[tree peony, chrysanthemum form]
Symbols in the garden add philosophical depth to aesthetic appreciation. Their presence is a gentle reminder of what’s important in life. And what better place to contemplate the important things in life than in a garden?
Five Blessings. Blooming on withered old branches, plum blossoms symbolize a vigorous old age. Perhaps it’s because its name is homophonous with the word “eyebrow,” and in China long, bushy eyebrows are symbols of longevity. In Chinese culture, the five petals of the plum blossom represent the five blessings of long life, health, wealth, love of learning, peaceful death. Whenever I look at plum blossoms, I always think about those blessings and am grateful for the ones I have. Plum trees also provide blessings that are edible.
Nobility. The rugged pine, standing atop mountain peaks and clinging stubbornly to rock faces through winter storms, has been admired since early times for its size and firm stance. No tree is held in higher esteem. Because it lives a long time, it is an important symbol of longevity, of dignified and hardy old age, and of the ability to endure. The pine tree is the king of trees, and in ancient times was the official tree for the graves of rulers.
Moral Conduct. Bamboo has come to be a metaphor for uprightness, strength, and resilience (bowing before the storm but rising again unbroken), and for humility (its hollow stem symbolizing open-mindedness). In addition, the word for “moral integrity” is written and pronounced the same as the word for “nodes” which are part of the basic make-up of bamboo even before it sprouts. We can all use an occasional reminder of these qualities.
National Flower. The people of China hold the peony in such high esteem that they have made it their national flower. It is considered the “king of flowers” with blooms of dinner plate size. It just may be the splashiest flower ever.
Distinguished sons. The Osmanthus bush, commonly known here as “sweet olive,” produces tiny flowers that bloom from autumn until spring. The blooms, with their light but penetrating fragrance, are used to scent tea. The word for the plant is pronounced (but not written) the same as the word for “distinguished” and has become a symbol for distinguished sons. Grandsons. Cymbidiums are symbols for friendship and grandsons. The name of the varietal bearing purple and white blossoms sounds the same as the word ”grandson” (but is not written the same). When coupled with Osmanthus blossoms in artwork, the two plants stand for distinguished sons and grandsons.
Friends. The plum tree, bamboo, and pine are called the “three friends of winter.” While most plants lose their leaves and go dormant in winter, the pine and bamboo remain green. And the plum blooms so early that there may still be snow on the ground when the blossoms open. So in the coldest days of the year, these three support each other with cheer and hope as good friends do. These three friends are a theme in many Chinese artworks.
Blessings Have Arrived. I feel blessed that I was able finally to build my Chinese garden. In the Chinese language the words for “blessings have arrived” sound almost the same as those for “upside down bat.” Subsequently, the image of an upside down bat has come to symbolize that one is blessed. (Correspondingly, a gift with such an image indicates the giver wishes blessings for the receiver.) As acknowledgement of my blessings, I have placed silhouettes of upside down bats in the ends of the roofing hips of my pavilion.