Vegder's Blog

December 18, 2011

Hydrangeas – 紫陽花 – ajisai – in Japanese art and elsewhere

He called hydrangeas purple. And they were.
Not fixed and deadly, (like a curving line
That merely makes a ring).
It was a purple changeable to see.
And so hydrangeas came to be.

Wallace Stevens – first stanza of Anecdote of the Abnormal

First, by way of an explanation, I am somewhat tired of doing research all of the time. Don’t get me wrong: research is my favorite pastime. In fact, it is my favorite all around time filler. However, every once in a while I need a vacation. Camping used to fill the bill, but not so much anymore. Now I just need to move on to something a little less taxing. So, I have picked on hydrangeas. Why? Because ever since I was a wee tot I have been mesmerized, transported, distracted and otherwise fascinated and engrossed by these plants. Not so much so that I cared to make a full on study of them. Not even a not so full on study. But, what I must say, is that whenever I see them in situ, in nature, in glorious blooming profusion in all of their resplendency I smile – maybe not outwardly, but always, dare I say it?, spiritually. They always distract me for that blissful moment when the rest of the world falls away and beauty reigns supreme. And, not only that, they never look real to me, but who cares? Not I.

  Pink hydrangea image as posted at Flickr by alasam. There is a note accompanying this photo that states that hydrangeas are blue if grown in an acidic soil, but pink or purple if in one that is alkaline.

“I ABSOLUTELY ADORE HYDRANGEAS!” This is a quote from me today on December 18, 2011 if it really matters.

  This image is a somewhat cropped version of a photo posted at Flickr by fritzmb.

“I ABSOLUTELY LOATHE HYDRANGEAS!” This is a recent quote from Madonna. I was unaware of this until yesterday when I was consulting with my hydrangea guru (my only real hydrangea guru, so far) who told me what she said. I went to YouTube and watched the 16 second video in which someone (unseen) handed a large, long-stemmed hydrangea to a seated Madonna who promptly placed it on the floor beside her and was then heard to say her now scurrilous remark. Below is a photo of Madonna which was posted by David Shankbone at Next to that is another photo of hydrangea flowers posted at Flickr by Point and Shoot Kinda Gal. Who, in their right mind, couldn’t love these blossoms?


In Chinese art and culture – Joseph Needham quoted a 13th century text which described the chü-pa-hsien or ‘assembly-of-the-eight-immortals-plant’. The Chinese characters for the Eight Taoist Immortals are 八仙 (Ba Xian) while the characters for the hydrangea are 八仙花 (Ba Xian hua). This is a curious bit of information on a number of levels, but mainly it interests me because  the Chinese term is not a one which was adopted by the Japanese at a time when so much else was. Of course, one reason may lie in the age of these names in both China and Japan. Only those with greater skills than mine can answer this. For example, how old is the Japanese term for hydrangea, ajisai? Maybe it predates the earliest Japanese contact with the Chinese. (My guess is that it doesn’t.) Well, guess what: I have dug a little deeper and it would seem I was most probably wrong. In the Kodansha Encyclopedia it says: “The name ajisai is often applied generically to other species in addition to the Hydrangea macrophylla. References to ajisai in Japanese literature appear as far back as the Man’yoshū, an anthology of poetry completed in the 8th century. Mention of the ajisai usually alludes to the spring rainy season.”

Sumiko Enbutsu in a June 7, 2001 article in The Japan Times says that after the references cited above from the Man’yoshū the hydrangea seemed to be neglected in literary references. We know of two haiku by Bashō, but other than that this would seem to be correct. Not only that but she added that “No famous viewing places existed for hydrangea even during the gardening boom of the Edo Period, and it was only after World War II that Meigetsu-in in Kamakura carried out the nation’s first ornamental planting of the flower.” (See our reference to the Meigetsuin further down this page.)

But, for now, let’s go back to the issues raised by the use of the characters for the ‘Eight Immortals’. Shown below is a 17th c. Chinese bronze in the collection of the British Museum. It shows the Immortals surrounding the main figure of the god of longevity.

  © Trustees of the British Museum

What has really amazed me while doing this research on the 八仙花 is that it led me to another discovery. I already knew about a glorious period of Chinese porcelain in the 17th century during the reign of Yongzhen when some of the most exquisite pieces were created. What I didn’t know was that was that one of the  dishes I most admired was indirectly linked to the Eight Immortals by means of its  decorative use of peaches and flying bats. Peaches stand for a fruit which can bring immortality and the bats stand for happiness. On the dis shown below there are 8 peaches in all, front and back.These are visual substitutes for the Eight Immortals and the 5 bats, 3 on the front and two on the back, represent a visual pun for the 5 kinds of good fortune. This is astounding! The Chinese term for the Immortals is linked to both their word for hydrangea and the peaches of longevity. A nice little package of information there.

