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Notes from a Magical Island


Spaghetti junctions: one of the first challenges of a trip to Japan is working out which train to take from the airport

In mid-Autumn, Kevin Hobbs, Hillier Head of Research & Development, spent 10 days in Japan hunting new plant developments and trends.

Here, he shares his account of Japanese hospitality and some of the fascinating breeds that are already loved on British shores.

I am a huge fan of Japan – the people, the culture, the food and of course the plants. My latest visit in autumn was certainly not my first. This is important too. The relationships you build are a big part of life in Japan. I am now lucky enough to know many breeders of rare and exotic plants who I visit on my plant hunting expeditions – but this sort of access doesn’t happen overnight!

Of course, I can’t reveal details of everything I saw during my trip. But it did remind me of how many of Japan’s fascinating botanical species have become some of the UK’s most-loved varieties. This is likely because they bring fantastic new dimensions of shape, colour and texture to gardens and green spaces.

An Acer palmatum stretches its vivid red foliage in front of Mount Etna

Autumn Colour

The most famous botanical phenomena in Japan is the spring cherry blossom. But this is by no means the only show of the year. Colourful leaves (‘koyo’) also attract huge crowds, who follow the ‘koyo front’ as it sweeps across the country.

The changing colours of Acers, Gingko, Sorbus commixta and more are commented on in the country’s regularly published autumn colour reports. These reports run from September to the New Year and track the turning of the leaves in the cities, forests, traditional gardens and temples. These help the nature-loving population know the best places to spot autumn’s fiery show.

Vivid nandina 

Heavenly Bamboo

Acers and Prunus are probably the most popular Japanese plants and trees grown in the UK today. But another real favourite of mine is Nandina – known as sacred or heavenly bamboo in Japan. It is not actually part of the bamboo family, it is a shrub in the Berberis and Mahonia family.

Nandina produce eye-catching sprays of bright berries in Japan. In UK climates, though, the success of the berries depends on a good summer. And, because of their striking appearance and resistance to disease, they are popular shrubs for landscaping.

Gingko biloba seeds

Invincible Gingko

One Japanese tree with a remarkable story is the Gingko. This prehistoric species is so strong that six surviving Gingko biloba trees were found at the epicentre of the atomic bomb blast which hit Hiroshima in 1945. They went on to bud again with no major deformations and, as a result, are also known in Japan as the ‘Bearer of Hope’.

The autumn colours of a Gingko are incredible. Both the foliage and the fruit put on a display that can rival any spring Cherry.

The Gingko does have one unfortunate problem. The females of the species have a pungent seed odour. Luckily for us in the UK, most of the Gingko planted on the streets are male. But if you’ve ever caught a whiff of a Gingko that smells a little like vomit – I’m sorry to say, you’ve got a female tree on your hands!

 Japanese giant hornet

Venomous Creatures

Along with the plant discoveries, one thing I always get asked about following plant hunting expeditions is the unusual wildlife. The more likely it is to kill; the more interested people are in it.

During this trip, I came across some impressive spiders and some neon-bright Japanese giant hornets, spotted while looking at a Mahonia hybrid.  This large insect, which can grow to almost 2 inches in length, likes to nest in trees in rural parts of Japan.

If it looks like something to be wary of, that’s because it is. Provoke a Japanese giant hornet and it can be very aggressive, with a potent venomous sting. Naturally, we chose not to provoke it and quietly continued our plant hunting.

We sell a number of Japanese-origin plants, including Acers, Gingko and Nandina. Trade customers contact our wholesale nurseries team for details.   

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