The Gardener's Magazine, and Register of Rural and Domestic Improvements,  2(6): 135-140 (March 1827)

Art. II. Observations on Chinese Scenery, Plants, and Gardening, made on a Visit to the City of Canton and its Environs, in the Years 1793 and 1794; being an Extract from the Journal of Mr. James Main, sent thither by the late Gilbert Slater, Esq. of Layton, Essex, to collect the Double Camellias, &c. Communicated by Mr. MAIN.

On the first view of the coast of China the stranger concludes that the inhabitants are a nation of gardeners. Even the fields, in the southern provinces, are almost all cultivated by manual labour; and every thing shows the indefatigable industry of the cultivators.

On entering the mouth of Canton river, and having ascended to the Bocca Tigris, (an old Portuguese name for a fortified part of the river,) the banks begin to collapse, and present to the exploring eye of the botanist their vegetable productions. He sees the general surface of the country, a level, widely-extended, and well-cultivated plain, intersected in all directions by navigable canals; diversified by abrupt and craggy hills, scattered here and there over the face of the country. Beneath the brow of one stands a grove of laurus sasafras; under the cultivated slope of another is seen the citron tribes, mixed with other fruits, and overhung by the majestic and splendid Bombax ceiba. Within and around the grotesque yet airy habitations which hang suspended, as it were, over the sedgy margin of the river, is seen magnolias, ixoras, chrysanthemums, &c. in great profusion. After an interesting passage up the river, the stranger enters the suburbs of the city. Here he is surprised to see the number of flowers and flowering plants which every where meet his eye: every house, window, and court-yard are filled with them!

Stepping on shore, he is conducted to the Hong, (domicile,) of his nation. Thence he visits every place to which he can have access, in search of plants. By special favour he is allowed to visit the gardens of Monqua, an opulent security merchant, in the southern suburb, or, which is more gratifying, the more extensive garden and palace of Shykinqua, on the opposite side of the river. He enters a vast assemblage of buildings for every purpose of life, of various size and character. Among these the seraglios for the old as well as for the young wives of the proprietor; and the chapel, where are deposited the ashes of his ancestors, are the most conspicuous and splendid. Proceeding onwards, he is conducted to the garden. Here no coup-d'oeil calls for admiration, no extent of undulating lawn, no lengthened vista, no depth of shadowy grove, no sky-reflecting expanse of water, — nothing presents itself but a little world of insignificant intricacy. The ground appropriated as a flower and pleasure garden is a space of two or three acres, laid out in numberless little square plots, surrounded, parted, and re-parted by low walls of brick-work, surmounted by broad copings, on which are set in order porcelain pots of all shapes and sizes, containing flowers and flowering shrubs. The exterior, as well as the interior walls of the garden, are covered with most ridiculously fantastic trellis work (fig. 36.), on which are trained various climbing and creeping plants. The walks, or rather paths, are neither wide nor level enough for comfortable or even safe walking, — intentionally uneven and broken into holes and foot-traps!

The pieces, or ponds of water, an indispensable feature in a Chinese garden, are thickly covered with "the green mantle of the standing pool," to obtain which they bestow no small pains! One of their favourite walks deserves particular description, because they consider it a chef-d'oeuvre of the gardener's art: a wall, eight or nine feet high, is built along one side of a pond, betwixt which and the wall a narrow irregular path is made, but so narrow, that it is with much difficulty a person can edge himself along it; and, as the water is permitted to reach the wall in different places by breaks made in the walk, there is even danger of slipping into the water almost at every step; and this difficulty is called "pleasure" to the walker himself, or at least to the beholders of his embarrassment! Another peculiarity in their garden walks is, when leading through a group of trees and shrubs it must pass between the thickest of the stems, for no other purpose than to produce annoyance to the pedestrian.

