The luxuriant summertime growth around my studio attracts a glorious range of butterflies. It lifts the spirit to see the dynamic aerial displays of the large swallowtail species that come here, such as common yellow swallowtails (Papilio machaon), red helens (Papilio helenus), spangles (Papilio protenor) and great Mormons (Papilio memnon Linnaeus).

Bringing in numerous kinds of butterflies was one of my goals in developing the studio garden. This required planting vegetation that they would see as food — flowers for mature adults, and leaves for larvae. The caterpillars all feed on leaves, but not just any leaves; each species has its own clear preference. So setting out plants is like arranging a banquet table.

Flowering plants were selected to provide rich sources of nectar for the adults, but there was still the question of how best to set the banquet. Each tree, shrub and flowering plant has its own needs. And the more different flora you want, the more you have to consider their impact on the overall garden layout.

The rare Japanese emperor butterfly | MITSUHIKO IMAMORI
The rare Japanese emperor butterfly | MITSUHIKO IMAMORI

I began by dividing the land into an area for woodland and another for fields, and selected the plants with particular butterfly species in mind. Of the more than 10 different types of large trees this would require, the one I was most determined to include was Japanese hackberry (Celtis sinensis var. japonica). The hackberry is crucial in supporting the breeding cycles of the three most impressive butterfly species that epitomize rural Japan: the Japanese emperor, the siren butterfly (Hestina persimilis japonica) and the scarce tortoiseshell (Nymphalis xanthomelas). The Japanese hackberry doesn’t like to compete for sunlight, so it does best with a sizable clearing to grow in. The three butterfly species are strong flyers, but they’ll only put on their best shows if there is enough open space. With these considerations in mind, I chose the best possible location on the property for my hackberries, based on many years of observation.

Nature-inspired: Photographer and cut-paper artist Mitsuhiko Imamori's rural studio is surrounded by trees. | MITSUHIKO IMAMORI
Nature-inspired: Photographer and cut-paper artist Mitsuhiko Imamori’s rural studio is surrounded by trees. | MITSUHIKO IMAMORI

Another major concern was providing sufficient food for the swallowtails. Swallowtail absolutely love citrus trees, particularly Japanese bitter orange (Poncirus trifoliata) and Japanese prickly ash (Zanthoxylum ailanthoides). Bitter orange trees take a long time to grow to a significant size, so I began preparations three years before starting construction on the studio. The 50 young trees I planted over 25 years ago now form a hedge that stands taller than I do, with pure white blossoms bearing golden fruit. Countless swallowtails are raised on these trees every year. The prickly ash I planted at the edge of the woodland have been left to grow into big trees, though I prune them to keep them from getting too high. These belong to a wild species, and they provide a home for even more species of swallowtail than the bitter orange trees, so I treasure them.

I’ve given similar care and attention to the location of each and every plant in the studio garden. It took several years to establish the environment I was aiming for, but at long last, eight years ago during summer, a happy moment arrived. That was when a Japanese emperor laid its eggs on one of my hackberries for the first time. One day I looked up and noticed a large butterfly hanging from a branch high in the tree, which by then rose about eight meters above the ground. It was a female Japanese emperor, and it was curling its abdomen to lay eggs. This species is known to be very fussy about where it lays its eggs, so I felt myself breaking into a big smile, convinced that my garden had finally earned its place as an authentic piece of the satoyama countryside.

Even today, outside my window, numerous butterflies big and small are flitting about in the dappled sunlight that filters through the trees, as they usually do this time of year.

Born in 1954 in Shiga Prefecture, photographer and cut-paper artist Mitsuhiko Imamori has won many prizes, including the 20th Kimura Ihei Memorial Award and the 28th Domon Ken Award. Among the numerous publications featuring his photographs and cut-paper work are “Mizube” (“Lakeshore”), “Moegi no Kuni” (“Land of Budding Trees”) and “Imamori Mitsuhiko no Kokochi Ii Satoyama-gurashi Junikagetsu” (“Mitsuhiko Imamori’s 12 Months of Satoyama Life”), all published by Sekai Bunka Publishing Inc. For more information, visit imamori-satoyama-world.com.

For more insight into Japan’s culture, arts and lifestyle, visit int.kateigaho.com.

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