This story of maples takes the first step in Wales, a land almost totally unaware of the noble strain. (Except for Acer campestre, the only British native, that in those lands shapes – together with other rustic fellows such as the hazel, the spindle, the blackthorn wild, the dogrose, and, for the most part, the hawthorn – that billowing weave of hedgerows which narrates the fields of Britannia like the borders of Gertrude Jeckyll do for those gardens).
But I’m digressing already. In August of 2013 I used to work at the Botanical Gardens of Wales, on a temporary rotation under the indoor team. My days were spent in repotting a collection of South African bulbs and smelling the flowers of a Stanhopia tricornis that had decided to transform the Tropical Greenhouses in a perfumery.
One of those mornings a young Japanese couple was presented who would join the outdoor team for a short work experience. When it was my turn to introduce myself and shake hands (or bowing?), I discovered with some amazement that the guy spoke Italian; and indeed an Italian not completely ungrammatical. One can imagine my delight on the idea of exercising my native language in Wales, with a Japanese person.
In the weeks that followed I remained closed in the greenhouses, at the dependencies of my bulbs and orchids. Sometimes, however, in the course of episodic trips on the John Deere buggy, I could notice those exotic gardeners climbing on trees like ninjas, equipped with their silent rubber boots and sharp steel blades. The cautious ease with which they were moving on the branches seemed to be held in the parts of the expertly pruned plants, now flooding with ethereal grace in the light.
The morning of their last day in Wales, Takayuki and Eiko were greeted by all the staff of the Botanical Gardens. I warmly embraced my gemello giapponese and exchanged the e-mails, but without much hope of seeing him again.
Three years later, my compass was marking Italy again. As regards to native maples, things were a little better (A. campestre is flanked here by opalus, monspessulanum and the twins platainoides and pseudoplatanus), but the aristocratic Japanese species were still absent or – at most – exotic and misunderstood digressions. For my part, however, I was filling two suitcases for Japan, where, together with the magnificent maples, I was expected by a new job in a garden in Fukuoka. Among the things that would have eased my life there a little, were, in addition to a hoard of yen and a stack of business cards, some contacts of local gardeners, preferably able to speak one Indo-European language. Good old Takayuki came back to my mind. I started flicking through the various pile of business cards collected during the years in Britain. Finally, to my happy surprise, I found the crumpled piece of paper written in his own hand. (Takayuki is an atypical Japanese and didn’t carry with him the ubiquitous printed business cards).
I immediately wrote an e-mail in English with a few Japanese words thrown in here and there. The answer – needless to say – came in Italian. Takayuki was still in the industry and worked for a gardening company in Sendai, in the north-east of the country. We made a commitment to meet again soon, and this time the impression was that it could happened for real.
After the first seven months of residence and acclimatization in Japan, last September I finally flew to Sendai. Takayuki was waiting for me by the car park at the airport. He hadn’t changed his tune since the last time I saw him: in the car trunk he had an arsenal of pruning knifes and in the stereo a CD of the Italian singer Jovanotti.
First we went to visit the temple Gokurakuzan Saiho-ji, which in Japan is a pilgrimage site because of a scroll of the Amidha Buddha and fried tofu. I had not failed to pay my tribute to both, but my personal veneration turned to the remains of a dead tree of Zelkova serrata. This is a large giant formed by the stumps of two separate specimens, which in the intercourse of centuries joined their wood. Unfortunately the trees died recently, but their trunks have been kept and are today considered a symbol of conjugal love, as well as the third reason of pilgrimage to the temple.
Then we went back to the car and (now on the notes of Samuele Bersani) Takayuki took me to the headquarters of his gardening company The Dragon Gate (website: http://ryumonen.co.jp). I was introduced to the owner Ken Saitou and his son Yasushi, who immediately showed some curiosity in my story. For my part, I asked to see their works, all done in style and according to traditional techniques. Foreseeing a common interest and natural sympathy, we decided to move to the garden and get to work together. With my unconcealed excitement, I was given a belt with a set of blades and the legendary ninja boots. I was finally ready to prune maples in the Japanese style.