Needham also cites a study by Lang Ying produced in ca. 1540 where the author states that he recognized what he believed to be a wild hydrangea in a Song dynasty (宋代: 960-1279) painting. I wish I knew what it looked like. Needham continued: “It seems that most of the Hydrangea species now in cultivation are of Asian origin. The striking lability of the flower petal colours was early known in China, where horticulturists followed with interest the changes from green to pink and then to blue ending as bluish-green, and actively manipulated the anthocyanins as one can by adding various substances to the soil in which the plants are grown.”

In a book from 1987, Tropical Shrubs, it states that “In China, hydrangea culture reached its peak during the Sung Dynasty…” Only problem: the author doesn’t cite his source.

In an entry on hydrangeas in the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (vol. 3, p. 251) it says: “Formerly the ajisai was thought to be native to China, but Makino Tomitaro (1862-1957) asserted that it was native to Japan and introduced to China long ago; this theory is now widely accepted.”

We’re talking real 14th century gold threads here people – There is a fragment of a late Yuan to early Ming Chinese silk tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  We know that it is nothing we should turn our noses up at because of its liberal use of gold threads. Even back then the cost of materials and the quality of the production were indications of class structure.  This is definitely not peasant material. The use of hydrangeas as a motif is probably telling us something too, but who knows what that is beyond the mere decorative effect.

In the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a later piece silk tapestry or kesi with a touch of paint from the late Qing period. It shows hydrangeas with prunus flowers and what appears to be peonies. See below:

A Chinese print

   © Trustees of the British Museum

The 17th c. woodcut print shown above and in detail below was designed by Ding Liangxian (Ch. 丁亮先). Not much, if anything,  is known about this artist, but the curatorial notes are interesting on the subject of hydrangeas in Chinese art. They state that in China it was called the “embroidered ball” flower and adds that just such a ball was thrown by an unmarried woman into a crowd of men. The one who caught it became her husband. It also notes that an embroidered ball is often seen under the paw of a male Fu or guardian dog. Fu here means Buddha (佛) – hence the Lion of Buddha.

As you can see the image of the flower is highly embossed. In print jargon this is called gauffrage. Fancy word, French origin.

   © Trustees of the British Museum (detail)

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual (芥子園画伝) was first published in China in 1679 as a template which artists could use to learn how to represent everything from rocks to birds to the leaves on trees. However, it wasn’t ever terribly popular with the Chinese. Then it appeared shortly thereafter in Japan and caught on with the nanga school. As a result it went through several editions. Naturally one type of flower represented was the hydrangea. Below is a detail from one of those publications.

The Chinese term for hydrangea – or one of them – I don’t know for sure – but I do know this is one of them, at least – 八仙花. An ‘embroidered ball flower‘ 繡球花 also translates as hydrangea. A tip: Try copying and pasting these three characters into a Google images search and you will see what I mean. Hydrangeas everywhere.

In Japanese art and culture – There is a lovely print in the British Museum, artist unidentified but of the Maruyama-Shijo school (円山・四条派), showing a blue hydrangea on the right side with the center and left filled with text, poems, which I am unable to read. This print is a surimono (刷り物).

  © Trustees of the British Museum

While I may not be able to read the poems and thus catch the subtelty of the messages in the print shown above I was lucky enough to receive an e-mail from Scott Johnson on Aug. 28, 2014, in which he sent me a picture of a different, but similar surimono by Matsumura Keibun (松村景文: 1779-1843). Even more fortunate is the fact that Mr. Johnson has provided me (i.e., us) with an explanation of this print.

“There’s a whole sub-category of surimono devoted to changes in name in the worlds of kabuki and bunraku, or status in the geisha world.

This surimono is introduced (on the right) by a geisha named Hisakiku, as a “big sister” welcoming the change in status for her “little sisters” Kikuno and Kikushi from maiko to geisha.  Reflecting on the changeability of the colors of hydrangea, Keibun’s image of three clusters show that since they are now united in status, he can depict their new relation in unified color.   The last two haiku are probably by admirers or sponsors.”

Keibun_surimono_hydrangea   Scott Johnson Collection

On kyoka (狂歌) surimono, Scott in Kyoto wrote on August 28, 2014:

“Jerry, A wonderful blog. It’s a small point, but you showed a haiku surimono with hydrangea as the theme, and expressed puzzlement. Kyoka surimono are dominated by New Year themes, but haiku surimono were created in all seasons.” [On September 1, 2014 I edited out my comment about the timeliness of images on surimonos. That is what prompted Scott’s e-mail. This old dog does learn – sort of.]

Thanks Scott! I wish more people would write me and help lift the veil of my ignorance a little faster. Of course, that would take a lot more people than I could ever expect. When readers look at my comments and shake their heads in dismay and make ‘tsk-ing’ sounds, I can neither see nor hear them. That is why more Scotts are required. But now back to the topic.

