Located on low hills (67 meters above sea level) in Yokohama’s Minami Ward, the Yokohama Children’s Botanic Garden opened to the public in 1979 (the Year of the Child) with an area of 4 hectares. Since then, many of the trees have matured, creating a woodland atmosphere.
Near the main entrance is a pleasant rectangular formal garden, with roses such as “Crimson Glory,” a hybrid tea, raised in Germany in 1935, with red flowers and a pleasant scent, and “Eden Rose,” another hybrid tea bred in France in 1950, with dark pink, scented flowers.
Running down one side of this garden there is a well-kept low hedge of Japanese yew (karaboku, Taxus cuspidata nana). This is a natural variety and the plant is extremely hardy and slow growing. It will tolerate sun, shade and drought, and withstand temperatures as low as minus 23 C. This form of the Japanese yew is a popular garden plant in both the United States and Europe.
In autumn the yew will produce red fruits, if both sexes are present. The fleshy part, or aril, is rich in vitamin C, but the hard seed inside and the leaves are poisonous. A couple of years ago in Ireland during early autumn, I was horrified to see a man eating the berries from a yew tree. I thought he must be mad, so I warned him that they were dangerous.
“Don’t worry!” came the reply from the Spanish man. “These berries are delicious, as long as you don’t bite the inner seed.” Still, please do take care with children around these trees in autumn.
Japanese holly (inu-tsuge, Ilex crenata) is grown in small hedges around some of the rose beds and other seasonal flowers in the garden. Like the yew it is evergreen and will thrive either in full sun or in shade.
Beyond the formal garden is a fruit orchard where you can see 80 different cultivars of the Japanese persimmon (kaki, Diospyros kaki), which has been cultivated in Japan for hundreds of years.
There are five native species of persimmons in Japan. The kaki as we know it was developed mainly from the mountain kaki. Persimmons belong to the Ebenaceae family, and ebony timber is famous throughout the world. Persimmon timber is hard, heavy and durable, and is often used for carving. The American persimmon (D. virginiana) is another species that is commercially cultivated. A scion of Newton’s apple tree which was donated by Koishikawa Botanical Gardens can be seen here. Other fruit in the orchard include blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), yama-momo (Myrica rubra), loquat or medlar (biwa, Eriobotrya japonica), Japanese plum (ume, Prunus mume), peach (sumomo, Prunus salicina), blackberry (Rubus occidentalis) and Japanese sweet chestnut (kuri, Castanea crenata Ashisawa). There is also a fine herb garden containing 90 species and cultivars.
Farther down the hill two species of the giant bamboo are grown side by side, madake and moso-chiku. These bamboos can be seen growing all over the warm temperate areas of Japan — but how do you tell which is which? Two points may assist you with identification: The giant timber bamboo or madake (Phyllostachys bambusoides) has two circular notches on every node plus at the base of the leaf there is a hairy leaf sheath; moso-chiku has only one notch at the node and no hair on the leaf sheath.
Close to the bamboos are some very fine ferns. There are 470 species of fern native to Japan, out of some 9,000 species worldwide.
Two small greenhouses hold 200 species and cultivars of tropical plants, including insectivorous plants. Check out the tree aralia (hari-giri, Kalopanax septemlobus, also called K. pictus). This deciduous tree is not exactly rare, but the stout thorns on the trunks of young trees, the yellowish-green flowers born in panicles in July and August and the five-lobed leaves, which turn clear yellow in the fall, make it an attractive tree. It is not often planted by landscapers, but if you go hiking in the mountains throughout Japan you may encounter it. The tree aralia belongs to the ginseng family (ukogi-ka); Araliaceae is the botanical name for the family, and there is only one species in the genus. The tree is also native to eastern Siberia, Korea and China.
Another tree you should keep an eye out for is the Japanese pagoda tree, also known as the Chinese scholar tree (enju, Sophora japonica), a deciduous tree from China belonging to the pea family (Leguminosae). In July-August it produces fragrant flowers in terminal panicles 15-25 cm long; individual flowers are only 1.3 cm wide. The leaves are compound. The weeping cultivar, S. japonica pendula (shidare-enju), is a very attractive summer flowering tree.
The upper level of the garden offers 14 model gardens, laid out in an area equivalent to an average Japanese house and garden. Valuable ideas can be gained on what plants to use for hedging, the approach to a front door and shady gardens, and what flowering trees and shrubs can be grown in a limited space.
While these model gardens are well maintained, it would be a good idea if one garden was remade every year to keep up with changing times and trends. New plants that enter Japan in increasing numbers could be tested here.
It is interesting to note that Japanese gardeners have refined even the relatively simple job of hedge planting to a fine art. Before any planting is done they erect a “four-eye” fence (yotsume-gaki). This is a see-through bamboo fence, and gives support to young plants in the hedge. The basic design of the fence consists of two or three horizontal layers of bamboo evenly spaced. Vertical pieces of bamboo are attached to horizontals, in a front and back arrangement; i.e., one vertical is attached to the front, the next to the back and so on. The normal height of the fence is 1-1.5 meters, but this can be altered to suit the requirements of the individual gardener.
Another bamboo fence that is used to help young hedge plants is the ko-shiba gaki. This is a purely functional fence and is very simple to make: two horizontal rails of bamboo nailed to cedar wooden posts. There are no vertical bamboo pieces. The twine that is used to tie the bamboos and the hedge plants together is shuro-nawa, or hemp-palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), a Japanese native palm. Long ago this twine was produced in Japan, but due to high labor costs, it is now imported in large quantities from Korea or China.
In an age when it is necessary to be more environmentally conscious, the material used in these fences is 100 percent natural. Next time you are out for a walk take a closer look at the construction of hedges, especially new ones.
Opposite the main entrance to the Children’s Botanic Garden is another large park, known as Kodomo Yuenchi. This is a nice park for walking the dog, jogging or bird watching, with plenty of year-round and migrant birds. The dusky thrush (tsugumi, Turdus naumanni), for example, is a Siberian bird that migrates to Japan in the fall and remains until spring. The gregarious brown-eared bulbul (hiyodori, Hypsipetes amaurotis), the Oriental greenfinch (kawara-hiwa, Carduelis sinica) and the great tit (shiju-kara, Parus major) are all year-round residents.
There is a superb bamboo-branch fence (takeho-gaki) in the center of Kodomo Yuenchi park. This construction technique uses two or three tiers of stout horizontal bamboo rails, with neatly cut bamboo branches packed vertically between the bamboos. The appearance of a well-kept takeho fence is superb.
From Tokyo or Shinagawa stations take the express bound for Ofuna and alight at Hodogaya Station. Directly in front of the station there is a pedestrian bridge; cross over this and board the number 7 bus bound for Jido Yuenchi. Open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., closed Mondays. No entry charge. Classes for elementary and junior high school students in insect appreciation and pressed-flower arrangement will be held July 21-28. For further information phone (0457) 41-1015.
We are now in the rainy season, and this is also the best time to view the hydrangeas (ajisai). Mimurodo-Temple in Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture, is a good place for viewing — in an area of 10,000 sq. meters there are some 10,000 hydrangea bushes, representing 30 cultivars. Admission is 400 yen. Access is from Uji Station on the Keihan-Uji Line. You can take a bus or enjoy the walk from the station, and if you have time, why not pay a visit to the famous Byodo-in Temple, also close to Keihan-Uji Station.
For further information on the hydrangeas phone (0774) 21-2067. The prime viewing period is mid-June to the end of July.
For hydrangea viewing in the Kanto area, try the Meigetsu-in Temple in Kamakura, a short walk from Kita-Kamakura Station on the Yokosuka Line.