In short, except the beauty and rarity of the plants, the visitor finds nothing interesting in their style of gardening: no scope of ornamental disposition; no rational design; the whole being an incongruous combination of unnatural association. (fig. 37.) In one place a piece of craggy rock (real or artificial) is seen jutting out from among a tuft of the most delicate garden flowers; fantastic bridges without water,— unsightly excavations without character or beauty,—the whole being only a repetition of petty attempts at variety, on no greater scale than the patch-work of a citizen's court-yard.

In some instances they appear to have a relish for some of the most striking features of uncultivated nature; such as antique trees (fig. 38.), rugged rocks, mossy caves, &c.; but these are all imitated on such a diminutive scale, that the attempts are truly ridiculous.

This love of the grotesque not only appears in their gardens, but also is frequently seen in the yards of tradesmen in the city. A pile of rugged stones is placed in a corner; on this dwarfed trees and flowers are planted; and in order to produce a resemblance of a grove of pines in miniature, they plant the common Equisetum (horse tail) for the purpose!

* This tree bears the rigour of our winters, as appears from one now crowing in the garden of the Reverend Mr. Norris, of Grove Street, Hackney.

There is one curiosity in Chinese gardening which rarely escapes the notice of Europeans, viz. their specimens of dwarfed forest-trees. To train such, they plant a young tree in a small porcelain pot, either round, square, or most commonly an elongated square, twelve or fourteen inches long, eight inches wide, and about five in depth. Along with the tree they place pieces of rugged stone to represent rocks, among which moss and lichens are introduced. The tree thus planted is not allowed to rise higher than about a foot or fifteen inches. No greater supply of water is given than is just sufficient to keep it alive; and as the pot soon acts as a prison, its growth is necessarily impeded; at the same time every means are used to check its enlargement. The points of the shoots, and the half of every new leaf, are constantly and carefully cut off; the stem and branches, which are allowed to extend only a certain length, are bound, and fantastically distorted, by means of wire; the bark is lacerated to produce protuberances, asperities, and cracks. One branch is partly broken through, and allowed to hang down, as if by accident; another is mutilated, to represent a dead stump: in short, every exertion of the plant is checked by some studied violence or other. This treatment produces, in course of time, a forest-tree in perfect miniature! Stunted and deformed by the above means, it certainly becomes a curious object, bearing all the marks of extreme old age. Its writhed and knotty stem, weather-stained and scabrous bark, its distorted and partly-dead branches, its diminutive shoots and leaves, all give it the aspect of an antique vegetable dwarf! Various kinds of trees are chosen for this purpose; but two most commonly met with are the Ulmus parvifolia sinensis*, and a species of Ficus, very much like the Indica.

But in the midst of all this perversion of the harmony of nature, this display of vitiated taste, the European is highly pleased with the arrangement and neatness of their nurseries, the unceasing care bestowed on their potted collections of plants, and the great value set upon some of them, even among themselves. The florimania is even more prevalent in China than in Europe. One hundred dollars is freely given for fine specimens of favourite plants, such as the Macklan, (Cymbidium sinense, valued for its delightful odour,) (fig. 39.) which is not at all an uncommon plant! and some of the fine coloured Moutan (Paeonia Moutan) are also highly prized; but they are brought from the northern provinces, not being cultivated about Canton.

In their botanical nomenclature there is no scientific classification attended to, except in two instances, if such they may be called, viz. all plants having Narcissus-like leaves, such as Epidendrum, Tankervilla, Amomum, &c. have the substantive Lan prefixed, which may be Englished Lily; and their favourite class, containing Thea, Camellia, Pyrus, have always Tcha as the generic name, which may be Englished Tea, and these are distinguished from each other by specific adjectives, as red, white, high, low, &c. But though the Chinese have, it would appear, no scientific list of their plants, it must be owned that no nation possesses a greater number of vegetable blessings, nor have any people on earth turned such to more account. Their silk, their cotton, their various kinds of fruits, grain, pulse, and roots, but, above all, their invaluable Tea-plant, has added to the wealth, the sanative luxury, and dietetic comfort, of half the world.

Chelsea, January 8. 1827.