A quick search led me to the comments made by curators at 3 major institutions which display Japanese prints. The first was from Hollis Goodall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

Humor and luxury formed a chic combination in kyοka (“mad” poems), and surimono (privately published prints) during a fad that lasted from the 1790s to the 1840s in Edo (modern Tokyo). The images on the prints might link disparate topics from the poems transcribed there, or add a twist playing on a double meaning within a poem’s text. The function of the illustration was, however, secondary to the printed verse; kyoka poets hired artists to decorate collections of their verses.

Nineteenth-century surimono were often printed in a square format, mirroring the shape of a traditional poem card. The use of precious metals on the polychrome prints suggested the gold and silver foils and dyed papers that decorated the poem cards painted by courtiers. Kyoka were written in the form of traditional waka poems, following a 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllabification format. Playing on this form, and often quoting directly from courtly poems of old, contemporary writers skewed diction and subject matter in humorous ways that tested the erudition of the reader.

At a Fitzwilliam Museum site it says:

[Kunisada’s] surimono include many of the finest prints he designed in this period, which coincided with the flowering of surimono in Edo (present day Tokyo), particularly in the square shikishiban format. Like all surimono formats, shikishiban was a division of the standard hosho sheet: a hosho sheet divided into six forms shikishiban sheets. Most shikishiban prints were kyoka surimono, commissioned by members of the large kyoka (‘crazy-verse’) poetry groups (gawa) or smaller poetry circles (ren), who would swap surimono at poetry gatherings. Other individuals commissioned surimono as private greeting cards or mementoes of particular events for distribution among their friends or clients. They were often produced at New Year, with suitable poems auguring good luck accompanying seasonal spring imagery or symbols of longevity. Kabuki actors commissioned surimono to distribute among their sponsors and fans. The fans themselves also commissioned surimono to extol the virtues of their favourite actor. In Kunisada’s surimono of actors, a particular performance or role is often commemorated, just as it is in the commercial prints.

Dr. Ilana Singer at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art wrote:

Unlike other woodblock prints sold in the Edo period (1600-1868) in large numbers, the surimono were published in small editions and were not intended for sale. Additionally, they were not exposed to censorship to the same extent as the commercial prints. The surimono were intended for the educated public, knowledgeable and versed in the arts of literature, poetry and calligraphy. Many surimono prints were ordered by kyoka (狂歌) and haiku (俳句) poetry clubs (kyoka: comic poems of 31 syllables; haiku: short verses of 17 syllables). Kabuki actors also commissioned surimono to publicize changing their names or first performances of their sons.

Integrating kyoka verses in surimono was fashionable from the 1780s until the 1830s, while the integration of haiku continued until the mid-19th century. Kyoka appearing on the prints are mainly winners of poetry competitions. They were also created by the artists who designed the prints, and by famous poets. The verses are integral to the design, complementing it in regard to both subject and composition. The kyoka are often satires or parodies of classic poems, so it is hardly surprising that the surimono artists preferred the shikishiban, the paper size used for writing classic poetry in the Heian era.

[Note: When you have read the three comments posted above you might find some slight variations from one to the other. However, if you are in a mood to quibble then quibble. But remember, the buck stops somewhere else when it comes to hardcore, etched-in-stone scholarship. I am just the messenger and can’t always stand behind the product or its fine print. (Like most Americans, I rarely – i.e., I never – read the fine print. Clueless near Seattle.)]


There is a hanging scroll painting of hydrangeas attributed to Ogata Kōrin (尾形光琳: 1658–1716) in the Met. He is one of my favorite Japanese artists.

Hydrangeas on Japanese porcelains -There are at least two Nabeshima type porcelain dishes in the Met which are decorated with hydrangeas. The first one is from the 18th century and can be seen below. Also, make sure you look carefully at the presentation of the flowering heads. They differ significantly. There is a truth to nature in both.

Nabeshima ware (鍋島焼 ) is one of my favorite types of Japanese ceramics. I have many favorites, but Nabeshima ware never seems to let me down. In the Met’s  dish from 1780 it follows the great and ancient tradition of Chinese blue and white porcelains as it has been  transmuted by the Japanese soul and by its own elegant style.

On June 19, 2002 a small bowl with a diameter of 8 3/16″, signed Kenzan, dating from ca. 1712-20, with a hydrangea design sold for $57,054.

So, what is the earliest representation of hydrangeas in Japan?  To be honest. I don’t know, but I do know that the image shown below of the covers of  Tadanori by Zeami dates from ca. 1605 and helps push the search back just a little further. If I ever find something that predates it, hydrangea-wise, I will let you know.

Tadanori_ca.1605_hydrangea_covers_7   Private collection, Japan

Some background: Blood and flowers – Just for your edification, Taira Tadanori (平忠度: 1144-1184) was a talented poet and Taira no Kiyomori’s younger brother. He died valiantly at the Battle of Ichinotani. He had the heart of a warrior and the soul of a poet. Or, was it the other way around? Either way, the hydrangeas shown above make sense.

