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Cultures of Beauty

By James Rockwell and Timothy Heslop, on November 16, 2015
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A life lesson here in Japan is that beauty is, without a doubt, in the eye of the beholder. Learning about the Japanese perception of beauty in contrast to our own has been a fascinating study in aesthetic. The chrysanthemum has provided us with the perfect subject matter to view these differences and has given us a whole new perspective on our own Chrysanthemum Festival at Longwood Gardens.

Mum displays are popular in Japan and one of note is at Sorakuen, a public garden in Kobe City. Sorakuen hosts a mum exhibition with blossoms that might give Longwood a run for its money. The display at Sorakuen would not initially seem comparable to the chrysanthemum display at Longwood because it serves a different purpose. The mums here are on display within the garden, but are largely placed under decorative shelters that allow them to be viewed and appreciated on their own. This is in contrast to Longwood, where the mums are incorporated into most of the plantings: an infusion rather than a division. The reason these two displays can be compared is because they each represent their respective country's vision of beauty.

Massive blossoms greet you as you enter Sorakuen. Here, various producers exhibit their Chrysanthemum-growing techniques for comparison. This type of display is not unique to Sorakuen, but is on a larger scale than in other gardens we visited this fall. Photo by Tim Heslop.Massive blossoms greet you as you enter Sorakuen. Here, various producers exhibit their chrysanthemum-growing techniques for comparison. This type of display is not unique to Sorakuen, but is on a larger scale than in other gardens we visited this fall. Photo by Tim Heslop.

These orange mums complement the existing garden space and add a colorful accent to the Fern Floor, a largely green space at Longwood. Photo by Carol DeGuiseppi.These orange mums complement the existing garden space and add a colorful accent to the Fern Floor, a largely green space at Longwood. Photo by Carol DeGuiseppi.

The mum display at Sorakuen is a perfect illustration of beauty in Japan. Rather than this peaceful garden being decadently coated with blooms, the mums are placed on their own within the garden. As you walk through Sorakuen, you appreciate the scenery and the mums separately, giving you the chance to reflect on them individually. When you step into the garden, the mums do not provide the initial wow factor you might expect at Longwood, but you come to look at them with fresh eyes as you view the plants on their own. However, the varieties of mums and the methods of production are quite similar to those used by Longwood. We found mums for all tastes: single-flowered behemoths, shield-shaped mums, spray mums, and some superb bonsai mums. All of these techniques are native to Japan and are built upon by Longwood.

The varieties, colors, and types of Chrysanthemums at Sorakuen were astounding. These spider mums in vibrant hues attracted much attention from garden visitors. Photo by James Rockwell.The varieties, colors, and types of chrysanthemums at Sorakuen were astounding. These spider mums in vibrant hues attracted much attention from garden visitors. Photo by James Rockwell.

Here in the Orangery, yellow mums planted en masse under the cloud form mum become a singular presence in the bedding scheme, a Western take on display. Photo by Cathy Matos.Here in the Orangery, yellow mums planted en masse under the cloud form mum become a singular presence in the bedding scheme, a Western take on display. Photo by Cathy Matos.

Longwood's Chrysanthemum Festival is both an ode to the artistry we find in Japan, as well as an adaptation performed in the classic American spirit. While we find diverse varieties, colors, and forms in Longwood's mums, just as in Japan, we also find that they have grown ten-fold. A container of one mum variety in Japan would contain one plant and probably three to four flowers. A container at Longwood is full to the brim! And of course the Thousand Bloom mum—what is more American than pushing the limits and growing a mum that supersedes its own title with 50 percent more blooms! Longwood does a great service to this art by providing an international audience with not just horticultural perfection, but also a remarkable precedent, which will hopefully perpetuate the public’s interest in these beautiful traditions.

This display at Sorakuen included the unique training of these Chrysanthemums into fan shapes. Perhaps this is another form at which Longwood staff can try its hand? Photo by James Rockwell.This display at Sorakuen included the unique training of these chrysanthemums into fan shapes. Perhaps this is another form at which Longwood staff can try its hand? Photo by James Rockwell.

Here we have the expanded version of dome-shaped mums created in Japan. The shape of the Longwood Mum is actually a sacrifice for more blooms, a step away from the Japanese form, which tapers more softly on the sides. Photo by Candie Ward.Here we have the expanded version of dome-shaped mums created in Japan. The shape of the Longwood Mum is actually a sacrifice for more blooms, a step away from the Japanese form, which tapers more softly on the sides. Photo by Candie Ward.

As we reflected on Sorakuen and Longwood, we wondered why these displays have developed in such different directions. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the answer surrounds us. There is much discussion here in Japan as to what is Western, and what is Eastern. In the West, we tend to find beauty in the plentiful and colorful, of which Longwood is perhaps the epitome. There is something awe-inspiring in the large drifts of color strewn across a living canvas. In the East, there is greater focus on the individual and the expression of that individual, which can be seen in many aspects of life here in Japan. The smallest details are often the very things that make something unique, give it character, and in so doing, make it beautiful.

At Sorakuen, Chrysanthemums are trained into a form that differs from the bonsai form shown at Longwood. They are grown into rocks that create a mimic of alpine or mountain plants. Photo by James Rockwell.At Sorakuen, chrysanthemums are trained into a form that differs from the bonsai form shown at Longwood. They are grown into rocks that create a mimic of alpine or mountain plants. Photo by James Rockwell.

These tiny mums at Longwood are a stunning representation of the bonsai mums of Japan, and many more shapes and styles can be created with a little time and a steady hand. Photo by Cathy Matos.These tiny mums at Longwood are a stunning representation of the bonsai mums of Japan, and many more shapes and styles can be created with a little time and a steady hand. Photo by Cathy Matos.

It is a funny thought to look at the little round mum that we grow up with and realize that it is the product of centuries of artistry from an entirely different part of the world. Whether here or there, it sits on our porch or in our garden and brings just a little more beauty into our lives. While the displays at Longwood Gardens and Sorakuen are quite different, they both strive for excellence in beauty and remind people of the excitement of horticulture.

The Chrysanthemum display at Sorakuen gave us a glimpse of the horticultural skill to be found in Japan. As the native home of the Chrysanthemum, these are techniques that have been passed through many generations. Photo by Tim Heslop.The chrysanthemum display at Sorakuen gave us a glimpse of the horticultural skill to be found in Japan. As the native home of the chrysanthemum, these are techniques that have been passed through many generations. Photo by Tim Heslop.

Timothy Heslop and James Rockwell are participating in the Great Gardens of the World TRIAD Fellowship, which offers aspiring gardeners an opportunity to live, work, and learn in three culturally and botanically diverse public gardens. The TRIAD Fellowship is a partnership with Hidcote Manor Garden in Gloucestershire, UK; The Alliance of Hyogo in Awaji Island, Japan; and Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, USA.

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