Global menu

Elements of the Japanese Garden

Water symbolizes renewal, calm, wonder and continuity
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Michel Tremblay)
Water, an important element in a Japanese garden
  • Water, an important element in a Japanese garden
  • Yukimi-gata lantern
  • Bridges
  • Serviceberry (zai furi boku)
  • Pine (matsu)
  • Nelumbo nucifera 'An Tou Chun'
  • Shrub peony (botan)
  • Horsetail (takusa)
  • Malus baccata var. mandshurica
  • Rhododendron (tsutsuji)
  • Koi

In a Japanese garden, stone, water and plants converge to create an idealized version of nature. Here’s a description of these different elements.


The most important element in the garden, stone symbolizes longevity and the omnipresence of natural forces. It serves as an anchor for the landscape, and fashions the relief that calls to mind Japan’s mountains, hills and steep cliffs.

The Japanese term ishi gumi designates the art of placing stones in a garden, something that requires great know-how.

Stones are generally grouped in odd numbers, in such a way as to create an effect of perspective and depth. They must be well anchored in the soil. Often we see only a small portion, like the tip of an iceberg on the surface of the water.

The choice of the type of stone used is a major step in the design of a Japanese garden. After much searching, Ken Nakajima, the landscape architect for the Japanese Garden at the Jardin botanique, discovered the stones he was so eagerly looking for at the asbestos mines in Thetford Mines, Québec: peridotite and serpentine, which contain olivine.


The element second in importance, water is everywhere in the Garden, contributing to the expression of nature.

As it makes its way through the Garden, the water undergoes a number of changes of pace. It rushes down the mountain in cascades, flows along in winding streams or accumulates in the pond, which represents the ocean with its with pine tree–crowned islands.

Japanese carp (koi or nishikigoi)

Indispensable guests in the pond of a Japanese garden, carp enliven the waters they inhabit with their colorful presence.

The first colored carp appeared in the 19th century thanks to genetic mutations. Since then, carp have been crossbred to obtain remarkable specimens. In highly popular competitions in Japan and elsewhere, these fish are judged on the basis of their colors, their dorsal patterns and the quality of their scales.


The choice of plants for a Japanese garden is based on their value or significance throughout the year. They help underscore the passing of the seasons, one of the fundamental principles in the composition of such a garden. Each season offers its unique atmosphere:

  • Spring embodies renewal. Blooms are abundant: spring bulbs, magnolias, rhododendrons and serviceberries followed by primroses, peonies and irises.
  • Summer is restrained in comparison. Contrasts are produced through the types of pruning applied to trees and shrubs. And there’s an emphasis on plants with varied foliage displaying different shades of green.
  • Autumn evokes the cyclical movement of all life. The blazing colors of the trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials pay tribute to the hot days coming to an end.
  • Winter is a time for rest. It showcases the silhouettes of the trees and shrubs. Evergreens such as conifers and rhododendrons contrast with the whiteness of the snow.

The Japanese show great sensitivity with regard to nature’s cycle, and appreciate each moment.

Pine (matsu)

This tree symbolizes longevity. Some pines, like those one of the islands in the pond, are pruned each year to maintain a stylized structure that lends each of the specimens its own personality.

With its cozy atmosphere, the pine grove contributes to defining the Stroll Garden.


In the spring, the serviceberry is a charming sight with its masses of white flowers.

In the summer it produces delicious little blue berries, saskatoons, also known as “petites poires” in Québec. Its yellow-orange foliage is remarkable in the fall, while winter showcases its silvery bark.

Japanese maple (momiji)

Much appreciated for its lacy leaves and its magnificent autumn colors, the Japanese maple occupies a special place in Japanese garden design.

Cherry tree (sakura)

In Japan there are hundreds of varieties of cherry trees. Their flowering marks the arrival of spring, as well as the opportunity for people to get together for a picnic called ohanami, which means “flower viewing.”

Despite the challenges involved in growing Japanese cherry trees in Montréal’s climate, our garden includes about 20 of them, which generally bloom in April. The most resistant is the Prunus nipponica, var. kurilensis.


Crabapple trees are well adapted to the Montréal climate. In our garden, they create an effect similar to that of the Japanese cherry trees, except that they bloom in May instead of April.


The spectacular flowering of rhododendrons in the spring dresses the Japanese Garden in vivid colors: pink, purple-red, violet and white. The delicacy of these blooms is charming.

The use of compact varieties makes it possible to achieve undulating effects thanks to a pruning technique called karikomi, which allows for the creation of spherical fields (tamamono).

Lotus (hasu)

The lotus is a flower linked with Buddhism, where it symbolizes wisdom, humility and mercy. This plant flowers magnificently and with purity despite the fact that it emerges from muddy water.

Remarkable for its huge corolla, the lotus flower blooms in summer to offer a fleeting vision of its delicate shades of pink and white.


The iris occupies an important place in the organization of a Japanese garden. Its flowering from late May to mid-June displays tones of blue and white.

The graceful bearing of this plant is a fine illustration of the search for simple, refined beauty in Japanese art.

Tree peony (botan)

A native of China introduced to Japan in the 8th century, tree peonies flower in late spring.

There are a great many peony cultivars achieved by hybridization. They flower for only a few days, and offer shades of pink, mauve, red and yellow.

Bamboo (take)

The bamboos found in gardens in Japan are not hardy enough for Québec. The bamboos featured in our garden during the summer months must therefore be brought in for the winter.

In Japan, bamboo largely goes towards the production of utilitarian and decorative objects, including those in the art of gardening. It’s used notably for fencing, which is arranged in numerous styles.

Horsetail (tokusa)

In the native flora of Québec we find Equisetum hyemale, commonly called shave grass. It grows in marshy environments.

The layout of Japanese gardens benefits from the use of this rustic horsetail because its vertical bearing is reminiscent of bamboo’s. Horsetail is also frequently used in the Japanese floral art called ikebana.

Architectural elements


Bridges are spots where it’s pleasant to linger and drink in the beauty of the landscape.

In our Stroll Garden we find two wooden zigzag bridges, called yatsuhashi, seven stone bridges and a rounded wooden one from which the Japanese carp can be observed.


There are various types of lanterns in Japanese gardens.

The ones we see in the Tea Garden are ikekomi doro – type Oribe lanterns. The base is sunk into the soil rather than simply being deposited on it. Their original function was to guide guests during nighttime ceremonies.

The lantern beside the Stroll Garden pond is the ashitsuki doro type we call a Kotoji lantern. It was so named because the two legs evoke the tuning fork used for the koto, a traditional Japanese musical instrument. The lantern has one leg on land and one in the water, which symbolizes the independence of these two environments.

At the entrance to the Japanese Pavilion stands the Tachi-doro – type Nishinoya lantern, which means with a pedestal.

From Soan to Sukiya

The small pavilions bearing the names Soan and Sukiya are settings conducive to contemplation. They’re located at strategic spots offering a pleasant point of view over the garden.

A Soan was, originally, a modest shelter covered with grass or thatch located far from the noises of town. Poets and esthetes enjoyed getting away there to reconnect with nature.

The Sukiya belvedere is normally a closed pavilion used for the tea ceremony. In our Japanese garden it’s been adapted for visitors who stop there to take in the landscape offered by the cascades, the pool and the garden.

The Peace Bell

The Peace Bell is the expression of the pact of friendship signed between Hiroshima and Montréal to mark the twinning of the two cities. It’s the work of artist Masahiko Katori.

Every year, a ceremony commemorates the catastrophic event of August 6, 1945, when the first nuclear bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands. The Peace Bell is rung for the occasion.

Add this