Since we have been on the subject of surimono, it only seems appropriate to add the one below which is by Gakutei, one of my favorite surimono designers. It shows Tadanori in his militaristic guise. It dates from ca. 1827 and is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


“Tadanori studied under the court poet Fujiwara no Toshinari and became an accomplished poet himself. He is remembered for a poem written after he had lost his way while campaigning:

finding nowhere to lodge at the end of the day
except under a flowering cherry tree
I have the blossoms as my host

The day after he wrote this, Tadanori was killed in the Battle of Ichinotani, where he showed great courage. He was mourned as a peerless warrior, artist, and poet, even by his enemies, and a chapter of the Heike monogatari is devoted to his death. His headless body was identified by the cherry-tree poem which was found in his sleeve.”

Quoted from: Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon by John Stevenson, #86.

Royall Tyler’s recent translation reads a bit differently than the one Stevenson used: “He [i.e., the man who decapitated Tadanori] then read a strip of paper / attached to the slain man’s quiver. / It bore a poem on the topic / ‘Blossoms at the Wayside Inn’…”

Jakuchū and the hydrangea – Jakuchū (若冲: 1716-1800), one of my favorite of all artists anywhere, an artist who seemed to live outside of time and space, thankfully did include a few hydrangea plants in his brilliant paintings and in at least one print. Below is a modest detail from a painting which I believe in in the Imperial collection. After that is a black and white print, because that it the way it was produced, of a insect eaten hydrangea plant from a series of prints called the Gempo Yōka (玄圃瑶華) or Exquisite Flowers from the Mysterious Garden. It dates from 1768.

As a fabric stencil – In Japan artisans developed the katagami (型紙) or paper stencil, a remarkable tool used for fabric designs. Volumes could be written about this craft, but that is not what we are doing here – at this time. However, it should be noted that the most skilled cutters could create any image they desired with the application of their knives to aged paper treated with persimmon juice. That explains the brown color of the paper. Below is an example from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dating from the 19th century before the Meiji Restoration in 1868.  Before you look I have to warn you that the image may look a bit out of focus. That is not your problem. It has more to do with the difficulty involved in photographing these stencils and how they ride unevenly above their background sheet set there for better contrast.

At Harvard at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum there is another katagami example with a different hydrangea motif. It is believed to be from either the 19th century or the 20th.

   © Harvard University

There is a Meiji period (1868-1912) furisode (振袖) at the Met. It is decorated sparsely with hydrangeas and cherry blossoms. The techniques include resist-dying and paint on silk. Below shows the full front of the robe followed by a detail of some of the hydrangeas.

   (detail view)

As a kimono design – There is a triptych in the Lyon Collection which shows a nighttime scene of the ‘Rustic Genji’ hero Mitsuuji standing in the center, wearing a beautifully robe decorated, rich in hydrangeas. Does it have a symbolic meaning? Who knows? That aside, it is a stunner. So, I am posting it below. Click on the ‘Lyon Collection’ credit below to see the full triptych and information about it. (This part was added on August 28, 2014.)

Lyon_Collection_hydrangea_kimono_pattern_Rustic_Ganji_7e   Lyon Collection

Hiroshige’s hydrangeas – In the early to mid 1830s Hiroshige produced a number of  ‘bird and flower’ woodblock prints which included hydrangeas. Below are three examples. The first one, a magnificent example, is from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The other two are  from the van Vleck collection at the Chazen Museum in Madison, Wisconsin.

In October 2012 a woman in California wrote and asked me if I knew what the translation was of the poem shown above. I didn’t and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston didn’t provide one. However, today, July 29, 2015, I did another search using Google’s Japanese search engine. There I found a link to an Italian site. When the image and some text popped up in Italian, I right clicked on my mouse and hit the ‘Translate to English’ button. This is what I found and I bet it is fairly close to the actual meaning:

Hydrangea flowers
do not bloom in the water
but smell like rain

           Chazen Museum, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Another Hiroshige from ca. 1843-47, and also in the collection in Boston, is more crudely printed, but worth showing anyway because it includes a snail. This is important because hydrangeas are thought of as rainy season flowers and that is when the snails really show themselves. To the left of that one is another Hiroshige kingfisher with hydrangeas from the same collection. Obviously a subject to his liking. (The difference in the sizes is due more to my inexperience with the graphics here than an actual difference in sizes. In fact, they are almost exactly the same height.)


Modernity = Abstraction – Of course, this is one of the dumbest things I have ever said or generalized about, but there is some truth to it. In the West artists spent centuries seeking perfection.  They worked tirelessly on perspective, anatomy, chiaroscuro, foreshortening, etc., etc., etc. And once they had worked all of those things out they began to slowly discard them. Been there, done that. Delacroix painted riotous scenes with riotous colors. Ingres declared that this was not art. The Impressionists, so adored today, were originally excoriated by most of the critics and the public. Cezanne single-handedly led us straight toward Cubism.  And what about Malevich and his black square on a black canvas from 1915. He skipped all of the steps necessary for abstraction and cut straight to the chase leaving us with nowhere to go. We’ll not nowhere, but you know what I mean.