We warmed up our manual skills by pruning a few hydrangeas, with the intention of giving some space to maples and make them more readable in the landscape. When a Japanese person thinks of hydrangeas, he basically thinks of Hydrangea macrophylla. He will prune them between July and August invariably, depending on the climate and his own commitments. This is a difference that I observed to the UK, where I used to do only dead-heading in summer and the actual pruning was postponed to early spring, in coincidence with the dispersion of the last frosts. I think a summer pruning can be justified by the higher temperatures of Japan (at least in the south and south-central regions), which enable the plants to grow stronger and to callous effectively. No objection is made in snipping in summer too, but two footnotes are pinned: the first, a good eye will be necessary in order to predict the growth of the plants and their ultimate stature; the second, the cuts should be carried out in good time due to the August heat, prone to burn the pruned plants.
Ken proved himself in handling with confidence all the standard practices of hydrangea pruning: removal of the older wood and their lateral branches, severing of twisted or crossed branches, cuts just above the buds, and keeping the final height of the plants very low, just below the knee. However, since gardening in Japan is an artistic execution rather than a technical affair, Ken also showed me a trick that is not found on the manuals of The Royal Horticultural Society. He approached the secateurs to the opposed pair of buds and, with a composure very Japanese, pruned obliquely at the node, so as to maintain only a bud and with that a chosen direction. (Actually, these tricks are also seen in our countries. At Wespelaar in Belgium, I saw Koen Camelbeke snapping by hand the central buds of azaleas, favoring the branching. But between the impeccable “terminal-bud-pinching technique” of a maximum European dendrologist and the sharp and precise click of the secateurs of a Japanese master gardener, there are two oceans of distance.) The space around maples began to have more breathing space. The crowns were released from the obstacle and conflict of some branches of Pseudocydonia sinensis and Eurya japonica. Once the supporting actors were thinned, the noble maples finally enjoyed the legitimate stage and could receive their pruning.
Ken was about to give me a lesson of gardening and style that I would not forget. Although his Japanese was filtered through the translation of Takayuki, the very tone of Ken’s words, calm and unruffled, was enough to convey the sense of a deep understanding. To return now to letters that lesson will not be easy. I will warm myself up with a short excursus on botanical Japanese maples and their use in Japan, so as to clarify some of the following practical aspects with a little bit of theory.
Although in Japan the tribe of native maples is numerous (22 species in Flora of Japan to Jisaburo Ohwi, 24 according to the Book of Maples Masayoshi Yano), in the mind of the Japanese gardener there is room only for two names, momiji and kaede. Momiji, born in the botanical registries as Acer palmatum, is the group of Japanese maples par excellence. The name is translatable in “boy’s palms,” referring to the fragile grace of their palmate leaves. (There is also a second root, perhaps etymologically more charming, the archaic verb momizu, “the reddening of the leaves”.) Kaede for its part means “frog’s hand” and, in combination with other more or less elegiac epithets, dials the common name of roughly all other palmate native maples. I will now defy the vertiginous list of those agglutinative names, but the temptation of a botanical enumeration of the Japanese palmate species is too strong – here it is: A. buergerianum, A. capillipes, A. cissifolium, A. crataegifolium, A. diabolicum, A. japonicum , A. micranthum, A. miyabei, A. morifolium, A. nipponicum, A. pictum (the late A. mono), A. pseudosieboldianum, A. pycnanthum, A. rufinerve, A. shirasawanum, A. sieboldianum and their subspecies and forms.
