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Known for their simplicity, Japanese garden plants are a great choice if you want to create an Asian-inspired garden. Japanese gardens are rich in symbolism and filled with Zen vibes that can leave you with a refreshed and peaceful mind. They’re created with the intention to provide a peaceful retreat from the outside world and are usually filled with balance and harmony.
Most Japanese garden plants play a key role in a traditional Japanese garden and are often chosen for the symbolism they carry. Whether it’s for avid gardeners or simply amateur hobbyists, there are Japanese garden plants for everyone, from flowering shrubs, ornamentals, and natives to trees, annuals, and evergreen perennials.
Japan has a unique topography and ecosystem that enables the growth of a variety of plants, some of which thrive in hot and humid summers while others only in heavy snowfall and extremely dry conditions.
Here are some plants that will make for the perfect Japanese Zen garden.
Flowering Japanese Garden Plants
1. Cherry Blossom (Prunus serrulate)
The cherry blossom or commonly known as Sakura is a symbol of spring. It’s appreciated for its transient nature as it only blooms in its season. It encourages you to be self-reflective and to understand the brief nature of life.
This flower marks the passage of time and is an important part of Japanese culture. It’s pruned to grow in the shapes of umbrellas or pyramids. It has large and showy flowers in shades of pink, red and white which are not only beautiful but also have a pleasant and sweet aroma.
2. Hydrangea (Hydrangea)
These flowers signify gratitude, apology, and heartfelt emotion in Japanese culture. It’s said that a Japanese Emperor once gave a bunch of hydrangeas to his wife’s family as an apology for neglecting her due to his work. This showed how much he really cared for his wife and the family accepted his apology. Hydrangea can instill a sense of tranquility in any garden and is preferred due to its ability to thrive in partially shaded areas.
3. Iris (Iris germanica)
Iris is not typically considered a traditional Japanese garden plant. However, it’s sometimes included in modern Japanese gardens as an ornamental plant. The iris is more commonly associated with European gardens and is considered the national flower of France.
This plant has a special meaning in Japanese culture, as it symbolizes courage and message, representing the samurai spirit. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to find it in certain traditional gardens like the Dry gardens (Karesansui) or the stroll gardens (kaiyushiki-tenjō-teien).
4. Wisteria (Wisteria)
These flowers represent longevity and love. They’re popular in Japanese gardens due to their gorgeous and fragrant flowers and depending on the variety, they can be blue, pink, purple, or white.
Wisteria is mainly used in Japanese gardens to provide shade and a sense of enclosure. They’re a sign of changing seasons and should be pruned regularly. Not only does this flower add beauty to the garden, but also a touch of elegance and romance.
5. Azalea (Rhododendron)
Azalea is a traditional plant in Japanese gardens, considered a symbol of femininity. It’s often used as a symbol of spring, as it blooms around late April to May. Azaleas are a common feature in traditional Japanese gardens, and they’re often planted in clusters to create a naturalistic, informal look.
These plants are also used in traditional Japanese tea gardens and in the famous Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto. Azalea is a popular and traditional plant in Japan, and it’s often used to create a beautiful and serene environment in a garden. It’s also a popular choice for bonsai cultivation.
6. Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)
The lotus is not a typical traditional Japanese garden plant, but it is popular in other types of East Asian gardens and is admired for its large, showy flowers and cultural significance.
The lotus is also associated with the Buddhist concept of spiritual enlightenment and detachment from worldly desires. These plants are suitable for water-based gardens with ponds or can also be grown in large containers filled with water. They can create a space filled with peace, tranquility, and serenity in your garden.
7. Japanese Cobra Lily Carlingtonia californica)
This is a flowering perennial plant that’s native to Japan and grows from a tuber with long heart-shaped leaves. As its name suggests, its flowers are green or greenish yellow and have a striking resemblance to the hood of a cobra. It’s a popular choice for Japanese gardens due to its unique and attractive flowers and because it’s a low-maintenance plant.
8. Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica)
The Japanese quince flower, also known as chaenomeles, is a species of flowering plant native to Japan and China. It’s a deciduous shrub that produces pink, red, or white flowers in early spring before the leaves appear. The fruit is edible and often used to make jelly or marmalade and the plant itself is commonly used as a hedge or in mixed borders.
Japanese quince is a popular flower in Japanese culture, often associated with endurance, perseverance, and longevity. The flower blooms in early spring and its ability to bloom even in harsh conditions are seen as a symbol of resilience. The Japanese quince is also believed to bring good luck, wealth, and happiness. It’s also used as a symbol of love, which is why it’s often given as a gift to loved ones.
9. Camellia (Camellia japonica)
The Japanese Camellia represents many things according to its color. While a yellow camellia represents longing, the red camellia also known as tsubuki has always symbolized a noble death for samurai and warriors.
However, in Japanese culture, camellia mostly represents endurance and longevity. Although this ornamental flowering plant is native to Japan, it can be found in gardens all around the world and is much sought after for its beautiful flowers.
10. Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale)
The oriental poppy plant comes with flowers in a range of colors including orange, red, white, and pink. It’s known for its distinctive tissue-like texture and leafless stems. In Japanese culture, this plant is also a symbol of rest and sleep.
Trees, Shrubs, and Grass
11. Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
The Japanese maple is a popular ornamental tree in Japan and is highly valued for its delicate, deeply lobed leaves, and vibrant fall color. The tree has a long history, and it is often associated with traditional Japanese culture.
