Sunday, March 3, 2013

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A Japanese Garden in Winter

Pine tree, boxwood and pruned shrubs
The Malott Japanese Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Japanese gardens are all about peace, harmony and tranquility, a place for contemplation and the appreciation of nature. Trees, rocks, stone lanterns and winding paths are there to enjoy year round.
Most visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden, though, probably visit its Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese garden in the spring and summer given our temperature swings. That's a shame because winter, at least in my opinion, is the best time to appreciate its design.

The surrounding lake is now covered with ice, providing a white backdrop for the many plants along its shoreline. Snow also sets off the twisted and pruned shapes of the trees and shrubs. And when the sun breaks through the clouds, the shadows created are all the more dramatic as a result.
Twisted tree silhoutted against the snow
Trees on Horaijima stand out against the snow.
I recently visited the Japanese garden as part of a free photo walk sponsored by the CBG on the first Saturday of every month. The sky was overcast at first, but patches of blue started peaking through in the early afternoon, lifting my spirits.   
This place officially is Sansho-en, Garden of Three Islands, designed by Dr. Koichi Kawana.
The main island, Keiunto (Island of the Auspicious Cloud) is reached by an arched wooden bridge and is connected to Seifuto (Island of Clear, Pure Breezes) by a zigzag bridge.  Both have winding paths around their perimeters and various buildings.
The third island is Horaijima (Island of Everlasting Happiness) which represents paradise, a place that can’t be reached by mortals. It is not accessible to the public although it can be seen from the other two islands and provides a lot of “borrowed” scenery, a key element in Japanese gardens.
During the rest of the year, these islands have plenty of greenery – deciduous trees and shrubs as well as bamboo and other groundcovers.  In winter, though, it’s stripped to its bare essentials. It’s a scene right out of a Japanese ink wash painting – simple, serene and striking, all at the same time.
By Karen Geisler
Pine tree and stone lantern
The north end of Keiunto as viewed from the entrance bridge.
Twisted pine branches in a Japanese gardet
The twisted shape of this tree is highlighted by the icy lake.
Stone lantern, pruned trees and a stone path
Stone lanterns and rocks are essential parts of a Japanese garden.
Large tree in Japanese garden
The shape of this tree is more easily appreciated in the winter.
Red twig dogwood wth pruned trees
"Borrowed" scenery, a common element in Japanese gardens, is everywhere.


  1. Really loved your photos today. I like the sense of calm found in the Japanese garden design and you captured it. Anytime of year those gardens look great. I have a postings under the series heading 'Watershed" from some months back in the archives that is of a tour of the Japanese Garden at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Beautiful.. You may want to take a look. Here on the shores of Lake Michigan with all the snow this time of year, I much enjoyed the design you blog today. Jack

  2. Not a big fan of Japanese gardens, a little too austere for me. However, I am awed by the skill involved, especially the pruning.

    1. This garden looks a little less austere when all the deciduous trees and shrubs are out. Guess I like it because it reminds that there are many different styles of gardening and each stresses different elements. The order in a Japanese garden is especially nice when too much is happening in the rest of my life, as it has been lately.

  3. I never think to go to botanical gardens in the winter time, but your post shows that I'm missing out. The Japanese garden is stunning! I especially enjoyed the last shot peeking over the top of the Red Twig Dogwood.

  4. I love this spare winter beauty. Thanks for the tour. -Jean

    1. You're welcome. I'm sure you have plenty of winter beauty of your own after the recent snowstorms.

  5. The architecture of the trees is so stunning...there is balance within their design and I find it ver soothing and peaceful.

    1. Yes, it's always a peaceful retreat for me too.