On the other side of the planet, abstraction arrived much sooner. Tung Ch’i-ch’ang (董其昌: 1555-1636), who revolutionized Chinese art, broke the landscape mould four centuries before Cezanne did the same thing in Europe. It doesn’t take an expert on Chinese art to see the sense of abstraction in just this single album leaf of his from the Shanghai Museum.

Dong_Qichang._Eight_Scenes_in_Autumn3_Album_leaf_1620_Shanghai_Museum   Shanghai Museum

I have said all of this because of an exquisitely, modernist hydrangea art piece which was sent to me by Scott Johnson on Aug. 28, 2014. It is a zuan (図案) or ‘design idea’ by Shimomura Tamahiro (下村玉廣: 1878-1926) from 1903 and screams to be shown here. It took me a few seconds when I first saw it to wrap my head around it, but when I did… Well, I think you’ll agree why I chose to add it to this post.

Shimomura_Tamahiro_hydrangeas_1903_zuan_7c   Scott Johnson Collection

One last note: zuan were meant to be used in any way and by anyone who could use them – be they potters, lacquerers, textile designers, etc.

The hydrangea in other art forms in Japan – I own a beautiful 20th century wooden box decorated with a pomegranate motif. If there is a rarer  example than the hydrangea in Japanese art then it is probably the pomegranate. But I also own a small but exceedingly heavy cast iron cinnabar paste holder in the shape of a square persimmon – a far more common motif. Fortunately I found a beautiful box in the collection of the Rijsmuseum decorated with hydrangeas and a butterfly. It is said to date from ca. 1675 to ca. 1725 even though it has a seal for Ritsuo who died earlier in the 18th century. Below is the box followed by a detail of the top.

   © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

(detail) © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hydrangeas in traditional Japanese literature or the lack thereof – Numerous plants, flowers and grasses, dot the landscape of Japanese literature like a field in full bloom. They are often used as veiled references  to human emotions and longings. An image conjured up the memory of a love lost long ago or… But not the hydrangea. Why not? The answer is unknowable. Fortunately my overall-guru Eikei (英渓) has come to my rescue with translations of three poems. The first is by Fujiwara no Shunzei (藤原俊成: 1114-1204 ), a 12th century poet and compiler:

Even in summer’s tedium
my heart is moved;
The moon mirrored
in the dewdrops
on four hydrangea petals.

The next two are by Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉:  1644-94):


ajisai ya
yabu wo koniwa no
betsu zashiki

Hydrangeas adorn
the little woodland garden –
a splendid parlor!


ajisai ya
katabira doki no
usu asagi

Hydrangeas – pale blue
like the hemp cloth
of summer kimono.

Hydrangeas and the Buddha connection – On April 8th – May 8th in some places – liquid is poured over the head of a small statue of Buddha. One of his hands points toward the heavens and the other toward the earth as an indication that he is the universal ‘deity’. Often the liquid is amacha (甘茶) or hydrangea tea as it is called in Japan. The kanji characters could be translated literally as ‘sweet tea’ because of the ostensible sweetness of the hydrangea leaves. This annual ceremony is called kanbutsu (潅仏会) which loosely translated means ‘pour onto Buddha gathering’. This bath is symbolic of the bath given the new-born Buddha. Sometimes the water is simply perfumed.

In Ken Fern’s Plants for a Future… it says: “The leaves contain phellodulcin, a very sweet substance that can be used as a sugar substitute.”

Below is a photo I found at Flickr. It was originally taken by Sgt. Opal Vaughan in Korea and shows the ritual bathing of a statue of Buddha. I have trimmed it somewhat.

The Meigetsuin (明月院) Temple in Kamakura is also known as ‘the hydrangea temple’ or Ajisaidera (紫陽花寺). In a Michelin Le Guide Vert  it says: “«L’Ermitage de la lune brillante», Meigetsu-in, a été fondé en 1160 par Yamanouchi Tsunetoshi pour le repos de l’âme de son père, Toshimichi, disparu dans la bataille de Heiji (1159) opposant les clans Minamoto et Taira. Le site est repris par Hojo Tokiyori (1227-1263), cinquième régent de Kamakura, qui, à sa retraite, le transforme en un temple bouddhique.”

Below is a photo of a seated Buddha holding a bowl of hydrangeas. It was posted at Flickr by Ryosuke Yagi. Next to it is a closeup of one of the temples hydrangea florets.


In the Mimurodo Temple (三室戸寺) in Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture there is a 10,000 sq. meter garden with 10,000 hydrangea plants representing 30 different cultivars. Another source says the garden is 16,500 square meters. Does it really matter? Below is a photo by sakura_chihaya+ of one small part of that garden. It was posted at Flickr.