Shown to Western eyes, both momiji and kaede seem rightfully “Japanese maples”, particularly because of the palmate leaves, that – more than the autumnal shades – are diagnostic trait of the Asian types. (It should be noticed that the 11 species of Series Palmata are all Asian except for the American A. circinatum, which not coincidentally is often adopted as “Japanese” by horticulturists and nurserymen). In the heart of the Japanese however, momiji is the plant of choice, the true queen of the group. The much admired autumn leaves are still called by old men “the flowers” of the maples, with a poetic imaginative motion that goes beyond the mere scientific precision. The centuries-old affection has determined that the majority of Japanese cultivars has been and continues to be obtained from A. palmatum, with occasional concessions to A. japonicum and A. shirasawanum. This favoritism is also explained with the considerable genetic variability of A. palmatum, by far the most variable species of the genus. Such characteristics allowed not only the immemorial proliferation of hybrids, crosses, variations and mutations, but also the subsequent taxonomic Babel, reason for unresolved consternation among the lovers of the genus and ICRA, the international authority for the registration of cultivars.
Nevertheless, such consternation doesn’t seem to touch the Japanese gardener, who is happy to see momiji growing in the course of their promiscuous saps. In accordance to the inherently Japanese gusto for the elusiveness of the natural world, he will prefer the unpredictable changes the true species to the encoded character of artificially obtained cultivars. Laboratory-made sophistries will be confined within the walls of botanical gardens or the flower beds of private collections. Therefore, walking through temples and gardens, one wonders where the hundreds of cultivars of A. palmatum that Japan has given to the world are cultivated. Personally speaking, I am continually amazed by the almost total lack of the dissected leaves of ‘Dissectum’ group, so exemplary “Japanese” in Europe and America. (This tendency is true for many of the plants emblematic of Japanese horticulture. Selections too bold in shape or colour are not deemed suitable for the subdued style of the traditional gardens and are shipped abroad. Such abdication should not be surprising. After all, from a country that first marketed compact discs but still uses cassette tapes, one should expect this and more.)
I had already brushed up on all that theory on the airplane to Sendai. Now that I had in front of me a maple tree to be pruned, I was eager to pounce on the branches and showcase my skills. Ken stopped me with a courteous yet peremptory gesture. He asked me to step back a few meters, and to observe the plant. Ken himself did not move. He stood statically in comparison with the maple, consulting its silence; then he began to walk cautiously around it, questioning angles, movements, and unexpressed desires; he tried to imagine the future color metamorphosis, like the shimmering of the red gems on the still bare limbs, a prelude to the flaring up of the mature days; or the turgid and unconscious greens in the spring; or the gradual subsidence into umber during the winter.
Ken was interested not only in the individual plant, but also in its wider relation with the garden. The ultimate goal was to locate the maple in position of asymmetrical and intuitively calculated balance, like a pawn in the middle of a skillfully maneuvered chess game. All the elements of this natural chessboard – shape, size, texture and colour – are instrumental for such balance that must be asymmetrical and natural, as episodic and intuitive is its understanding.
Ken told me that the maples were traditionally used in Japanese gardens not only for the autumn effect, but also for their noble structure. (There is no doubt that Japanese species are naturally characterized by an articulate and elegant branching, which distinguishes them from their American cousins, imposing but sometimes lanky timber trees, such as A. macrophyllum, A. rubrum, and A. saccharum.) Pruning is the human artifice with which those ramifications are revealed and emphasized, almost sculpted in the empty space. Ken significantly used the Japanese word edaburi, “the vibration of the branches”.
It follows that one of the classic mistakes that a Western gardener can make when pruning in the Japanese style is to model the plant in an overly dense and perfectly geometric form. The maples that are seen in our countries often have the appearance of beach umbrellas. (This is mainly due to the vast use and natural posture of ‘Dissectum’, admittedly). In Japan some deciduous species are maintained in a formal and hedged shape (an example is Zelkova serrata, the emblem tree of Sendai city), but when it comes to maples a further degree of artifice is required.
