A Chronology of Dwarf Potted Trees in England




(Sir George Staunton's 3-volume  An Authentic Account of An Embassy From the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China contains a few pages of details about dwarf trees seen by Lord Macartney and company in 1793.)


The Chinese Hong merchant Puankequa II in Canton sent Joseph Banks (1743-1820) rare plants, including a very old dwarf tree and many pots of the finest moutans (tree peonies).  The dwarf tree was eventually presented to the Queen for "Her Majesty's inspection of the Art peculiar to the Chinese [sic], of dwarfing into the picturesque the most lofty Tree of the Forest."  (This Queen was Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of George III.)  1


(John Livingstone, Surgeon of the East India Company's medical service in China, wrote two letters to the Horticultural Society of London.  Containing details about the dwarf trees, these were subsequently published in the Transactions.)


(James L. Drummond's First Steps to Botany includes information on what we call air layering a branch and mention is then made that this is used in China for dwarf fruit-trees.  A quote from the initial part of Staunton's Account follows.)

(The Gardener's Magazine published an excerpt from the Journal of James Main (1793-94) which describes the process of making "Dwarfed Forest-Trees," as seen in the area of Canton, China.)

early 1830s
An 1835 book review of George Bennett's travels includes this editorial comment (in addition to the excerpt about how the trees are made):  "We once had an opportunity of seeing at Windsor [sic] a few of the dwarf trees of China; one in particular of perhaps a foot and a half high, resembled a very ancient elm; in the knottiness and roughness of its bark, the peculiar formation of its arms, and in its whole growth and appearance, it might well have supposed to have seen two centuries.  It was in a tolerably sized garden pot..."

Nathan Dunn's Chinese Collection was brought to London after three years in display in Philadelphia.  English curator and co-proprietor William B. Langdon enlarged the collection and its catalogue.  Following a favorable report from its first visitor, the young Queen Victoria, the British nobility and scholars flocked to Dunn's 225 x 50' exhibit pavilion in droves.  The catalogue sold 300,000 copies and had, at least, some paintings with and mention of dwarf trees.

Small quantities of plants had been brought to Europe at least by this year when several specimens of dwarf trees were sent to Queen Victoria from China.  What their public display was is currently unknown -- some in Dunn's Collection?


(Robert Fortune, a Scotsman who would become famed as a plant explorer, wrote three books about his travels in China and Japan.  These contained detailed accounts of dwarf potted trees in those two countries.  Excerpts with those details were reprinted in several reviews.  Books by other writers included passing comments about the trees, but Staunton, Livingstone, Main, Bennett, and Fortune gave the most detailed descriptions.)


Other dwarf potted trees were to be seen in the South Kensington Museum, in England.  They were said to have been brought there by some Japanese travelers.


An exhibit of bonsai trees was put on show on Liverpool at a banquet in honour of the Japanese Ambassador and his colleagues.  The young G.A. Audsley, later an important authority on Japanese art, supervised the display of British-trained bonsai (emphasis added). 2


"There is a sketch in the 1899 catalog of [the famous Boehmer nursery and exporting firm (1882-1908)] of a dwarf maple that was sold to HRH The Princess of Wales."  (That HRH was Alexandra of Denmark, who would become the British queen when her husband became King Edward VII in 1902.) 3


And the Kew Gardens had a collection of the dwarfed trees.

The Princess of Wales (see above) has taken a great interest in these tiny old trees, and has purchased several specimens...  Practically the only man out of Japan who makes it his business to import these curious trees is a Mr. Eida, of London, England.  (His nursery would, perhaps, be better called a hospital.)


(A lecture with lantern slides, "Dwarf Trees," was presented by Toichi Tsumura, M.J.S. before the Japan Society and subsequently reproduced in its Transactions.)


"The wife of the new Lord Mayor of London, Sir Marcus Samuel, ...is said to possess the finest collection of Japanese plants in London, dwarf trees and chrysanthemums being her specialty."


Indeed, the hospital branch of the dwarf tree business is so important that a few years ago an enterprising firm actually fetched Segiro Takagi, perhaps the most distinguished dwarf tree trainer now alive, from far Japan, and installed him as reigning spirit in a nursery in Acton.


(Journal of Royal Horticultural Society prints article as adapted translation of 1902 French booklet on bonsai.  "In England there are numerous specimens of these [lilliputian] trees, growing as they would in Japan.  King Edward VII. possesses superb specimens at Sandringham, and in France M. de Montesquiou has a collection of magnificent Thuyas, which since 1889 [gotten from the Paris Exposition Universalle?] have grown considerably, but which, on the other hand, are models of vigour and grace.") 4


"A visit to the site by Queen Alexandra in mid-March, in advance of the opening, was highlighted by all the newspapers, adding royal prestige to the Japan-British Exhibition."  A Thuja obtusa, reportedly 125 years old, was later awarded a silver cup as the finest example of a pigmy tree shown at the event.  "[T]he Japanese Government presented to the City of London two transportable miniature gardens as a most precious gift... Those who saw these gazed with astonishment on these apparent playthings." 5


       This is an ongoing listing of our researches' discoveries.  It is not the final word on the subject.

