Sunday, February 14, 2016

Plant Story--Bananas, in China

What plant should no garden be without?

Banana plants, through the window of a Chinese garden
Banana plants, through the window of a
Chinese garden
A banana plant. For a traditional Chinese garden, they're a must.

As far north as they will survive in China, every garden has one.

But not for the fruit

The traditional Chinese garden grew bananas for the leaves

banana, Chinese garden
banana plant
For the shape of the leaves, but even more for the whisper of wind in the leaves and the tapping of raindrops on the leaves.

In September of 2010 my husband and I took a day trip from Shanghai to Suzhou, to see the famous classical gardens there. The Garden of the Master of Nets is famed for creating beauty and diversity within a small space. Many Chinese gardens in Europe and the United States were based upon it. In the Garden of the Master of Nets, the paths turned frequently to provide continuously changing views of the garden. It was exquisite.

Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou China
Garden of the Master of Nets
We had a very wet visit to the garden. It rained or drizzled the whole day.

Which meant I got to experience "wet poetry," a garden in the rain. And, to hear the patter of raindrops on banana leaves.

banana plant in Chinese garden

Of course rain was frequent in the productive regions of China. So they built gardens with shelters in them, to read or write comfortably on a rainy day.  A traditional Chinese garden is more than a collection of plants. It includes halls, some wide open, some mostly enclosed, for entertaining or contemplation, the rooms an integral part of the garden. 

The sounds of the rain were part of the experience, and bananas were essential. 

Raindrops on banana leaves make a distinctive sound, reverberating on the big leaves.

No garden was complete without a banana plant.

Chinese gardeners also liked the flowers. I have a photo but it doesn't do banana flowers justice. See Google link
banana bud
Flower bud on banana
Little was writen about the fruit, but poets since the Tang Dynasty (6th century AD) praised the leaves. 

Li Ching Chao (1084-1150) wrote

I planted a banana tree outside the window, and already
                    its shade fills the courtyard,
                    its shade fills the courtyard.
               Leaf after leaf, heart after heart
        so full of feeling, some furled and some open

in third-watch rain, it is wounding a heart among pillows
                       drop by drop of icy clarity,
                       drop by drop of icy clarity,
             with grief, and ruin, a far-off stranger
                  who can't get used to the sound.

  (D. Hinton, Classic Chinese Poetry: An Anthology)

Saigyo (12th C) wrote: 

When the wind blows at random
go the leaves of the banana;
Thus it is laid waste;
Can anyone rely on this world? 

(from Hermitary)

Yun Shouping (17th C):

Green Banana Leaves

I sit here long, the lamp burns dim;
sound of the rain, swept by the wind past my house.
The tears of the banana leaves, outside the window:
for whom are they falling tonight? 
(J. Chaves, The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry)

In Japan, Basho wrote this haiku, about 1180 AD

Feelings of My Thatched Hut

  A banana plant in autumn winds--
  I listen to the drops of rain
  Fall into a basin at night.

Clearly the rain on banana leaves evoked a melancholy mood for many poets.

And yet sitting, warm and dry within a Chinese garden, the music of the rain on the banana leaves need not be a sad sound.

Or the rustle of the wind in the banana leaves on a sunny day.

My own garden has been designed and redesigned to please the eye. I am working on growing plants with scented foliage and flowers so that smell is part of the experience. Thinking about banana leaves in China reminds me that a great garden pleases the ear as well. A good thing to contemplate here at the end of winter.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Chaves, J. 1986. The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry: Yüan, Ming, and Chʻing Dynasties (1279-1911).
Hinton, D. 2008.Classic Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (link)
Shively, D. H.  "Basho--The Man and the Plant" in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, v. 16, no., 1-2, 1953. p. 146-161. © 2011, the hermitary and Meng-hu ( link)
Valder, P. 1999. The Garden Plants of China. Timber Press, OR. print.

Buy the Book! Give it as a gift! This story and thirteen other plants from around the world are told in Curious Stories of Familiar Plants from Around the World. Available on Amazolink

Kathy Keeler
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1 comment:

  1. I don't have a garden as good as you describe. But the edge of the rice field behind my house grows a lot of bananas and I often look at it when the rain falls on the leaves. That is fun.