Add interest to your winter garden: Three Friends of Winter

Date: 
02/12/2010

Wouldn’t it be heart lifting during these winter months to gaze out your window, into your garden and see a little green? Maybe a focal point or two? Or a precursor of spring? 

There are any number of ways to add interest to your garden in winter and I present here one of my favorites: suihan sanyou or literally “three friends in winter”. And those friends are bamboo, pine and plum. "

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Zhao Mengjian (1199-1264) Three Friends of Winter, ink on paper

Included in his purchase of a bungalow, a friend had also acquired what the former owner had called her “magic garden”. This garden consisted completely of ephemerals: nothing existed above ground for the entire winter season until, with warming temps and longer daylight hours, the plants would, finally, and I guess one could say magically, sprout from the ground. For a good - no, make that bad - six months of the year this garden was completely underground, utterly nonexistent to the longing eye of the gardener hibernating in his den.

Sounds more “nuclear winter” than just winter; more “flat earth landscaping” than “magic garden”.

Wouldn’t it be heart lifting during these winter months to gaze out your window, into your garden and see a little green? Maybe a focal point or two? Or a precursor of spring? 

There are any number of ways to add interest to your garden in winter and I present here one of my favorites: suihan sanyou or literally “three friends in winter”. And those friends are bamboo, pine and plum.

This conceit was recorded at least a millennium ago as the subject of Chinese ink paintings with the three friends associated with the ideals of Confucianism. Symbolically, each friend’s behavior in winter demonstrates an exemplary behavior to be adopted by the scholarly gentleman-official.

The bamboo grows tall and strong and in high winds will bend but not break: endurance, strength and tenacity during times of strife.

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(1783-1856) 2 screen paintings: Bamboo, Pine and…

The pine is sometimes called the “old man” because of its longevity – some of the oldest trees on Earth are pines. Pines thrive in the worst acidic, rocky soils, remain verdant and never wither during the winter season: outlive your enemies.

Plums are some of the earliest trees to bloom and their blossoms are often depicted in paintings emerging from a cowl of snow: purity and beauty in the harshest of conditions.

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…Plum

Throughout the ages China has been very influential throughout all of Southeast Asia but especially so in Japan. Japan takes what it borrows and makes it its own and released from the constraints of the ink painting, the three friends not only flourished in gardens but found their way to paintings on screens, wood block prints and even kimono and obi textiles.

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Detail of Japanese obi - Meiji era

When Japan was opened to the West during the Emperor Meiji’s reign (concurrent with the Arts and Crafts movement) we not only picked up on the three friends motif but its gardening conceits as well.

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Helen Hyde (1868-1919) Three Friends of Winter, wood block print, 1913

In future articles I will be examining each of these three friends individually; how they can be incorporated together or alone into your garden; maybe dispelling some incorrect perceptions; and how they can enhance your winter garden experience. 

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