A greater sense of the lushness of this garden can be seen in this photo which was originally posted at Flickr by cyber0515. Just for interest, and in case you want to look up some things yourself, a hydrangea garden is referred to as an ajisai-en (紫陽園).

Little known hydrangea facts – or non-facts passing themselves off as facts – According to some sources the first hydrangeas arrived in England thanks to Sir Joseph Banks (ジョシュア・レイノルズ: 1743-1820) in 1790. Another source gives the date as 1789 when Banks brought this plant to Europe from China for the first time. (Below is a portrait of Sir Joseph painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1771-73.)

   © National Portrait Gallery, London

This shouldn’t seem likely considering the fact that hydrangeas already appeared in Dutch still lifes in the 17th century. Take for example a painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-84) from the Rijksmuseum. Below is full image followed by a detail of the hydrangea (hortensia in Dutch).

     © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam   © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Abraham Mignon (1640-79), a German born pupil of J. D. de Heem, sprinkled some of his paintings with hydrangeas. Mignon was supremely talented but died young which also helps us date the early use of these flowers prior to their known introduction into England. Below is a detail from one of his painting which I found at commons.wikimedia.

On the other hand, it would seem that there is a lot of truth in the Joseph Banks story. In Gifts from the Gardens of China by Jane Kilpatrick it notes that a shipment of plants from China in early 1788 included a hydrangea shrub. This shrub “…has since become one of the most familiar of all our garden plants…. However the most important parent of the ornamental hydrangeas grown in Chinese gardens was Hydrangea macrophylla, a species that is actually native to to Japan and the first cultivated varieties seem to have been developed in Japan from a wild subspecies known as H. macrophylla var. normalis…” A little later Kilpatrick adds that “The variety introduced to Kew in 1788 is now called ‘Joseph Banks’ and seems to have developed as a sport, or naturally occurring mutation, of the wild H. macrophylla var. normalis. It produces very large rounded flower heads that open greenish-yellow before turning pale lilac-pink as they age and the green colouring astonished all those who first saw the plant flowering in the London Customs House just after it had been unloaded from the ship.” Those round green balls of flowers still astonish me and always will.

For decades it was only the ‘Joseph Banks’ type of hydrangea known to the English gardeners. Kilpatrick speculates that this may have been the only kind exported from Canton. The ‘mops‘ head type was all they knew until 1879 when the ‘lacecaps‘ (gaku or 額  in Japanese) started arriving from Japan. “During the nineteenth century other cultivated round-headed hydrangeas arrived in France from Japan and it was only when French nurserymen began to use them to develop new hortensia varieties that ‘Joseph Banks’ was joined in our gardens by the exuberant brightly coloured hortensia hydrangeas that are so familiar today.”

My question: Considering the centuries long social and commercial intercourse between the English and the Low Countries why hadn’t the hydrangea, which was so obviously displayed in continental still lifes, been grown in British gardens at an earlier date? To bolster my argument/question there is a watercolor study of  a hydrangea by Jan van Huysum, another great Dutch still life painter, in the collection of the British Museum. The British Museum was established by an act of parliament in 1753 when it accepted the bequest of Sir Hans Soane (1660-1753). This watercolor, seen below, was part of that bequest and therefore was in the museum from day one – approximately 37 years before the arrival of the ‘Joseph Banks’ hydrangeas from China. It just gets curiouser and curiouser, doesn’t it?

   © Trustees of the British Museum

In 1851 a cotton fabric produced in Lancashire for curtains, chair or sofa coverings was displayed at the Great Exhibition by Jackson and Graham, a popular high-end furnishing shop. One critic slammed this fabric because it was too true to nature, but I think it is beautiful. Besides, it is rich with hydrangeas.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Clearly I am not alone in my admiration for the hydrangea – Paulette, a great French milliner who designed hats for the likes of Garbo, Piaf and the Duchess of Windsor and who also worked for Schiaparelli, Chanel and Chardin, made this ‘fetching’ hydrangea hat in ca.. 1955. It was bequeathed to the Victoria and Albert Museum by Ernestine Carter who had been a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar.

  ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Just because – I have included a still life with hydrangeas by Fantin-Latour because I consider him the greatest European 19th century flower painter. You may disagree, but don’t bother. It won’t help you. My feet are set in stone on this one. The image below is from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

©The Art Institute of Chicago

Original text: The photo shown below was posted at Flickr by Lindley Ashline and it blows my mind as much as it did the first Englishmen who saw just such a plant. Correction: An expert on hydrangeas, wrote to me to point out that the image shown below is actually a viburnum. After a 5 minute search I have no doubt that he is right and once again I have been wrong. Not that it bothers me too much – especially considering that it is being corrected here. Besides, if I got upset every time I made a mistake I would spend my entire life completely flustered. Nevertheless, I have decided to leave the image here for two reasons: 1) I was completely gobsmacked when I saw it and 2) it lays bare my flaws which should act as a reminder to all visitors to this site that whatever I say is often as far from gospel as one can possible get. That is why you should never, never, never quote me.

