Our gardening stories of the past 150 years are full of Europeans plant hunting in the treasure troves of eastern Asia, including Japan, returning with cherry blossom and exquisite conifers, bamboo and buddleja, and lush cool-climate ferns. In the 21st century, modern-day plant hunter extraordinaire Seijun Nishihata from Japan turns the tables, scouring the world to bring back the wonderful, the wild and the downright weird to his home country, from succulents and epiphytes to full sized trees, including mature bottle trees from Australia.
Nishihata is a now custodian of the 150-year old Hanau Company, a wholesale plant and flower supplier to temple gardens such as the Ginkaku ji (Kyoto’s Silver Pavilion), and ikebana masters. Years of on-the-job training have made him tree pruning expert, a skill he utilises to an astonishing (and sometimes heart-stopping) degree in bringing his finds back to Japan.
When you look closely at his plant-hunting travels, you can see it’s not obsessive collecting, or the detective work, or even the thrill of the chase that drives him. Nishihata has a deep love, profound respect for, and almost religious relationship with the plants he chooses, and he wants to awaken Japanese sensibilities to the joy of new shapes and textures, and an understanding of the natural environments of the plants he brings home.
Watch as he prunes and prepares massive mature bottle trees (Brachychiton rupetris) for shipping from Australia to Japan. I could not believe that what he does was possible. Especially the paperwork!
You can see his meticulous preparation of each plant so that it arrives in Japan in quarantine-acceptable condition, and then how his pruning, bonsai-style root-pruning and on-site planting methods produce such an amazing growth response.
Nishihata has travelled to 33 countries exploring and chasing down the plants he wants and bringing them back to Japan. As a reflection of his ikebana traditions, he is particularly attracted by unusual architectural form – from gnarled and twisted to spiky and curled, plumose and globular.
His SORA Botanical Garden nursery in Hyogo accommodates over 3000 plants that many Japanese have never heard of, let alone seen (or several of these genera, me either), including rare species or unusual specimens of Tillandsia, Dischidia, Quesnelia, Cryptanthus, Nepenthes, Neoregelia, Philodendron, Hoya, Anoectochilus, Platycerium, Heliconia, Lodoicea, Entada, Musa, Brainea, Goethea, Ferocactus, Agave, Gymnocalycium, Adenium, Olea, Dicksonia, Phoenix, Yucca, Cyathea, Brachychiton, Dasylirion and Dracaena. You can see a wide selection of the plants he has beautifully presented at Plant-Hunter.
Every year, Nishihata receives hundreds of requests to find and bring back plants that are botanical rarities in Japan, a process that no doubt takes much longer in acquiring the correct collecting permits and export permissions than it does to fly around the world and find the plants, even when you are scaling cliffs, plunging into gorges, trekking across deserts and pushing through dense jungle.
Nishihata’s fascination with plants began during a climb of Mt Kinabalu in Borneo 13 years ago. After seeing ‘in the flesh’ the world’s largest pitcher plant, Nepenthes rajah, he was hooked.
Apart from collecting and satisfying an ever-growing thirst for new plants among Japan’s plant lovers, Nishihata hopes to also build a new respect for horticulturists. I was surprised to hear him say that it is considered a lowly job in Japan, and the pay is poor.
If anyone can, I suspect this new ‘rock star’ of world plant collecting can change that view.