The trees and shrubs shown on this site come from every continent with the obvious exception
of Antarctica. Some areas have comparatively few garden-worthy shrubs, some very many.
It is helpful when growing any plant to understand the climatic conditions from which
it originated. On these five pages we have discussed the main countries where the plants
have been discovered, thus annotating the climates, temperatures and rainfall in which they thrive.
China and Japan
Western China is without doubt the richest area for hardy flowering shrubs in the whole
world. All flat surfaces have long been cleared and cultivated, but the mountainous
areas which I escaped the last glaciations have marvelously rich flora.
The early Chinese civilizations were the first to breed garden flowers purely for
their beauty, and developed such familiar shrubs as roses, tree peonies, Prunus mume,
peaches, azaleas and camellias, as early as the eighteenth century. Chinese gardeners
tended to concentrate on a few chosen plants, and ignored the great wealth of wild
species found in the western mountains.
Before the eighteenth century China was almost unknown to Europeans, and the writings
of Marco Polo were probably the best travel information available. A few plants then
reached European gardens from the southern coast of China, but the first professional
plant collector to visit China was William Kerr, sent out in 1803 by Sir Joseph Banks.
He is remembered in Kerria japonica. Later Robert Fortune, sent by The Horticultural
Society in 1842, made several visits, and by 1861 thought that he had covered the
country well. It was only in 1869 that the French naturalist and missionary Père
Armand David spent a year at Moupine (today Baoxing), then on the borders of Tibet
and China, and revealed the astonishing richness of the woody flora of the western
Chinese mountains. Numerous species, and the genus Davidia are named after him. A
fellow Frenchman, Père Jean Delavay, spent several years in N. Yunnan, and
explored the mountains around Dali Lake. Later these areas were covered in greater
detail by Ernest Wilson, collecting for Messrs Veitch and the Arnold Arboretum,
and George Forrest, sent out on several expeditions by a group of English gardeners.
Wilson concentrated. on hardy shrubs of all kinds; Forrest on Rhododendrons,
Camellias and Primulas. After the communist victory in 1947 botanical travel
in China became impossible until the 1970s. Since then numerous botanists and
gardeners have visited China in search of new garden plants. Roy Lancaster
has made several visits and introduced many new or little-known plants. Martyn
Rix visited Lijiang, Forrest's favourite hunting ground, and Baoxing in May 1984.
The climate of western China is similar to that of the rest of the Himalayas, but
with a drier, colder winter; a warm dry spring is followed from June to September
by heavy rain, cloud and humidity; autumn is again dry and sunny. Most of the shrubs
flower in May before the rain starts. Soils vary from acid to alkaline, and limestone
is commoner in China than in the central Himalayas. Many Rhododendrons grow on pure
limestone, and it is still not clear why these do not tolerate more alkaline soils
The Japanese flora is very similar to that of China. Korea forms an extension of
the continent towards the southeast, and its plants have affinities both with the
northern Chinese provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang (formerly called Manchuria),
and with southern Japan. Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, has a flora
closer to that of eastern Siberia. Only a few genera such as: Ilex, Hydrangea and
Prunus are as well represented in Japan as in China. The Japanese have long been
keen gardeners and developed further many of the plants grown first by the Chinese.
European trade with Japan was very restricted throughout the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, foreigners being confined to Deshima island near Nagasaki.
Englebert Kaempfer spent about two years here around 1691 and noted down and drew
some plants, but Carl Thunberg who reached Japan in 1775 was the first to introduce
large numbers of Japanese plants to Europe, and further plants were sent back by
Philip von Siebold (c. 1850), Charles Maries (c. 1879) and E. H. Wilson (in 1920).
The climate in Japan is less extreme than that of China; summers are wet, warm
in the south, temperate in the north and the mountains; winters are drier, but
mostly less cold than those in China. Yakushima in the far south has rain all
year round, and frequent high, wet winds and hurricanes. Soils are mostly acid,
but well drained. Japanese plants do well in the warmer parts of the eastern USA.
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