Book Review: A Brocade Pillow Book
Reviewed by David G. Leach
North Madison, Ohio
Reprinted courtesy of Horticulture, The Magazine of American Gardening.
One of the most prized rarities in my library is a facsimile of a book on azaleas published in Japan in 1692. My replica is printed in flowing Renaissance Japanese on rice paper, with many wood-block illustrations. Its five mini-volumes are hand-bound with white silk thread. The original, in the National Diet Library in Tokyo, was the world's first monograph on azaleas.
Now the man who gave me this unique gift, Professor Kaname Koto (retired from the University of Tokyo), and John Creech, the foremost American expert on Japanese flora, have produced an English translation of the book. The original author, Ito Ihei, a nurseryman and gardener for the feudal lords, imagined, as he reclined on his tatami, that the azaleas decorating his sparsely furnished room formed a brocade bed; hence the fanciful title, A Brocade Pillow Book.
Creech wrote the preface, introduction, and notes about the ancient azaleas for this new interpretation. Ito's descriptions and woodcut illustrations of flowers of 332 azalea hybrids and species forms grown in Japan in the late 17th century follow. Each of the original descriptions is followed by an invaluable commentary by the 20th-century coauthors. The modern name of the azalea or its modern equivalent is given.
Nearly all the azaleas are so-called evergreens. The book assumes that the reader has a good deal more than a passing knowledge of such azaleas. Its appeal is primarily to academicians, sophisticated hobbyists, horticultural historians, and breeders - for its usefulness in relating the results of other hybridizers, contemporary or not.
Ito divided the azaleas into two categories, the Tsutsujis and Satsukis, mainly by their blooming period, and then provided by means of illustration, code, and description their flower sizes and forms, color patterns, and sequence of bloom. Twentieth-century breeders have used the same parents their 17-century counterparts did, but they have achieved less striking successes than the early Oriental hybridizers. Excluding the wondrous variety of flower shape and structure, the modern Glenn Dale azalea hybrids are the mirror images of certain ancient Japanese cultivars. (An extensive listing of azalea cultivars with romanized Japanese names is included.)
As the abundant illustrations show, the Japanese love of bizarre or unnatural flowers and foliage is an ancient tradition. Americans are often bemused by the Japanese preoccupation with variegated foliage and hybrids with leaves that appear wilted. Flowers with strap-like petals, corolla lobes increased or reduced or none at all, narrow petals with serrated edges, tubular flowers, hose-in-hose, skirted or double, and all manner of contorted blossoms are prized in Japan - even some that are green or that do not open until after they have dropped.
Unfortunately, the color photographs of azaleas included in the introduction are pedestrian in quality, and some are inaccurate. The Hirado azaleas, mentioned by Ito, are renowned in Japan for their flamboyance, but they are neglected in the commentary, despite their theatrical size and even more dramatic history. And the continued assumption throughout the text that Rhododendron sataense is a valid species is incomprehensible. (About 103 different combinations of significant botanical characteristics are to be found among the plants alleged to constitute this "species" on Mount Takatoge.) Eight pages of instruction on culture are of dubious value to modern gardeners.
But this is a rare combination: a book that is both esoteric in subject and important in substance. It is a unique contribution to the Western world, and many who have even a marginal interest in azaleas will find it worthwhile.
A Brocade Pillow Book: Azaleas of Old Japan by Ito Ihei, with notes and commentary by Kaname Koto and John Creech. New York: John Weatherhill, 1984. 162pp.