Edo gardening in wood block prints

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Encouraged by my host Suzuki Makoto sensei at Tokyo University of Agriculture, I recently visited the Edo Gardening Flowers exhibit being held at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art until November 26,2009. The exhibit has spectacular colorful wood block prints showing flowers and plants in a variety of urban settings including kimonos, at festivals, commercials nurseries, educational materials, Kabuki actors, and Noh dramas.

The exhibit theme is that the Edo period experienced a “gardening culture” in which a passion for gardens and flowers permeated all social classes, including court nobles, shoguns, feudal lords and the common people. According to the catalogue, “the Japanese people’s passion to flowers surprised the American botanist Robert Fortune as seen in his diary upon his visit to Japan in the late Edo period.”

An interesting comparison is also made between between the widespread practice of Edo gardening and also the interest of common people in wood block prints. It is wonderful to see the use of flowers and plants in both high culture realms and in depictions of everyday life during the Edo period.

Two of my favorite prints are collections of plants used by children to learn the names of flowers. The one below, from the back cover of the exhibit catalog, has the names in hiragana. The exhibit also includes Edo era ceramic plant pots.

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Some more images after the jump, and also a list of plants seen in the wood block prints.

Autumn flowers

Plants and flowers I noted from the November exhibit included “Adonis flower” (fukujuso), potted plum tree, narcissus, Chinese lantern, cherry blossoms, pine bonsai, morning glory, chrysanthemum, clematis, hydrangea, iris, peony, azalea, and rose.

Watering can gardener_beautiful_women summer_pink_flower plum_tree


  1. The few images suggest a very different approach to what is ‘garden-worthy’! Was hybridizing or selective propagation a part of the flower business at the time?

  2. The double-entendre (not exactly) of the prints depicting plants is that many of the pigments coloring them were also made of plants, and in some cases such as with indigo blue, were ephemeral like their subjects. Given the organic origins of the paper (washi/kôzo) itself used in traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking, this printmaking method has been pitched as a kind of “eco” art because if practiced in its traditional manner, it relies on non-toxic materials. This stands in contrast to more modern printing methods like etching and lithography whose solvents can be quite toxic.

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