Japanese maples are traditionally pruned from late autumn to early winter, when the structure is well manifested and the lymphatic process has stopped. We were a little early by the time I was in Sendai, but a concession was made, for the sake of demonstration purposes.
According to Ken maples can be pruned from the day when the last leaf has come off its branch. This is a rule of thumb for deciduous trees and shrubs, the theory is that in such period most of the starches are back in the woods, but the saps have not started to ascent for the production of leaves in spring. Early or late pruning is still acceptable though, ideally avoiding the weeks between January and May, when the frosts can threaten plants and saps are in motion for the creation of new leaves.
The other golden rule is to avoid diameter cuts that are too large (no more than half of the mother branch, according to most literature), a practice which the Japanese gardener rarely dares to do anyway, because of his respectful and conservative nature. He will rather apply sparse and occasional adjustments, asserting that, when it comes to pruning, it is not about the months but the sharpening of the blades. (That is seemingly an assumption too extensive, as – given their incredible quality – the Japanese blades will be always sharp).
The maple that we were preparing to tackle had missed one year of pruning and some branches appeared slightly oversized. According to Ken this increased stature did not represent a mistake to be corrected, but rather the state of the natural growth of the plant and its legitimacy in the balance in the garden. After all – he told me – some overly stretched and vital growths, if left, will bend themselves over the seasons and eventually finding their natural form; a form incomparably more “beautiful” than the one imposed by the human hand. While listening to Ken, I realized that the apparent permissiveness with which the Japanese gardener works is not technical pubescence (or bland laziness, as sometimes I thought), but conscious reverence and care of nature.
This claim was later proved to me by observing the frequent cases of non-maintenance in the grounds of the Japanese temples. Trees and shrubs (not accidentally mostly autochthonous) are allowed to grow in a small, if not constipated, space where they will find, perhaps in alliance with the moss, a legitimate and rustic dignity. Similarly, decayed old stumps or wood are maintained (often even protected or idolized, as in the case of Zelkova in Gokurakuzan Saiho-ji), so evoking that aesthetic taste of impermanence that the Japanese call wabi-sabi. Therefore today, after the initial and inevitable horticultural shock, I am now of the belief that the Japanese garden has to be intended not as the gardener’s domicile, but the spiritual gym of the monk.
Now that Ken had tempered my shrunken Latin in the poetic expanse of his words, I was finally ready to start touching the plant. We all got to work on the same maple, each following and imitating Ken, in accordance to the mutual bond of master-disciple (senpai-kohai), that still permeates every sphere of the Japanese society, from the Buddhist schools of Nara to the offices of Tokyo multinationals. Ken mentioned principles like the innate intention of plants, listening to their silence, and the acceptance of the void.
Our task was not to create but rather reveal the beauty that was already potentially in the blood of the plant. I was reminded of the words of Michelangelo about sculpture as the art of taking away. The technical difference is that in that plastic art the process obviously starts from the outside, while for the Japanese maples subtractions apply in the first place from the inside of the plants, deducting from the oldest to the youngest wood.
After removing the dead wood, Ken had concentrated on major diameters of the plant, with the intention to detect its most interesting muscles. Gradually he isolated and revealed the trunk’s movement by removing the young basal shoots and the occasional leaves around there. A sorting was also made between the crossing and branches that were too closely parallel. The overhang of the main branches was balanced, but not in a symmetry too strict. A side branch stretched way too strong; Ken severed it in depth, in correspondence of a secondary branch which he judged suited to become the new leader.
Ken invited us to move three steps back. The structure of the plant was immediately more readable, and the chiaroscuro of the branches and the brilliance of the bark were emphasized. The secateurs weren’t used so far: only some 4 or 5 cuts with a folding saw were made.
