Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wild Japan

Angelica ursina
A recent trip to Japan (the purpose of which will have to wait until another blog post) has been a wonderful opportunity to see some wild habitats on the other side of our continent. Always too briefly, as I am sure I spent far more time rattling along in suburban trains than I managed to be out in natural habitats. Precious moments snatched have to be made the most of.

The main purpose of my trip was actually in Hokkaido, the great northern island, which looks and feels a totally different place to the rest of Japan. Sparsely populated, with huge forests and extensive agriculture it has a sense of space impossible to find anywhere else. Botanically I think it has more in common with the Russian far east. Long cold winters end with a thorough soaking with snow melt topped up with summer rainfall. Warm, without the suffocating humid heat of further south, make for a brief but intense growing season.

Lush is the best word to start with. Very green. And so much that seems to be giant, including too all-too familiar species, Fallopia sacchalinense, the larger version of Japanese knotweed and Petasites japonicus, another plant we have at home as an aggressive escape from cultivation. The three metre knotweed is a very prominent part of the landscape, in a land naturally forested, it runs amok when there aren't trees or grazing or mowing to restrain it. The petasites, with its vast leaves appears more restrained than at home, never forming the monocultures which sprawl along laybys in Britain where was thrown out of the back of a car twenty years ago. I wonder whether these species, and of course the 'normal' Japanese knotweed, F. japonica, actually do better in our climate, somehow the longer growing season more than offseting its being cooler, and sometimes drier.

The two metre plus meadowsweet Filipendula camschatense is also very common. Judging by how well it grows with us (our one day a week gardener Diana says it is her favourite plant in the garden), I am surprised it has not escaped from cultivation. Maybe in time it will.

Petasites japonicus  and Aralia cordata
The other plant that you can't avoid noticing along Hokkaido roadsides is what looks like a slightly squashed version of another of our bête-noires, giant hogweed, except that it isn't. You can shake hands with Angelica ursina without burning your skin, which is just as well as the plant is everywhere, its vast leaves common in woodland but only seeming to flower in sunlight.

Otherwise the woodland floor is a solid mass of things we pay good money for in nurseries back home: aralia, aruncus, astilbe, aconitum, glaucidium, hosta, cardiocrinum – and trilliums earlier on apparently. The woodland itself seems dominated by some very nice looking oaks, with much larger foliage than ours and maples. So frustrating to be here, at what feels like a very very long way from home, for such a short time. Definitely a place to come back to.

A dear friend from Sheffield (in oriental terms we are classmates, a very important bond), Ayako Nagase, now an asst. prof. at Chiba University had, some time ago, told me of her interest in sea coast flora for green roofs. I was surprised we in Europe hadn't paid more attention to those tough little plants that grow on the very thin soils of clifftops. Indeed, it was at Ayako's prompting that I spent some time crawling about the clifftops of the Gower peninsula in south Wales only a few weeks ago, in search of the seed of the little blue bulb Scilla verna, which hardly appears to be in cultivation (we found plenty).

Ayako Nagase with her green roof based on Jogasaki coast flora

Japan's coastal flora is very different to what we can offer. She took me to Jogasaki, one of those rare places on the eastern Tokyo to Osaka coastal strip which is not built up. A pleasant green seasidey town, where it feels like people come to have fun (a rare commodity here – people work far too hard), Jogasaki's volcanic coast feels like an exotic Pembrokeshire. The flora includes some amazingly high quality foliage plants like Chrysanthemum pacificum and Farfugium japonicum. Sometimes these arrange themselves into compositions which look, well, designed. A very attractive flora indeed. These are plants which are not necessarily exposed to salt spray but are to cold northerly winds, and grow in little more than crevices in lava. Other species include **

Another Japanese friend, Yuko Tanabe, had once told me about a place called Ibukiyama (Mt. Ibuki) not that far from Kyoto, with an incredible perennial flora. So, accompanied by several other colleagues, we all got the bullet train down from Tokyo and then piled into a hire car to have a look. Arriving halfway up a massive limestone mountain, we find that a great many other people had come with the same idea, including Yuko's mother who had come on a coach trip. In Japan and China one so often has to share nature with a great many others, but at least here the visitors are quiet and respectful and seem to be mainly interested in photographing the flowers.

They're all here to photograph the flowers

Ibukiyama is pretty incredible. The summit is covered in perennials, with the occasional gnarled shrub (often a hydrangea). No grasses or sedges – not until our way down did we come across a few grass tussocks. Filipendula multijuga in bright pink and Ligularia stenocephala in yellow made for a combination that garden designers always try to do their best to avoid. There are also Angelica pubescens, Veronicastrum sibiricum, Lilium leichtlinii and Veronica subsessilis in full flower. On the way down we past through acres of aconitum and actaea species just about to come into flower and Leucosceptrum japonicum - a plant I had only ever seen one of before, at Chanticleer; marvelling at it, I never believed I would be hiking through acres of the stuff half a year later. The dominant plant in terms of biomass though is Boehmeria tricuspis. In fact I would say that an awareness of this genus was one of my big discoveries of the trip – fantastic well-shaped foliage plants, the only point against them being that they look a bit too like their relative, the stinging nettle.

Ibukiyama is an extraordinary place. As you look around at the surrounding mountains and hills all you see is forested summits. Here, for some reason, massive snowfalls occur (including the heaviest every recorded) and appear to prevent tree or shrub growth. Most extraordinary though is what Yuko explained about the history of the place. During the 15the century it was used as an enormous herb farm, with medicinal herbs from all over Japan being grown here. When it fell into disuse, the plants took over. It really is an enormous garden gone wild. 


Veronica said...

Thank you for the beautiful Jogasaki flora photos.

Panayoti Kelaidis said...

Great glimpse: you have fanned the flames of my desire to get to Japan (that's the scenery and plants I want to see there!): Angelica ursina is awesome! Looks like a must have. More! We want more! (posts on Japan that is...)

Ferns for Sale said...

Japanese gardens have long been among my favorites! I went to the Japanese Garden in san fran, as a kid, and it inspired me to get into keeping bonsai for a long time. :)

Roger Brook - No Dig Gardener said...

Good to see a demonstration of the Japanese use of moss. I believe they get quite a lot of rain?
Why do British gardeners whenever they see moss covered soil always want to dig it up.
Interesting to see Petasites used too. Most of us regard it as a weed, although I do myself grow the one known as Winter heliotrope. Beautiful scent from a thug.