Note: This image, which I reduced from the original, was the first one posted at Flickr when I did a search for ‘hydrangeas’.

The first appearance of the word ‘hydrangea’ in English, according to the OED was in 1753. The next reference comes from Laura, or the Orphan: A Novel by Mrs. Burton in 1797: “I should like to make… a sonnet upon the lasting bloom of a hydrainger.” That’s right, hydrainger!

Etymologically speaking – Linnaeus was said to have given us the name ‘hydrangea’ from the Greek stem hydr– for water and angeion for vessel.

In most countries the hydrangea is called a hortensia or some variation thereof. In Italian it is ortensia, in Spanish, French, Breton, Danish and Dutch it is  hortensia and in Polish it is hortenja. Even the Russian is close: гортензия. However, the origin of this name is a bit confusing. Oh, what the hell – it is a lot more than confusing. In an article by Sumiko Enbutsu cited above it says that hortensia is named for Queen Hortense of Holland, the mother of Napoleon III. But this may not be correct. In vol. 19-20 of The Gardener’s Monthly it says: “In Europe it was named by the celebrated Commerson [1727-1773], in honor of Madame Hortense Lapante, wife of his most particular friend, M. Lapante, a watchmaker. Commerson first named it Lapantia, but in order that the compliment to Madame Lapante might be the more direct, he changed the name to that of Hortensia, from her Christian name Hortense. The plant was afterwards discovered to be a species of Hydrangea, a genus previously established by Gronovius [1686-1762] : but the name of Hortensia was retained as its specific appellation ; and it is still the common name by which the plant is known in French gardens.”

In The Garden from June 27, 1903 it states: “I believe the specific name of this shrub is really an old generic name given to some of the Hydrangeas by Jussieu in honor of Queen Hortense.” A personal note: I knew that long before there was wikipedia that there was a ton of misinformation out there that gets repeated and repeated and… It is somewhat like the courtroom admonition from a judge: “The jury will now ignore that last damning statement.” Yeah, right.

If you’re confused you don’t hold a candle to my confusion and it just gets worse. Remember how I said that the word ‘hydrangea’ first appeared in English in 1753? Well… the word ‘hortensial’ meaning “of or belonging to a garden” shows up in 1655, 98 years earlier.

More confusion – Several sources say that von Siebold (1796-1866) “…was the first to introduce hydrangea and wisteria to Europe.” How can that be? If you know for sure please fill me in.

A few notes about the hydrangea (aka hortensia) and Western literature -Marcel Proust had a friend, the Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, a man who seemed to know everybody worth knowing at the time. One of the Comte’s volumes of poetry was entitled Les Hortensias Bleus. This was pointed out to me by my hydrangea guru who is also my Proust guru and my Byzantine history guru and so much more there isn’t enough space here to list it all.

Blue hydrangeas are mentioned three times in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Whenever Sally Seton would see these flowers she would think of Peter Walsh.

There is a passage in a book by Julian Barnes published in 2005 which says: “So the same week I am reading a book about hydrangeas and learn that the Hortensia may have been named after a young woman called Hortense Barret who went on the Bougainville expedition with the botanist Commerson.” Remember Commerson mentioned just a few lines above in this post? Now we have a third suggestion as to where the name hortensia came from. Great [said sarcastically]. Will this ever be resolved? Not here probably. By the way, there was a woman on that expedition who was said to have been Commerson’s assistant except he thought his assistant was a young man. Otherwise he would never have taken him, er… I mean her, along with him. It is also said that once revealed Commerson came to accept the fact and when they got back to wherever they were getting back to his assistant became his faithful housekeeper for many years. Trust me, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

It is amazing how these posts permeate my being – Recently I started re-reading The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey. It is tale about the most dysfunctional family I have ever read about in any literature. The Karamazovs don’t compare. Anyway… as I was re-reading page 87 I ran across this passage: ” ‘And where needs be I must wearily return,’ said Mrs Catchprice, throwing her Salem in among the Hydrangeas. ‘Don’t you find the nights are sad?’ ” The point: I don’t think I will ever be able to see or read about or think about a hydrangea ever again without thinking about this post. To my mind this is something positive. (I added this part on February 16, 2012.)

I have a lovely neighbor who has a lovely garden – My neighbor, Joan Sandford, lives behind me and has a stellar garden. When I first moved into my second floor condo/apartment at the end of 2001 I was struck mostly by the view: water, forests, sailboats, Mt. Rainier, snow-capped peaks. It is glorious. The people who lived where Joan does now had a decent but non-descript yard with a fairly large, but dying madrona tree which I could almost touch from my balcony. When Joan moved in everything changed. First the tree came out. It had given me shade and privacy. I groused privately to friends. Then the backhoe arrived and tore up everything leaving a huge  unsightly mound of dirt where the tree had once stood. Next a crew came in and the next Spring there were flowers everywhere the mound of dirt had been. Lovely flowers like the field of poppies seen below. Things were looking better.

