How should I select and arrange flowers in a vessel? For the tea room, Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) famously said that “the flowers should be arranged as they are in the field”.
As I walked my dog one fall morning last year and saw the misleadingly iconic imported palm trees and eucalyptuses against the blue California sky, I wondered “so what did Californian fields look like before these exotic plants arrived?”
On one side of our back garden, I have a long strip of planter area that I had been been watching weeds grow for the last two years. My grand plan after all the necessary repairs were done inside the house, was to plant some beautiful flowers like camellias and peonies that are listed as ‘appropriate’ for the tea room. No I don’t have such a room yet, but it is part of my ambitious 20-year renovation vision that I promise to discuss with my husband who will first read about the plan in this blog.
I began researching camellias and read about the care and attention for the one type that I have always wanted. It is called Camellia Wabisuke and is a small single form camellia that I frequently see in photos of tea room alcoves. My desire for this flower was made stronger because of its perfect name, which includes the word wabi!
Then, I looked at a photo that I took of Japan’s oldest Wabisuke plant in Ryoanji from a past trip to Kyoto, and realized that I was crazy. Camellias really belong where there is regular rain and sufficient humidity, which is usually where luscious mosses can grow and cover the ground. When I mentioned this to my tea teacher who has been growing tea flowers in San Diego for the last 50 years, she shook her head and confirmed that “camellias are the most difficult to grow and care for” in Southern California.
Feeling defeated before even planting a single flora, I looked through my tea ceremony guide book and re-read the seven rules of Sen no Rikyu, which led me to the opening question of this blog.
After some research, I was surprised to discover that there are thousands of plant species in California, many of which can be found nowhere else. Many also bloom with beautiful and unostentatious flowers. I excitedly thought that I should try turning my back-garden dirt strip into a native flower cutting garden and started to investigate which plants I should grow. This was no easy task because the actual plants are not commonly sold in nearby nurseries.
Finally when I attended a native garden workshop I discovered the Tree of Life nursery in San Juan Capistrano that is owned by Mike Evans. I was inspired when he said that “your garden should provide a sense of place and it should be a place where you want to spend time engaging and enjoy caring for”. Tree of Life specializes in native plants suited for Southern California and each plant is provided with a detailed description for the care that it needs, which is very helpful for a novice gardener like me.
So far, I have planted 8 native grasses and flowers and they all seem to be thriving. One of them is the Manzanita “Vandenberg,” so called because it was discovered on the central coast near Vandenberg Air Force Base. The planting direction that I follow is: “dig a hole twice as big as the container, plant with no fertilizer, no soil amendments, just some mulch and native soil.”
Today, I cut a stem from the Vandenberg and put it in a vase by Bill Geisinger, which is made from California native clay. I do not know what Master Rikyu would have thought about this arrangement, but it was a moment when I realized that the wisdom he had left behind over 400 years ago continues to be relevant as a guide for figuring out a good perspective, and a way of life. Above all, I am grateful that these plants provide a sense of connection to California, even for a transplant like me.