Seijakuen - Garden of Tranquility
by Mary Jasch
When entering the Memphis Botanical Garden I am told the gardens are laid out in a big circle and please start to the right, but I spot a water garden to the left and explore its formal area of evergreens, sculpture and huge trees – magnolia and oak – known as the Memphis Garden Club Sculpture Garden. A rose garden lies just beyond surounding a three-tiered fountain and the largest crepe myrtle I’ve ever seen. Tall conifers of all hues and shapes form the backdrop tapestry.
The 96-acre Botanical Garden is an arboretum with more than 170 species of trees. It is certified as a Level 4 Arboretum by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council and is the first to be certified as an Urban Forestry Center of Excellence for the State of Tennessee.
I turn around and go back in the correct direction past another water garden bordered by clipped holly, a huge willow oak and an allee of Carpinus caroliniana, American hornbeam, a small, delicate-looking tree with light, shreddy bark, softly rattling its bell-like seed heads. Along the path I pass the most beautiful long leaf pine I have ever seen and also an astonishing sculpture installation featuring giant bugs.
Soon an amazing Japanese Garden unfolds before me with islands of rock and sculpted Japanese Black Pine. Serpentine shores of a lake instinctively cause me to loosen up and swoon. Koi are everywhere looking for food.
In 1965, the Japanese Garden at Memphis Botanic Garden in Tennessee was created and designed by Dr. Paul Takona Tono, a revered landscape architect from Japan, in cooperation with the Memphis Bamboo Chapter of Ikebana International. Tono’s design was never fully realized, though he did create Lake Biwa, the Moon Gazing Pavilion and path system but with details left unfinished
Memphis Botanical Garden was founded in the 1950s. In the early ‘60s, a consortium of garden groups hired Paul Tono who added the Drum Bridge, so called because the upper arch is an inverted half-circle. When you look at it from the shore, its refection in the water creates a circular drum.
During the late ‘60s and ‘70s Tono's design declined until 1989, when Ritchie Smith Associates, landscape architects, performed a major redesign and renovation. They consulted with Dr. Kiochi Kawana, a Japanese garden design expert, college professor, landscape architect, artist and poet, now deceased.
While attending graduate school at Harvard, Smith had met the legendary Paul Tono while in Tokyo, who had a close relationship with Kiochi, the principal designer of Japanese gardens in Chicago and St. Louis Botanical Gardens and others.
Smith and Kiochi collaborated on the design and decided to start over with the seven-=acre garden since little was left of the original design. They kept the trees of the Southern hardwood forest, the moon-gazing pavilion and the red drum bridge. They salvaged boulders and drained and expanded the shape of Lake Biwa, lining the edge with carefully selected sheet-pile edging (corten weathering steel), to protect against the region’s strong erosion.
They created landforms, a new path system around the lake and added a classic zig-zag bridge known as “Yatsuhashi,” meaning “bridge of eight planks,” often built over shallow water where iris grow. Shinto legend has it that evil spirits chasing people on Yatsuhashi will fall off into the water because they cannot turn at right-angles.
When the pair drew down the lake, Kiochi came out and saved all the koi in ponds and tanks. Some of them today are the original fish.
They planted native plants, hybrids of natives and Japanese plants. Natives include willow and water oak, Northern red and white oak, sweetgum and persimmon. Understory trees include Japanese maple, Yoshino cherry, flowering dogwood and redbud. Shrubs include Japanese azaleas, nandina and natives.
“It was important to us to have a nice blend. We didn’t want to have all the plants from Japan,” Smith says.
Smith and Kiochi created a new gateway and Japanese-style fence. Kiochi hand-picked stone lanterns and sculpted Japanese black pine. He set up the trees and rock groupings, stone lanterns, azalea plantings and ground covers, and created two islands symbolic of the tortoise and cranes that inhabit a natural lake.
“One thing odd about this – the only Japanese gardens are in Japan," says Smith. "In America, it’s an American garden, though they are called Japanese gardens. You try to be true to the art form, materials and symbolism. It was critical we had Kiochi Kawan. He loosely called this a pond and strolling garden. There are other gardens for meditation. It’s been a beloved garden throughout its history with a prominent role in Memphis and the middle South. This is really the only authentic Japanese garden in this part of the country.”
We enjoyed every aspect (of creating the garden). We continue to talk to staff. Maintenance is critical and they’ve done a good job."
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published December 23, 2017