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The beauty of early Japanese plant catalogues

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Detail from the front cover of L. Boehmer & Co.’s catalogue for 1899-1900

In this blog, I'm concentrating on one of the earliest of these nurseries, L. Boehmer & Co. based in Yokohama which was, at the time, the only European nursery in Japan. Its German owner, Louis Boehmer (1843-1896) had, in his early career, cared for the Kingdom of Hanover’s royal gardens (now the Herrenhausen Gardens) before emigrating to the US to work as a gardener in New York. In 1871 however, he was offered employment in Japan working on experimental government farms and, after that project ended, established his own nursery business in 1882 exporting Japanese plants to Europe, Australia and the US.

Early advertisement for Louis Boehmer's nursery business, January 1883

As more and more new and exciting plants from Japan arrived in the west, Boehmer’s English and German language catalogues, published and distributed all over the world, were much in demand. Aimed primarily at larger dealers and for use by the trade, such was their popularity with well-heeled gardeners that the catalogues carried a message for “Amateur Collectors” that, “in response to repeated applications”, Boehmer & Co. now offered smaller amounts of plants for purchase such as “boxes of 100 lily bulbs, 50 varieties of Irises, and collections of 25 different varieties of Ornamental and Flowering Shrubs”.

Price List, Boehmer & Co, Nurserymen & Florists, Yokohama, Japan,1895-6

Boehmer & Co.’s 1899-1900 catalogue, entitled Catalogue of Japanese Lily Bulbs, Iris and Other Flower Roots, Trees, Shrubs, Plants, Seeds, etc., consisted of some 30 pages, showing the extensive choice on offer. Lilies, irises and peonies were particular popular, as well as many cultivars of popular garden plants not previously available to the western world. Boehmer's catalogues also offered flowering trees (plums, cherries, wisteria and pears), conifers (pines, junipers and thujas), as well as many kinds of maple.

Lily Bulbs: from 1899-1900 catalogue

The nursery could also, on application, “furnish patrons with [plants] not mentioned in this catalogue, but indigenous to Japan, at reasonable rates and at the shortest notice”. They also sold stone lanterns and “Japanese Fancy Flower Pots” – which they described as “elegant sets of glazed porcelain pots of most artistic design and execution decorated in various colours and patterns in sets of 5 pots”.

Images below from L. Boehmer’s 1899-1900 catalogue

By 1907, Boehmer & Co. had some 200 small-scale suppliers across Japan, many of whom cultivated just one species of plant specifically for export, as well as an extensive network of seed collectors. But, despite their success, Boehmer & Co. didn’t have the Japanese plant export business all to themselves for long.

L. Boehmer & Co., administration and warehouse building

The staff of L. Boehmer Co.

By the 1890’s, Japanese competitors began to appear to take a slice of the lucrative business, the most famous being the Yokohama Nursery Company which issued their first catalogue in English in 1892.

As the competition grew, and in an effort to boost Boehmer & Co.'s visibility, in 1901 Alfred Unger (Louis Boehmer's partner), employed one of Japan's premier woodblock publishers, T. Hasegawa, to produce a beautifully illustrated book, The Favourite Flowers of Japan, with text written by Unger's wife, Mary, in English, to showcase the many ornamental and floral gems on offer.

The Favourite Flowers of Japan by Mary Unger, 2nd Edition,1906

Boehmer & Co. also helped to introduce and popularise the Japanese art of ‘bonsai’ to the western world, and these ‘dwarf' or 'pygmy' trees, as bonsai were called at this time, quickly became fashionable.

Image showing a maple tree, about 60 years old and 1 foot high, sold to HRH The Princess of Wales. Boehmer & Co. catalogue

However, not everyone was keen on these miniature plants, one reader writing to The Garden magazine in 1890 to complain of “Japanese tree monstrosities… tortured by a system of root and branch strangling that should have no place in English gardens”!

But, despite a few negative views, bonsai and Japanese plants proved popular with both horticulturists and gardeners. Articles on bonsai appeared in the gardening press, including one from the Yokohama Nursery itself on how to grow the trees (Gardeners’ Chronicle, 23rd December 1899) with instructions on watering, pruning, etc., while Boehmer’s catalogue described them as follows under the heading Very Old Dwarf Trees, for table decorations, etc:

They are the wonderful dwarf trees for which Japan has been celebrated for ages, and which have ever been one of the greatest marvels of Japanese horticultural skill. Some of these trees of great age – gnarled and knotted like the oldest and most storm beaten pines, with every little needle perfect – are less than 18 inches high. They are utterly unique. They are grown in pots and will last for years in almost any climate…”.

Boehmer’s 1899-1900 catalogue explains, that as the trees cannot be properly described “within the limits of a Catalogue”, estimates and photographs could be furnished on application. One rich Edwardian horticulturist known to have had several Boehmer catalogues was Miss Ellen Willmott of Warley Place in Essex. Records also reveal that she received several photographs of their ‘dwarf trees’, although whether she actually bought any is unknown.

A Japanese dwarf conifer, Thuya Obtusa

var. Chabo-Hiba, reputedly 120 years old

Louis Boehmer retired in 1890, but the nursery business was continued by his partner Alfred Unger under the Boehmer name until 1908. The Yokohama Nursery Company however continued to expand, and their big break-through into the UK market was most likely due to their exhibits at the popular Japan-Britain Exhibition of 1910 in London (I will post on this fascinating Exhibition in due course).

Advertisement for L. Boehmer & Co. under Alfred Unger’s ownership, 1903

Despite fierce competition from English nurseries, which began to propagate Japanese plants for the home market as quickly as they could, the Yokohama Nursery Company’s business continued to be successful well into the 1920s. They also continued to produce beautiful catalogues which are, today, collectors’ items – a set of six Yokohama Nursery annual trade catalogues from 1905-1910 recently being advertised for sale for £1,500, whereas a Boehmer & Co. catalogue from 1903 was recently advertised for US$1,950.

I'll admit to being a sucker for the latest Sarah Raven catalogue, but doubt that I'll be able to sell old copies in the future...

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1 Comment

Nov 01, 2020

These are stunning. If only they made catalogues like this now. Gaudy photos are pretty but often no more enlightening about what a plant will really look like than these beautiful paintings.

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