The first time I saw these, I laughed out loud, because the idea of someone lavishing the kind of loving care necessary to train a bonsai seemed so ludicrous when applied to ghetto chrysanthemums
Venerable bonsai pines, move over for…bonsai chrysanthemums!
Yes, bonsai chrysanthemums are A Thing. And it happens in Japan every year in November. That’s when growers with wicked tricks for shaping this unlikely shrub with the meh flowers into things of wonder compete for most over-the-top shapes and unbelievable profusion.
I did have to grudgingly admire, however, that they attained a sort of magnificence when gnarled over some craggy and mossy rocks
And they were even kind of adorable when arranged in a miniature landscape
But those are just the warm-up acts. The REAL action takes place at venerable shrines and famous botanical gardens. Join me now at the big league stadiums, and I’ll show you all the styles, in their weird and wonderful glory!
1 The Elvises
Okay, this style isn’t really called the Elvis, but they really remind me of rockabilly hair, so now you’re stuck calling them that too. These entries at the Yushima Shrine competition show the variety of flower styles that can be bouffanted…
although at most shrines and gardens (these are at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden) they’re displayed in little huts like this
At the Yushima Shrine, though, the choicest ones march across the bridge between the admin building and the main sanctuary
Theres a variation of the Elvis that’s grown in the shape of the province of Shizuoka WHY, but my very favorite version of the Elvis is…
…this cart, which appears every fall at the Jindai Botanical Garden, full of multi-hued Elvis-y fox tails. It’s so over-the-top weird, it’s…magnificent
2 The One-Plant Wonders
The first time I came to Japan, I was pretty wowed by the chrysanthemum balls sitting on many peoples’ front steps, because the flowers all bloomed so profusely and at the same time. Little did I know…
…that those are NOTHING compared to the giant “thousand bloom” bonsais cultivated to walk away with the top prize at the shrines. And little did I know…
…that that the “thousand bloom” plants at the shrines are nothing compared to the ones grown by the stone pros at the National Garden…
…whose insanely perfect plants are not only taller than I am, but blooming with the dizzying perfection of a platoon of soldiers on parade day.
But the most boggling thing of all, is that each of these is JUST ONE PLANT
The solitary stem is that tiny thing in the middle. The other four things going into the dirt at the corners of the pot are the legs of the scaffold that holds up the plant
3 The Living Dolls
But hold onto your hat, because the one-plant wonders aren’t the most amazing things they do with bonsai chrysanthemums. “ Kiku ningyō” are life-sized “dolls” made entirely of living plants
My favorite ones are at the Yushima Shrine, and they choose different samurai-era heros every year
They usually feature both women and men
And I’m perpetually boggled by how they get the different colors of flowers to bloom all at the same time
4 The Tower of Power
The prize for the most enormous bonsai erection goes to the Kameido Shrine, for this annual homage to Skytree (I mean, if you can’t beat it, join it!)
But the prize for the most realistic bonsai erection goes to these pillars marking the pathway to the chrysanthemum exhibition at Shinjuku Gyōen
Where I come from, chrysanthemums are way down on everybody’s list of favorite flowers, but if there’s one thing Japan drills home in every season, it’s that even the humblest things can be made magnificent with the right care and treatment.
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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at and Only In Japan The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had
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