the best times to cultivate plants. During the long winter months maintenance is kept to a minimum — the four gardeners who maintain the outdoor garden during the summer months are actually laid off.

The arboretum contains some beautiful Manchurian silver birch trees (shirakaba, Betula platyphylla var. japonica), about 15 meters tall. The bark of these birches is pure white, and they must look great when the ground is covered with snow. The Manchurian birch grows very fast in sunny places in the woods.

Close to the car park there are some nice specimens of the tree of heaven (niwa-urushi, Ailanthus altissima). This deciduous tree was introduced to Japan in 1875 from north China, and grows well in all areas of Japan.

The ailanthus is characterized by the enormous size of its pinnate leaves. On an ordinary tree a complete leaf measures over 60-cm long, with 10 to 15 pairs of leaflets, each measuring 7-10 cm long, but if the tree is cut back regularly the leaf grows very large. I have seen trees where the entire pinnate leave was over 1 meter in length and had 25 pairs of leaflets, the largest some 20-cm long. The central stem of the leaflet is normally red; close to the base of each leaf there are four teeth, and directly beneath each tooth are visible glands. This is a great urban tree because of its ability to tolerate industrial pollution very well, and will grow in any type of soil.

Outside the greenhouse there is a beautiful group of tall Norway spruce trees (doitsu to-hi, Picea abies). Its needlelike leaves are arranged spirally on the branches, and there are little pegs at the base of each leaf. This fast-growing conifer is an important timber tree in Europe, where it can reach heights of 60 meters. The yellowish-white timber is called white deal and is used widely for furniture and interiors, but is not durable outside at all.

In the yaso-en (wild flower garden) I saw ki-renge-shoma (Kirengeshoma palmata), a superb specimen and one of my favorite herbaceous plants. This delightful woodland herbaceous perennial is native to mountains on the Kii Peninsula, Shikoku, Kyushu and also Korea. The yellow flowers are 3-cm long and open in early August in its native habitat; in Sapporo they bloom toward the end of August or the beginning of September. Stems are over 120-cm long.

Close by was another Japanese woodland herbaceous plant, renge-shoma (Anemonopsis macrophylla). Renge-shoma is a rare plant even in its native habitat, which is the mountainous area of central Japan. This plant requires a cool shady position with a leafy soil. Purplish-white flowers are borne on stems 15-30 cm long and face downward. Each flower is about 3-3.5 cm wide. To see ki-renge-shoma and renge-shoma growing side by side in the same garden is an unusual delight.