Symbolically, the Japanese maple represents the fleeting nature of life, as its leaves change color and fall off in autumn. It’s also associated with humility, and its delicate beauty is thought to represent a simple, refined aesthetic. It’s also a symbol of courage and endurance, as it can survive in harsh conditions.
12. Plantain Lily (Hosta)
These herbaceous perennial shrubs are known for their pretty heart-shaped leaves and are most often used as ground cover. They also come with a range of leaf colors including green and blue-green, and some are also variegated. In the summer, small fragrant flowers bloom atop their tall stems.
In Japanese gardens, plantain lilies are associated with the water features of the garden like ponds, streams, or fountains. They grow best in partial to full shade and moist well-draining soil.
13. Japanese Boxwood (Buxus microphylla)
Associated with the winter season, boxwood is a symbol of resilience and strength in Japanese culture. These evergreen shrubs have small yet glossy leaves and are used as hedges, mostly in formal garden settings. This is due to their versatility and the ease with which the plant can be trimmed and shaped. It’s also used for creating miniature landscapes.
14. Bamboo (Phyllostachys)
Bamboo is a symbol of strength, resilience, and flexibility in Japanese culture. Its ability to bend without breaking in strong winds is seen as a metaphor for the ability to adapt and overcome adversity. Bamboo is also associated with virtue, and its straight, tall growth is seen as an embodiment of uprightness and integrity.
The bamboo grove also symbolizes longevity and prosperity, as the plant is known for its longevity and fast-growing nature. Bamboo is considered a sacred plant in Shintoism. It’s believed to have purifying properties and is often used in religious ceremonies.
15. Sawara Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera)
This evergreen tree is also a symbol of longevity in Japanese culture and can add a sense of serenity and calmness to your garden. It is special due to its conical or pyramidal shape and fine leaves that are almost like delicate feathers giving the whole garden a dreamy vibe to it. It is also preferred due to its graceful, airy form. They grow best in full sun and well-drained soil. They are also a popular choice in miniature landscapes or tray gardens.
16. Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’)
Japanese painted fern is a popular ornamental fern in Japanese gardens. It’s known for its delicate, feathery fronds and attractive silver–gray and green variegated leaves. The fern is often used in rock gardens, in borders, or as an accent plant, as well as in container gardens.
In Japanese gardens, ferns are often used to symbolize humility and simplicity, as they’re low-growing plants that complement the other elements of the garden. The Japanese-painted fern also symbolizes grace and beauty, and its delicate fronds and variegated leaves make it a very beautiful plant.
17. Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)
Mondo grass is a popular low-growing grass-like plant that’s often used in Japanese gardens. It’s a hardy and versatile ground cover that forms dense mats of foliage and can be used as a lawn substitute or as an accent plant. It’s also used to create pathways or define garden beds.
Mondo grass is known for its dark green leaves and small, inconspicuous flowers that bloom in summer. In Japanese gardens, it’s typically used to symbolize humility and simplicity, as it’s a low-growing plant that complements other elements of the garden. It’s also used as a symbol of continuity and eternity, as it can be propagated easily and can last for a long time.
18. Garden Juniper (Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’)
Garden juniper is a popular dwarf evergreen shrub that’s commonly seen in Japanese gardens. Known for its small, scale-like leaves, this plant has the ability to be shaped and trained into different forms, such as bonsai. Garden juniper can also be used as a ground cover, accent plant, or as a focal point in a garden.
In Japan, junipers are often regarded as symbols of longevity, endurance, and resilience, as they are evergreen and can survive in different climates and soil conditions. The garden juniper also represents the beauty of nature in its simplicity and is often used to create a sense of balance and harmony in the garden.
19. Pines (Pinus)
Pine trees are seen as symbols of longevity, endurance, and resilience. They’re also associated with strength, stability, and the beauty of nature. Pine trees are popular in Japanese gardens because they’re evergreen, and their needles can be used to create a sense of depth and texture. These plants can also be used for making bonsai.
The pine tree symbolizes the ability to weather the storms of life and thrive despite harsh conditions. It’s also associated with the New Year in Japan and is regarded as a symbol of good luck and prosperity.
20. Hakone Grass (Hakonechloa macra)
Hakone grass is a type of ornamental grass native to Japan. It’s known for its delicate, arching leaves and its ability to turn vibrant shades of gold, orange and red in the fall. It’s typically grown as a groundcover or in mixed borders and is well-suited for rock gardens, or as an accent in a container garden.
In Japan, Hakone grass is often used to symbolize humility and simplicity, as it’s a low-growing plant that complements other elements of the garden. It’s also associated with the natural beauty of Japan, and its delicate leaves and fall colors are thought to represent the fleeting nature of life. The Hakone grass is also considered a symbol of grace and elegance.
Japanese gardens are known for their beauty, simplicity, and natural elegance. The plants used in these gardens are carefully chosen to reflect these values and to create a sense of balance and harmony and each has its own unique symbolism and significance in Japanese culture.
From the delicate, fleeting beauty of the cherry blossom to the strength and endurance of the bamboo, these plants represent different aspects of the natural world and the human experience. Whether you’re looking to create a traditional Japanese garden or simply want to incorporate some of these elements into your own landscape, these plants are sure to add beauty and meaning to your outdoor space.