I was researching for a lecture on the influence of Japanese plants and garden design on British gardens when I discovered a catalogue for the Yokohama Nursery Company. It was more a work of art than a business sales catalogue.
One thing led to another and very soon I found the afternoon had drifted by as I became engrossed by the range and quality of the images, and then intrigued by the company’s commercial acumen. So…. read on for a brief introduction to probably the single most important historical commercial horticultural link between Britain and Japan.
To western eyes Japan was a mysterious country for much of recorded history. After its ‘discovery’ by westerners in the 16thc, with very few exceptions, it steadfastly refused to admit foreigners. Apart from the precarious toehold of the Dutch trading post on the artificial island of Deshima in Nagasaki Bay, the country was in self-imposed isolation until Commodore Perry forced it into a trade agreement with America in 1854. Once the United States had prised opened the doors, other western nations followed in demanding the rights to trade. But it was to become a two-way process, with Japan joining the modern world, and doing so with gusto.
It led to a western fascination with Japan which grew to such proportions that a new word Japonisme was coined in 1872 by the French art critic Philippe Burty to describe the phenomenon.
Within a few years Japan was participating in international exhibitions, beginning with those in London in 1862 and Paris in 1867. Its modernization – or rather westernisation – speeded up very quickly when the new Meiji emperor seized power in 1868. The Meiji government made it part of their political agenda to not only attend every international exhibition, but to personally manage and fund every aspect of the Japanese exhibits to try and shape foreign opinion of Japan, and boost their export trade.
They also reversed centuries of resistance to change by inviting hundreds of European and American specialists to Japan to ‘upgrade’ every aspect of commercial and industrial life, and help the country enter the world of international trade. One of those invited was a German nurseryman, Louis Boehmer.
Boehmer had been royal gardener in Hanover but in 1871 he had emigrated to the United States and founded a nursery at Rochester in New York state. He arrived in Yokohama in 1872 and ran an experimental farm before being sent to the ‘backward’ northern island of Hokkaido to improve agriculture and horticulture, and in the process set up the Sapporo brewery which is still making excellent beer! By 1882 he was back in Yokohama running an independent nursery which specialized in exporting Japanese plants, particularly bonsai trees, to the west. He retired in 1890 and sold the business to his assistant Alfred Unger who continued to run it under the Boehmer name.
At the same time one of Boehmer’s Japanese staff, Uhei Suzuki left and set up another nursery in competition. Amongst his first acts was the opening of an office and ‘holding’ nursery at Oakland in California. Very shortly afterwards he joined forces with three other Japanese nurserymen to form a cooperative, the Yokohama Gardeners Association.
The Association quickly issued a simple catalogue in English of plants available via its California branch, which listed 49 varieties of lilies, 50 different tree peonies, .30 herbaceous peonies, 27 varieties of camellias, 28 different azaleas, 30 types of Japanese maples, 14 magnolias, and three varieties of their famous dwarf trees in pots. This can be found in full at:
One of their earliest business deals was with James Herbert Veitch, of the pioneering Exeter nursery family, who had travelled in Japan in 1892. He did not think much of Yokohama itself: “the fine temples and general objects of interest for which Japanese towns are famous are here… entirely absent.” But he visited the city’s plant nurseries, most of which were small-scale and offering mainly trained or potted plants. It is clear from his article in Gardeners Chronicle that the new Association’s nursery was more impressive, even if “the deciduous plants… were only so many sticks at present”.
Veitch then travelled around Japan before returning to Yokohama three months later and revisiting the nursery. The Veitch nursery catalogue later referred to their offering of Japanese plants as ‘our stocks grown in Yokohama and local nurseries.’ and were exhibiting some newly obtained lilies at RHS shows within months [Garden and Forest, 2 August 1893]
The full Gardeners Chronicle articles can be read at:
By 1893 or 1894 the Association became a more formal business arrangement: The Yokohama Nursery Company.
The new company’s first major task was to attend the 1893 U.S. Columbus World Exhibition held in Chicago, where they laid on the first proper display of Japanese dwarfed plants in the United States. “The exhibit has intrinsic merit, especially in showing some 40 varieties of the Japanese maple, Acer polymorphum, 25 of three peonies and about 150 varieties of Iris Kempferi…”
They also laid out an exemplar of a Japanese Garden. “While it is only 22 x 140′ in extent and aims to present landscape-features, it contains no less than 2000 distinct plants… This Japanese garden cannot be called beautiful, as Americans understand rural art, but it is curious and grotesque, and it is one of the best object-lessons in the art of patient and persevering garden-craft” For the full contemporary account see:
For more on the Japanese contribution to the Chicago exhibition, and the subsequent history of the Japanese garden there see:
Now the Yokohama Nursery Company took their retail catalogues upmarket, with beautiful woodblock illustrations to entice the reader, and these became its trademark for several decades. They also realized early on, that because many of the plants they were selling were new to the western market, particularly bonsai, then fairly comprehensive cultural and background information had to be included. Incidentally the japanese did not use the term bonsai, and specimens were referred to as “dwarf trees” grown in “jardiniers,” which were “the relic of the Tokogawa era.”
Of course they quickly became fashionable, with articles appearing in the gardening press, including one about an auction of dwarf Japanese trees in the July 29, 1899 issue of The Gardeners Chronicle and another in the same journal by the Yokohama Nursery itself on how to grow Japanese dwarf trees (1899).
A look through one of their early catalogues shows the extensive range of plants they could offer. The conifers included three species of pine, three of junipers, two podocarpus, a larch, hemlock, cryptomeria, and cycad. Flowering trees included styrax, crape myrtle, flowering cherries, plums, and hawthorn,. There was wisteria, [of course!] and they also offered three different maples, an oak, zelkova, ivy, and even bamboos.