But soon the backhoe was back in an even bigger way and everything including the newly planted area was being dug up again. I am a naturally suspicious person and often think the worst until I am proven wrong. Over the next couple of months I saw areas being marked off, a concrete foundation being poured, a garage like structure going up which left me staring down on a shingled rooftop where ‘my personal madrona tree’  and grass had once stood. Other changes quickly followed. A large wire fence went up. Within that area smaller plots of land were being marked off. A sprinkling system was installed.And slowly but surely a huge number of plants were being planted including one young sapling which I was sure would grow to obstruct the best part of my view within a few short years. I was just this side of livid.

This was more than I could stand. I had introduced myself to Joan earlier, but now we had to talk – seriously. So, I spoke with her and found that she was completely civilized, decent, reasonable and cooperative. Much more than one could ever expect. If she said she was going to do something she did it. A very unusual trait to be found in homo sapiens, i.e., neighbors or anyone else for that matter. She had the sapling removed and replaced with a much slower growing and more showy, flowering tree thus winning my loyalty forever.

After a couple of years of watching her garden grow Joan took pity on me. I asked her one day if she would let me do some maintainance work for her for free – you know, weeding and trimming and dead-heading and such, and she said yes. I was in heaven and still am. I miss such things living in a condo/apartment.

Joan is exceedingly personable and has a great sense of humor and a genuine joie de vivre. A real class act. The  ‘garage’ turned out to be a studio where she does her art work – which she sells, in case you are interested. Last week I mentioned that I would like her to look at my latest posting because it was about hydrangeas and before you could say Jack Robinson she did. As I was about to leave she showed me a watercolor of hydrangeas she had done. I asked her for permission to post it here and she agreed. I think it is a fitting way to end this section. Surely you must agree.

    © Joan Sandford

Note to reader: No post is ever finished. So, if you come back here some time in the future there may very well be new information and/or images. I know this because I already have plans to make new additions in the next few days. Today is January 4, 2012. You’ll see.

In early February 2018 I was reading about drawings in the museum in Lyon, France when I ran across this study by Antoine Berjon  (1754-1843). Impressive, isn’t it.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. Quoting you:

    “I am somewhat tired of doing research all of the time … every once in a while I need a vacation … I just need to move on to something a little less taxing. So, I have picked on hydrangeas.”

    so this is you ‘on vacation’?? Beautiful post!

    Comment by Mike Lyon — January 2, 2012 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

  2. Just found your wonderful blog. One more tidbit. The Japanese use nearly all flowers for family crests, but not hydrangeas, which represent inconstancy, not an admirable family trait. The first significant piece of my katazome art I ever sold was of hydrangeas, titled “Inconstancy in Bloom”.

    Comment by Karen Miller — February 18, 2012 @ 11:35 am | Reply

  3. Wow amazingly interesting piece of writing! and photos…

    Comment by susie — October 2, 2012 @ 4:10 am | Reply

  4. What a beautiful piece of writing! English isn’t my first language, but even I could notice it. While reading some japanese manga, I found information that ajisai were given to guests during parties. Okami gave hydrangeas people whose loyalty she wanted the win the following year. It bothers me, because, the meaning of these flowers are inconstancy, pain of soul and also strife in marriage. So how can it be related to the maintenance of one’s loyalty? Maybe you know something more about it?
    PS. And in Polish name of hygrangea is hortensja. Old Japanese women told me that Ajisai means: high, violet flower. And when I check it, that’s a little bit different: ajisai in kanji is 紫陽花, where 紫 (Murasaki) – means purple or violet, 陽 (Yō) – means sun or something positive, 花(Hana) – means flower.

    Comment by Marta — March 11, 2013 @ 6:54 am | Reply

  5. Jerry, A wonderful blog. It’s a small point, but you showed a haiku surimono with hydrangea as the theme, and expressed puzzlement. Kyoka surimono are dominated by New Year themes, but haiku surimono were created in all seasons.
    Scott, in Kyoto, Aug. 28, 2014

    Comment by Scott Johnson — August 27, 2014 @ 10:21 pm | Reply

  6. Good evening from Japan, the country where Siebold gave a hydrangea his Japanese wife’s name, Otakusa…Your wonderful blog amazed me. I would like to see other articles also. If you are interested in the hydrangeas in the Japanese modern art history, please visit my blog(English novel style).
    or another(French essay style)

    [The bold type was my decision. I thought that information was too choice not to highlight.]

    Comment by snowdrop — August 5, 2016 @ 3:51 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: