That coat. I knew it at first glance.
In Yokohama to do research for my book on Eliza Scidmore, I took a bus across town Friday morning to attend a ceremonial planting of dogwood trees at Honmoku Sanchou Park. They were part of a consignment of 3,000 dogwood trees that America gave to Japan last year in exchange for Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington 100 years ago.
The mayor of Yokohama and the U.S. ambassador to Japan were on hand for the event. But what caught my eye was the back of the Japanese gentleman who took the seat in front of me. He was wearing an indigo-blue cotton coat emblazoned with the words “The Yokohama Nursery Co.” Turns out he was the company’s executive vice president, Kazua Ariyoshi.
I remembered seeing a photo of that coat — or one very much like it — in David Fairchild’s memoir The World Was My Garden.
Fairchild was a botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who traveled the world seeking different kinds of edible and ornamental plants to import to the United States. During a plant-prospecting trip to Japan in 1902 he learned about the country’s flowering cherry trees and their beautiful blooms. Fairchild imported several varieties in 1906, a few years before they were planted in West Potomac Park, to test their growing qualities in an experimental garden he established at his country home just outside Washington, D.C.
Fairchild described visiting the Yokohama Nursery Co. and the friendship he developed with one of the owners, Uhei Suzuki.
The nursery, founded by a coalition of gardeners in 1893, did a booming business shipping plants to buyers in the West. It had branch offices in New York and London. The company’s most popular export was lily bulbs, but it also provided many other plants, including shrubs, ferns and trees.
Eliza Scidmore visited the nursery during her frequent travels to Japan. She wrote a lot about the Japanese passion for flowers and gardens — a trait I’ve seen in the past two weeks during my trip here. Scidmore described the Japanese as “necromancers” who coaxed something magical from plants.
During his visit to the Yokohama Nursery, Fairchild was taken with its “charming” operations:
“The packing sheds presented a beautiful and animated scene, peopled by a hundred or more women dressed in bright blue kimonos with figured blue-and-white handkerchiefs about their heads and white socks and wooden sandals on their feet. Fern balls were then a fad in America; half a million were shipped from Japan to New York and London annually, and these blue-clad women were busy making them. The men were dressed in rather elaborate blue jackets. On the back of each was an enormous white circle in which was stenciled the company’s name in Japanese characters.”
Arrayed on the nursery’s long pine tables were dwarfed trees (bonsai), larger trees in blue and white porcelain pots decorated with figures, tiny maples in green porcelain containers no larger than a teacup.
Fairchild scrambled around the place snapping away with his camera. “It seemed incredible,” he wrote, “that a nursery could be so picturesque.”
Over the years the Yokohama Nursery has won many international awards for its plants. And the company is still in business today.