Alongside the plants they offered bulbs, seeds and even a wide range of decorative porcelain flower pots and other decorative objects for the garden and greenhouse.
These handsome full-colour catalogues would continue right through until the mid-1920s, although they moved from just woodblock prints, to also include colored plates, line drawings, and photographs of classic Japanese garden plants. They often ran to over eighty pages in length.
The 1909/10-1913/14 catalogues can be found at: https://archive.org/details/descriptivecatal1909yoko
Not to be outdone by his erstwhile colleague Alfred Unger followed suit. He sought out Tokejiro Hasegawa, one of the premier woodblock publishers in Japan and commissioned him to illustrate a short book written by his wife Mary Unger The Favorite Flowers of Japan, which was published in 1901. Like all things Japanese it proved popular and further editions were published in 1906 and 1911. It was designed to spread the word about the enormous range of ornamental plants available from his own nursery but it also led to other ventures including Boehmer’s own woodblock illustrated nursery catalogues from 1903.
Unger’s own nursery garden had insufficient space to grow all the plants he required so he built up a very large network of gardeners throughout Japan, many of whom he persuaded to cultivate just one single species of a plant but in large quantities.
When he celebrated the 25th anniversary of Boehmer & Co. in 1907, more than two hundred of these small scale suppliers came to Yokohama to celebrate with him.
He also built up a network of seed collectors, particularly for trees and these were exported all over the world, including Scotland where the robust Japanese larch, Larix leptolepis, increasingly replaced the local larch.. Unger returned to Germany in 1908, created a Japanese garden there and began importing Japanese plants and seeds from his old company.
Boehmer and Yokohama did not have things all their own way. There were many other Japanese nurseries also entering the market for European and American business, and opening bases abroad. Amongst them were Yanamaka who were in Boston & London, and SM Nurseries of New York.
Nevertheless Yokohama Nurseries continued to expand through the 1890s. They opened a second US office in New York in 1898 and one in London at Craven House on the newly built Kingsway in 1907. These were necessary to deal with the growing number of orders. They claimed in 1906 that they exported 5 million bulbs, and this numbered trebled to 15 million by 1910. Clients included many prestigious gardens including from Kew, where for example, the best specimen of the Japanese willow-leaf magnolia, M. salicifolia, was supplied in 1906. It would not have taken that long to arrive after being ordered. Live plants could be shipped over relatively quickly from Yokohama. It took about 3 weeks to reach San Francisco, 6 to Marseilles, and 7-8 to reach London or Holland.
They also produced a straightforward unillustrated wholesale trade catalogue for the overseas market while continuing to sent out highly decorative retail brochures.
You can see a wholesale list in full at: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/173741#page/25/mode/1up
Unfortunately I can’t find any accounts by British visitors to Yokohama Nursery but several Americans have left accounts notably David Fairchild a botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who was there in 1901 as part of a trip investigating possible new edible and ornamental plants to import to the United States.
“The packing sheds presented a beautiful and animated scene, peopled by a hundred or more women dressed in bright blue kimonos with figured blue-and-white handkerchiefs about their heads and white socks and wooden sandals on their feet. Fern balls were then a fad in America; half a million were shipped from Japan to New York and London annually, and these blue-clad women were busy making them. The men were dressed in rather elaborate blue jackets. On the back of each was an enormous white circle in which was stenciled the company’s name in Japanese characters….“It seemed incredible,” he wrote, “that a nursery could be so picturesque.”
Yokohama Nurseries big breakthrough into the British market was probably as a result of their taking part in the great Anglo-Japanese exhibition at White City in 1910. I’m not going to say much about that now as there’s another post about it coming shortly.
In 1913 Larz Anderson the American ambassador to Japan was returning home at the end of his tour of duty and he visited the Yokohama Nursery and described the bonsai in his diary.
“About us were dwarf trees of fantastic shape and stunted plum in fragrant bloom, white and pink, and gnarled trees hundreds of years old with branches blossoming out of seemingly dead trunks in pots of beautiful form and color. Isabel and I stopped so long in this little fairy place that we had to drive like the dickens through the congested streets of endless villages to Yokohama, which we reached without disaster in a little over an hour…” He presented a group of 40 ancient specimens to the Arnold Arboretum where many of them still survive.
For more on the Anderson collection see “From Temple to Terrace:The Remarkable Journey of the Oldest Bonsai in America” by Peter Del Tredici, (2006) which can be found at:
and for portraits of the collection, including original and contemporary photos see:
The great plantsman Ernest Henry Wilson also visited the Yokohama Nursery Company’s nursery in June 1918 and luckily for posterity took some photographs including some of several spectacular potted Thuja obtusa var. Chabo-hiba [now Chamaecyparis obtusa ] similar to those purchased five years before by the Andersons.
Despite fierce competition from English nurseries who began to propagate Japanese plants as fast as they could, and rivalry at home from other nurseries, business continued to do well right through the 1920s. But Japanese militarism and Japan’s invasion of China began to undermine it. Japan became seen as not just as a trade rival but an imperial one. And of course everything came to a sudden halt in 1939. All their overseas branches were shut and none reopened after the war. Their plant listings were drastically reduced as can be seen from the 1952 example at:
More than 120 years after its inception The Yokohama Nursery Company is still around today, although much reduced in scale and without much international business. Even their website is largely only in Japanese. website. But what keeps them in the public eye is not their horticultural or business history but their very attractive old catalogues which are now highly collectible.