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Earlier this year, I hired a car at Miyazaki Airport and drove along the coast to Kagoshima.

Prickly pear at the Nichiran Cactus Garden
— Gerard Taafe photos

My first destination was a camellia park officially known as Tsubaki-yama Forest Park, just beyond Mount Boroishi (509 meters), south of the city of Miyazaki. Boroishi Mountain is on Miyazaki Prefectural Route 27, a small twisty mountain road. Although Mount Boroishi is only about 7 km from the sea as the crow flies, the influence of the sea is greatly reduced by its height and steep sides.

When in Kyushu, it’s worth spending some time exploring areas away from the main tourist track. I was thinking that in this part of southern Kyushu there would still be lots of wonderful natural forests around every corner.

Boy, was I ever wrong. This is sugi country. Forestry is practiced here in a big way. Shortly after World War II, local people started clearing native forests and planting Japanese cedar (sugi, Cryptomeria japonica).

The natural woodland has been replaced with cedar plantations.

Unfortunately, these cedar forests were planted without much planning, not just in Miyazaki but in many parts of Japan. People do need trees for houses and furniture, and there seems to be an ever-growing demand for timber, but a local man told me there’s too much sugi now.

Still, you can find some interesting wild flowers between the side of the road and the edge of the sugi woods. Ophiorrhiza japonica, for example, is a white-flowered woodland perennial. It does not like open, sunny positions; instead it will only thrive in the cool shade of taller woodland plants.

The feral ponies of Cape Toimisaki

Although the plant itself is small, only 10-25 cm high, and the tube-shaped white flowers are only 1-1.5 cm long, it covers much of the forest floor — especially in rocky terrain where machines cannot easily maneuver. There is no common English name for this plant, but the Japanese name is Satsuma inamori. It blooms from December to May.

Ophiorrhiza japonica belongs to the madder family (akane-ka, Rubiaceae), which has an estimated 150 species scattered through the tropics, especially in Southeast Asia.

Stachyurus praecox (above) and Viburnum japonica are found in southeastern Kyushu.

The camellia park beyond Mount Boroishi opened in 1984 and is supposed to be the largest such park in the world. That may be so, but it is certainly not the best. The camellia garden on Oshima Island off Tokyo is smaller, but far better.

So what is wrong with this garden? Easy: It’s filled with camellias — and little else. Plant labels are few and far between. Furthermore, when I visited the park, I found the staff preparing to plant 500 camellia shrubs. To create a new planting area they had just clear-cut several hectares of natural woodland, leaving nothing standing! Miyazaki city officials were there to celebrate the occasion.

I ventured to suggest to them that this was not the best way to go about creating a park.

I left the camellia park and backtracked down to the coast road, then followed the scenic Nichinan coastline as far as the Cactus Garden. This is a surprisingly old garden, built on a steep hillside. There is an interesting Mexican museum, and its bell tower gives a very fine view of the coastline below.

There are estimated to be 130,000 cacti growing in the garden, and the majority are grown outdoors. The prickly pear cactus (uchiwa-saboten, Opuntia compressa) was very noticeable; this hardy North American cactus has become a problem in some parts of the world where it has been introduced. Its fruit is edible, though.

The plant that really caught my attention was the coral fountain (hana-choji, Russelia equisetiformis). Other common names for this trailing evergreen shrub are firecracker plant and fountain plant. It is native to Mexico and tropical America.

Coral fountain also grows in Iso Garden, Kagoshima, but it would be hard to find a better specimen than the one growing contentedly in this cactus garden. Coral fountain likes a sunny position and mild winters; here the winter temperature rarely drops below 10 C.

A trailing shrub, it has few leaves. Instead, the thin, bright green stems photosynthesize just like leaves. Coral fountain’s bright red flowers are tubular, about 2.5 cm long. They bloom in spring and early summer.

Coral fountain is also an ideal plant for hanging baskets. It is propagated by stem cuttings. Keep the soil moist and fertilize it regularly.

The genus Russelia, I might mention, was named in honor of the 18th-century naturalist Dr. Alexander Russell (1715- 1768), who was physician to the English factory at Aleppo, Syria, and author of “The Natural History of Aleppo.”

I drove on south along the Nichinan Coast. The heavy traffic heads for Kagoshima at Nango-cho. In this area there are two native shrubs that are real car-stoppers when in flower. Stachyurus praecox (kibushi) flowers in yellow racemes, 4-10 cm long, in early spring before the leaves unfold.

On the Boso Peninsula near Tokyo, and in the warmer parts of western Japan, you can see a natural variety of the kibushi growing right along the coast: hajijo-kibushi, S. praecox var. matsuzakii. The individual flowers are larger and racemes are longer than the standard variety. When in leaf, the leaves are also larger than the species standard.

The other car-stopper is hakusan-boku (Viburnum japonica), an attractive evergreen. The broad, ovate leaves have a leathery texture with a glossy surface. Its white, fragrant flowers are borne in clusters 8-15 cm wide. A Japanese native, it is now also cultivated in California. The red fruits are small, only 6-8 mm, but very attractive.

When you do not have the foggiest idea what a plant is called, it’s a good idea to make a quick sketch, noting the natural habitat where the plant grows. Sketching helps to fix it in your memory. If you prefer to take a photograph, though, you should get a macro lens for taking good closeup shots of flowers and leaves.

Cape Toimisaki is the most southerly point in Miyazaki Prefecture. If you are lucky with the weather, the outlook from this cape across Shibushi Bay toward the Osumi Peninsula can be spectacular. Even on this seemingly remote cape, though, much of the land has been replanted with Japanese cedar.

Toimisaki boasts a herd of feral horses, one of a number of old, almost forgotten local breeds scattered around the country. The misaki-uma are small, stocky horses, 13-13.2 hands high (ponies, really), that were brought here about 300 years ago when the area was ruled by the Tokane lords. Today the Misaki horses run wild and untended. In 1953 these horses were designated as a living national monument.

Be careful, though; while they are nice to look at from a short distance, up close you can see they are sadly plagued with or ticks.