Along with an increased degree of readability, the maple had also acquired a certain “sincerity”, an unfolding of its inherent structure. My mind went to the story of Louis Kahn dialoging with a brick, which, even in its antipodal distance, is akin to the Zen atmosphere that I was breathing. However – it is now worth pointing out – in the pruning of the maples in Japan there is nothing surreal or esoteric: regardless of regions or religions of belonging, Acer palmatum has the natural tendency to structure itself in a exquisitely twisted and gently dangling way.
The trick is to reveal the declining horizontality of the branches, separating them into distinct, non-touching tiers. Ken invited me to imagine these levels as waves cascading from a source. The traditional Japanese pattern sei-gai-ha (literally, the blue waves of the ocean) effectively depicts such rhythm. (In the illuminating book Niwaki, Jake Hobson describes his initiation into pruning maples under the guidance of a Japanese colleague. The author said that his colleague showed him a hand horizontally outstretched, with open fingers: that was the final form of the pruned branches. Then the Japanese gardener began to contort his fingers up and down: the horizontality was lost, together with the sense of serene equilibrium.)
The importance of negative space between the layers is crucial. By emptying the canopy, airiness and brightness are invited into the maples, so highlighting the colors of autumn, and letting the leaves’ watermark shine in the backlight. Ken was using such emptiness not only to isolate the structure of the plant, but also to borrow, by framing, the elements of the landscape, such as the prominence of certain evergreens or the backdrop of the sky. I realized that by modeling the emptiness, he was taking possession of the space.
Then Ken passed to the use of the secateurs, arbitrarily subtracting the intermediate or conflicting layers. The inward growing branches were also removed, to favour the maples outward extension. He proceeded confidently and exploited the natural ternate division of the branches, giving priority to the lateral couples and cutting the central branch. In addition to creating an immediate opening and airiness, this practice would lead to a more compact structure and a shorter distance of the nodes.
The job had gradually become bittier and all of us took to work around the same maple tree. A degree of randomness was introduced and admitted due to the simultaneous work of several people. The result would have not been scientifically controllable, but that wasn’t of excessive relevance because of the same laws of inherent asymmetry that governed the composition of the garden itself.
Gradually we moved to the ends of the branches, where the foliage formed beautiful sets of alternating pendulous fans. From the secateurs we passed to the use of fingers, snapping away the twigs too oblique or thickened. The individual leaves were also shaved off from the branches by hand, trying whenever possible to maintain both the opposed pairs. (Even in this practice was the sign of an instinctive respect of the natural plant asset, since the opposing pairs are perhaps the only diagnostic feature of the genus Acer, that otherwise shows a rather variable morphology.)
The first maple was finished. The plant’s natural behavior was revealed, but due to very artificial and thought-out criteria. The plant was granted an elusive degree of naturalness that seemed to compete with nature itself. We had started to move from maple to maple, communicating now by reciprocal glances or signs, like a well-knit team. Sparse voices and laughs stippled the silence, like ripples in a lake smooth with tranquility. I proceeded absorbed, alternating the use of the pruning saw, secateurs and fingers. I was concentrated on the limbs and leaves, but without losing sight of the garden’s scene – and vice versa. I progressively felt that, along with the branches, I was also pruning away my preconceptions and misconceptions about Japanese gardens.
Above all I understood that horticultural skills alone are not enough to prune Japanese maples. A deep artistic sensibility is required. Gardening in Japan is the art of observation of nature during the seasons, and the consequent imagination of nature in the reduced scale of the garden. The principle is that an entire landscape can be described in a tree or a rock, just like it happens in a bonsai or a suiseki, with respect to which only the miniaturization scale changes. The technical knowledge is obviously essential, but ultimately subject to the imaginative power.
The contemplation of the vibrant maples teaches that – while the Western garden is too often written in solid prose – the Japanese Gardens are poetry without words. They are paintings in three dimensions.
Hobson, J. (2007). Niwaki. 110-111.
Ohwi, J (1965). Flora of Japan. 607-611.
Vertrees, J.D. et al. (2009). Japanese Maples.
Yano, M. et. al. (2003). Book of Maples.