Chicago Botanic Garden: Japanese Garden & Bonsai Collection

One of my garden goals is to learn more about Japanese gardens, ideally through a trip to Japan. (Have you noticed that I like to travel?) Last spring I was inspired by Tom Spencer’s beautiful garden photos from Japan. Despite my appreciation for their quiet, reflective beauty, however, I still don’t quite get these stylized gardens. I lack the key to their meaning. So exploring the Japanese Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden last week was a bit like looking at a beautifully illustrated book whose text is printed in a foreign language.


In Japanese gardens, I find myself drawn to the ornament, to the hardscaping, rather than the plants, which often remind me—I hate to admit it—of business-park plantings. Here, a simple gate opens into a mossy courtyard with a trickling bamboo fountain.


A stately focal point near the entrance to the garden, this sculpted pine commands a view of the hillside.


A zigzag bridge, so built to stymie demons, leads from one island to the next—from Island of the Auspicious Cloud to Island of Clear, Pure Breezes. Three islands make up the Japanese Garden, but only two can be explored. The third, inaccessible to mortals (visitors, anyway ; staff must ferry themselves across the lake in boats), is wryly named Island of Everlasting Happiness.


Thirteen stone lanterns mark focal points in the garden.


Hmm, maybe Japan would be the place to retire . . .


Contorted pine. I’d love to have this in my garden.


A charming gate


Maple leaf

An exuberant group of schoolchildren followed us through the Japanese Garden, obliterating its tranquility. I’m glad the kids got to see the garden (the girls were all clutching tiny bouquets of flowers cut for them by generous staff members). Maybe a future gardener was among the rowdy bunch, soaking up inspiration. However, for us it meant that we hustled through and soon climbed a hillside path to another part of the garden.


Just outside the Japanese Garden, a grand waterfall cascaded down rocky ledges.


At the bottom, where the water rippled into the lake, this duck watched us with a beady, shrewd eye, wanting to be fed, I suspect.


I like this unique combination of sedum and horsetail. How does this work? Sedum likes dry feet, and horsetail likes damp. Can anyone identify the sedum for me? Maybe it’s something else altogether. Update: It is Sedum ‘Purple Emperor.’ Thank you to Mr. McGregor’s Daughter for the ID.


On the hillside, a dainty fern contrasted beautifully with hard stone.


Under one of the stones, a chipmunk had dug a burrow, and he darted back and forth across the path with bundles of seeds or leaves in his mouth, storing up for winter or feathering his nest.


Earlier that morning we’d stumbled upon the garden’s extraordinary Bonsai Collection. I’d read about the collection months ago in a magazine but forgotten that it was housed at the Botanic Garden. So it was a real treat to walk into this courtyard and see the display that I’d read is one of the best in the world.


This miniature forest was my favorite. But I was also intrigued to see single trees and shrubs that commonly grow in Austin, like crepe myrtle and loropetalum, turned into tiny, wizened trees.


According to the guide, bonsai are intended to be viewed from the front, so scrims conceal the backs from view. Nearly 200 bonsai make up the collection, and they are rotated through the outdoor displays spring through fall. In the winter they reside in greenhouses.

Click here for yesterday’s tour of the English Walled Garden . Next up is the colorful Circle Garden.

10 Responses

  1. Dawn says:

    What a beautiful experience. Sorry the peace of the garden was disrupted. I usually let groups like that pass me by whenever possible. The horsetail is gorgeous. No idea what the plant is with it. I had the good fortune to stay with a family in Japan when I was 17. It was an unique experience that I treasure. So glad you were able to see this garden. Good luck in your study of Japanese gardening. It’s a worthwhile pursuit.

    You were lucky to have that experience, Dawn. I forgot that you had lived in Japan for a while, as did MSS at Zanthan Gardens. One of these days I’m going to get over there and experience their gardens firsthand. —Pam

  2. […] I’ll leave you to rest on this bench, with its back cut precisely to match the circular window behind it. Next time I’ll show you the Japanese Garden and the Bonsai Collection. […]

  3. I called the Botanic Garden, & they told me that the Sedum is ‘Purple Emperor.’ Your photos are wonderful. It’s great to see something so familiar anew through someone else’s eyes. I accompanied a small group of kids on a school trip last Spring to the Japanese Gardens, & while they didn’t appreciate the serenity, they did learn about combining leaf forms & textures & all the different shades of green to make an interesting garden without flowers. (They also liked the concrete blocks weighing down the pine branches.) From Spring through Fall on the weekends there is a queue of wedding parties waiting to take photos at the Japanese Garden. Thanks for showing it off so well.

    Wow, thanks for doing the homework on that sedum. I really appreciate the perspective of a local gardener and garden visitor in your comments lately. That’s interesting about the weekend queues of wedding parties in the Japanese Garden. I’m glad we visited on a weekday. Aside from the group of schoolchildren, the place was pretty quiet. —Pam

  4. max says:

    That equi-sedum planting is crazy! But I like it.

  5. […] Next up, for fellow ornamental grass lovers, is Evening Island, our final garden of the day. If you missed the Japanese Garden and Bonsai Collection, click here. […]

  6. Diana says:

    I love the circle garden photos. And aren’t we lucky that most of those plants are perennial here? That’s the kind of garden I just adore – full of layer upon layer of different colors and textures and heights, all blending and playing off of each other in innumerable ways. Sounds like an amazing trip — thanks for sharing! I felt like I was there.

    I had such a fun time in Chicago. I’m happy to share the garden memories and am glad you’ve enjoyed them, Diana. —Pam

  7. Chookie says:

    There are several types of Japanese garden, I discovered when I went there some years ago. See the Lonely Planet Guide for Japan before you go — it gives you useful tips, like “arrive at Ryoan-ji at the crack of dawn to avoid the tourists” (Ryoan-ji is the famous stone garden)! Japanese gardens are beautiful but I fear the ideas that underpin them require a lifetime of study.

    It’s funny to see horsetail. It’s an uncommon weed here but declared noxious because it’s unstoppable in our mild climates. It was at its best in your picture, though!

    Hi, Chookie. I’m happy to “meet” a gardener from beautiful Sydney. Interesting that horsetail is a noxious weed in Australia. I’d think your dry climate would keep it at bay. I have a pot of it in my container pond, and it does try to escape periodically, throwing rootlets over the side toward the garden bed below—silly thing. —Pam

  8. shirl says:

    Hi there, Pam :-)

    How fantastic that you are sharing your visit with us. Thank-you very much for both the photos and the tour :-D I too love the pine trees and the history behind these beautiful gardens.

    Hi, Shirl. Garden tours are one of my favorite topics. I’m glad you’re enjoying this one. —Pam

  9. Layanee says:

    I enjoyed the meditative quality of your tour through the Japanese garden. Love the duck’s shrewd eye!

  10. Those are some terrific bonsai plants. They get lots of bonus points for a sensitive way to display them, too, with the plain backgrounds that let you concentrate on each specimen. I’m so impressed!

Follow