Mad props

November 18, 2022

Over 15 years ago, on a visit to Kew Gardens, I was struck by an intriguingly direct means of supporting a venerable pagoda tree, Styphnolobium (syn. Sophora) japonica. In this instance, claw-like metal props have become an integral (and continuing) part of this nearly prostrate tree’s life cycle.

On reflection, I do wonder whether it was no coincidence that this particular species, which is a significant tree in Japan (despite only being truly indigenous to China), received this treatment – given the tradition of supporting and guiding tree growth through the use of a wide variety of pole structures in Japan.

The variety of solutions pictured within this journal entry are from the the famous garden of Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Japan, and are kindly provided by David Straight – from a previous trip to Japan. Much of their appeal for me is the way in which they act as simple manifestations of gravity as a vector. Physics transformed into aesthetics.

In a similar vein, remarkable structures called yukitsuri (not pictured here, unfortunately) have evolved in response to the laws of physics. These conical towers of rope (suspended from a central pole) prevent damage from snow-loading – a reasonable measure when one considers that decades of intensive work have gone into the shaping of so many trees within Japanese parks and gardens.

One of the great qualities of Japanese culture that often goes unheralded is the ability to take the handbrake off completely when approaching tasks such as this. This propensity towards inventive (and sometimes eccentric) solutions is evident in the geometry of some of Katsura’s famous paths, or the kinds of engineered structures (associated with water) that appear within the work of the photographer, Toshio Shibata. And as the two images below ably demonstrate, there is frequently nothing polite or demure to this particular branch of horticultural practice.