This is a very common question I get asked when talking about or designing a Japanese garden, but not one that is easily answered. Flowers have a different role in the Japanese garden than they do in western style gardens, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in them.
So, what flowers are used in Japanese gardens? The flowers most commonly used in Japanese gardens, depending on your hardiness zone, are: Japanese Irises, Liriope (muscari and spicata varieties– Yaburan in Japanese), and Balloon Flower (Kikyo, Platycodon grandiflorum). You will find that to add color to the landscape, flowering shrubs, like azaleas and rhododendron, and flowering trees, like camellias and magnolias, are used more often than what we would consider a true “flower.”
Modern Japanese garden designers are however expanding their repertoire and you are starting to see a larger display of flower varieties, like the picture above. But I have to say that some are done more successfully than others and it is a somewhat controversial topic on how far is too far when discussing where the traditional Japanese garden is headed.
Japanese gardens are designed to be appreciated in every season of the year and often do not highlight specific flowers. Perennials are chosen over annuals for 2 reasons:
Annuals often have very bold tropical colors and Japanese gardens are often designed with a subtler flavor to them.
Perennials are continuous and but also represent a season. They also often bring something to the scene even when not blooming.
Different flowers, shrubs, and trees bloom at different points throughout the entire year. A plan of how to integrate these colors in your garden design should be sought after. Harmonizing the different foliage and textures, of both the softscape and hardscape, is more important than highlighting a particular flower.
Large Flower Groupings Over Variety
In general, you will find that gardens in Japan tend to stick to a few types of flowers and plant them all throughout the garden. Whereas in the west we like to have a variety of color combinations, the Japanese garden often stays with one or a few staples and may have a few different color varieties of the same species.
Many Japanese gardens and Japanese temple gardens are famous for one particular type of flowering element and they are planted in masses. This may be because:
They have found that this particular variety of flower thrives in that particular climate, with the right amount of moisture, shade, sunlight etc. and they have decided to double down on that variety.
It also can highlight a local species. Tourists travel from all over Japan in search of what is local and different from their particular neck of the woods. Visiting gardens and temples in search of local varieties is a common hobby.
It also draws on a particular season and highlights a time of year. Cherry blossom trees (which are actually rarely used in traditional Japanese gardens for these reasons) have an extremely short blooming season and most flowers in the garden are chosen for more overall seasonal displays.
The Japanese garden may not use a wide variety of flower per say, but that doesn’t mean that they lack color. When considering the overall year-round look of the garden they do it in a way that also appreciates the details of shades of green as well. The Japanese language has a variety of different words for shades of green, and a new brighter spring green is often mentioned in particular when talking about Japanese garden seasonal colors.
Japanese Pieris are a great flowering shrub that has become more popular outside of Japan, so there is a fairly good chance you will be able to find this shrub to add some shades of purple to your garden. Spiraea Thumbergii (yuki-yanagi) is another flowering shrub that you will probably be able to find locally.
Azaleas and Rhododendron need to get a special mention because they are probably the most often used shrubs in a Japanese garden. They can be somewhat particular about the type of growing condition so you may have found that one type grows better than another.
I would say that azaleas tend to be used more often that Rhododendron because of the smaller flowers they produce and the ability to prune and shape them. They are often used as mounds and create beautiful miniaturized mountain scenes that seamlessly wrap around boulders and trees, providing a solid evergreen backdrop that can be appreciated all year long. Some varieties of Rhododendron can grow somewhat wild and are harder to keep condensed.
Camellias (both the sazanka and yabu-tsubaki varieties) are also great flowering trees to use in a Japanese garden. They make great backdrops of evergreen and work well to create a hedge or define the garden space. Make sure you do not prune them too hard though.
Magnolias also make a great tree for the garden, providing white flowers with a touch of red. Similarly, Euonymus are fast growing and a beautiful option for flowering color to add.
Two major symbols of Japan are the Japanese cherry tree (sakura) and the Japanese plum tree (ume). Although many people associate these trees with Japan they are not really used in the garden itself. They are beautifully flowering trees for a short time that do represent particular seasons, with plum trees coming in a variety of white, pink, and purple flowers at the end of winter, and cherry trees the symbol that spring has arrived.
You do however see them as a backdrop behind or beyond the actual garden itself. You can use them to bring some color to the overall scene but their bloom time is quite short, they really shouldn’t be pruned, and do not provide much aesthetic value after flowering.
Although they are not prized for their flowers, Japanese maple trees (momiji) and Ginkgo trees need to be mentioned. These trees provide a beautiful seasonal highlight of color that goes far beyond what flowers can do. Momiji in particular can be a featured specimen or make up a solid backdrop of bright reds, oranges and yellows in autumn.
A lot of pruning can go into a maple tree to highlight the branches and create a wonderful curved trunk as well. Even with no leaves on it in winter the branch shapes provide unique lines for the eyes to follow.
Ginkgo trees often grow very tall and make for a great background tree with bright golden and yellow leaves in fall. You can see these in gardens and temples and shrines as well.
So when you are searching out what the best flowers to use in a Japanese garden are, I’d like you to sort of adjust or broaden your thinking to include a bigger picture. Often with flowers what you are after is the color they bring to a garden scene. This can be achieved in a Japanese garden but we need to include a broader definition of flowering.
Flowers and color in the Japanese garden aim to remind us of how fleeting life is. It represents a continuousness each season, but fades away. It continues but is never the same.
What Plants Do I Put In A Japanese Garden?
The previously mentioned flowers also incorporate many of the recommended plants you should include in your Japanese garden. One thing I would also keep in mind is that an important Japanese garden principle is to use local plants and trees that represent the different seasons. I have seen more successful “native” Japanese gardens, where the designer has followed general Japanese garden principles for creating a garden, than when they have gone out of their way to force so-called Japanese elements like Japanese black-pine, stone lanterns, etc. into the scene.
If you would like to explore more about Japanese gardens and creating your modern rustic garden design then visit us at ShizenStyle.