       Japan's first participation in the London International Exhibition on Industry and Art was in 1862.  Here the first Japanese art and crafts works were seen by non-traveling Europeans, and these images had an immediate and widespread effect on the designs of the period.  (The first official Japanese pavilion was in the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, and the first participation of the new Meiji government of Japan was at Welt-Ausstellung in Vienna during 1873.)  We have not yet found any evidence that dwarf trees were present at any of these early displays, although at least the latter did have a type of Japanese garden.

1    Fan, Fa-ti  British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press; 2004), first sentence from pg. 34.  Per footnote 133 on pg. 183, original source is the British Library "BM. Add. 33981. 227-228; Add. MS. 33981. 229-30; DTC (Dawson Turner Copies, Joseph Banks Correspondence, Department of Botany, Natural History Museum of London), vol. 17, f. 35."  Per the same footnote, the second sentence is from "BM. Add. MS. 33981. 261."  Per the Manuscripts Catalogue of the British Library, for Add. 33981, this correspondence dates 11 Feb. 1802-16 Dec. 1809.  The original source is as follows, per Smith, Edward, F.R.H.S.  The Life of Sir Joseph Banks (London: John Lane; 1911), pp. 266-268:

Puankhequa (President of the Company of Merchants privileged to trade with foreign merchants at Canton in China) to Sir Joseph Banks.
       " l0th day of the 1st moon of the 11th year of Kia King, or
       " the 28th February, 1806.
       " Sir--The celebrity of your name has been long known to me, as by Mr. Lance [an official of the East India Company's factory at Canton and an intimate friend of Banks] I have been informed of the [267] respect due to your distinguished merit and abilities; but the letter and presents with which you have lately honoured me I particularly esteem as a prelude to a nearer and more intimate acquaintance with you.
       " It is extremely gratifying to me to find that my endeavours to assist Mr. Lance, and his Britannic Majesty's gardener, in the highly useful and interesting pursuits in which they have been engaged, have proved acceptable.  But I blush to receive for so trifling a favour the very elegant return which you have made me.  I nevertheless readily accept of those presents as a testimony of your esteem and regard.  My apartments will be adorned and my table will be graced by the several articles, and they shall be so disposed as may appear most worthy and honourable to the magnificent donor as well as recall him oftenest to my remembrance.
       " If my country affords any natural or artificial productions which may be curious or interesting in your eyes, I trust you will inform me and signify your commands; for in endeavouring to execute them I shall have a peculiar pleasure.
       " In the meanwhile I send a few presents which, being more remarkable for their rarity and curiosity than for their value or magnitude, I trust you will not hesitate to accept, as a mark of the esteem and consideration with which I have the honour to subscribe myself," etc. etc.
       " List of articles :
       " No. 1. A pair of large rosewood and glass lanterns,
               ornamented with silk Tassels.
       " No. 2. A pair of large horn lanterns, ornamented
              with silk Tassels.
       " No. 3. A set of 20 cups and covers of new and curious
       " No. 4. A set of 20 enamelled ornamental stands for
              ditto. [268]
       " No. 5. A set of lacquered and inlaid dishes or
       " No. 6. Four red boxes, varnished and carved in a
              rare and curious manner.
       " No. 7. A peculiarly curious and ancient dwarf Tree.
       " No. 8. Eight pots of the finest moutans."  [i.e. the tree-pæony.  William Kerr, son of a nurseryman at Hawick, was the botanist charged with bringing the letter and contents from Canton to London.  Kerr proved a valuable aid to the cause of horticulture, and a good correspondent for Banks, who treated him with the constant courtesy he extended to every one in his employ, especially gardeners who were expatriated in the cause of Science.  In his covering letter, Kerr says the Chinese gentleman had known the dwarf tree for thirty years, and it was supposed to be at least one hundred years old.]

       Banks was the President of the Horticultural Society (est. 1804) and ex officio Director of Kew Gardens.

2    Kawaguchi, Yoko  Serene Gardens: Creating Japanese Design and Detail in the Western Garden (London: New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd; 2008, 2000) pp. 13-14; Elliott, Brent  Victorian Gardens (Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1986), pp. 199-200.

3    Creech, Dr. John L.  The Bonsai Saga: How the Bicentennial Collection Came to America (Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Arboretum; April 2001), pg. 9.

4    Maumerné [sic] , Monsieur Albert  "The Japanese Dwarf Trees: Their Cultivation In Japan and Their Use and Treatment in Europe," Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, pg. 68.

5    Frese, Paul F.  "Bonsai Exhibits Come West," Journal, ABS, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 1982, pg. 1, photo pg. 2; Gothein, Marie Luise  A History of Garden Art (reprinted by Hacker Art Books, New York; 1966. First published in English, 1928), pg. 268.

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