Missouri Botanical Garden

Chinese Garden

Plants as Symbols

China has some 30,000 species of plants, about an eighth of the world's known flora and twice as many as the continental United States. Many of our most familiar ornamental plants originated in China, including azalea and rhododendron, camellia, gardenia, hibiscus, peony,chrysanthemum, and ginkgo.

BananaWhile the Grigg garden is built in the style of southern China, the climate in St. Louis more closely resembles that of northern China. Many of the species planted in this garden are hardy varieties chosen to resemble closely the traditional plants of southern gardens. Some tender ornamental plants, including orchids and banana trees, are displayed in containers during warm weather.

Chinese Garden

Centuries of tradition and appreciation have imparted aesthetic, spiritual, even mystical significance to many species for the Chinese. They use plants sparingly in their gardens and select each specimen for its symbolic meanings. The Grigg garden displays a somewhat greater number of plants than many Chinese gardens in order to emphasize the diversity and importance of China's native flora.


Yellow Groove Bamboo
Bamboo is used in every traditional Chinese garden for its beauty, the rustling sound of its leaves in the breeze, and the feathery shadows it casts on walls of the garden. As an evergreen, bamboo is one of the "three friends of winter." Bamboo represents a strong but resilient character.


Another evergreen "friend of winter," Pinus symbolizes longevity, persistence, tenacity, and dignity. Many species of pines are native to China. Specimens for gardens are often chosen for their gnarled limbs, twisted trunks, or windblown appearance to suggest great age.


The sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, symbolizes purity, with lovely white and pink blossoms emerging from the mud beneath the water where it grows. For the Buddhist, lotus represents a noble character, the soul battling against the material world to reach the light. It is also a Confucian model for the enlightened man. The lotus is also valued for its dramatic blue-green foliage, which spans the seasons from late summer into autumn, when the leaves change to withered browns with the first frost.

Flowering Plum

Prunus mumeIn late winter, the bare branches of Prunus mume put forth breathtaking masses of blossoms on bare branches, often while the garden is still covered with snow. Taoists believe one who contemplates this sight can experience the essence of spiritual harmony. Prunus mume, called "plum blossom," is one of the most important species in Chinese gardens and represents renewal and strength of will. Branches forced to bloom indoors symbolize friendship. Although planted here on a trial basis, the species is not reliably hardy in the St. Louis climate. Several similar species have been planted in the Grigg garden as well.


Mums in Chinese Garden
This is the third "friend of winter," prized for its autumnal beauty and medicinal qualities. The Chinese species Chrysanthemum morifolium is the ancestor of many ornamental mums available today. The flowers are displayed sparingly, to emphasize the beauty of individual blooms and to symbolize splendor, luster, and "the courage to make sacrifices for a natural life."


Tree peonies, Paeonia suffruticosa, were called the "King of Flowers" and were reserved for royalty. Smaller herbaceous peonies, P. lactiflora or P. albiflora, are prized both for their impressive flowers and medicinal tuberous roots. Peonies symbolize wealth; they were forced into bloom for winter use in Imperial palaces and in the receiving halls of Chinese homes.


Banana trees are common in Chinese gardens in warm regions. Like bamboos, bananas are valued especially for the sounds made by wind and rain drops on their broad leaves.

An Ancient Tradition
A Frame and a Focus
Mountains and Water
Plants as Symbols

Chinese Garden Tour 1 2 3 4