Plants in The Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden

A Japanese Garden is not a collection of Japanese plants, but rather a garden style steeped in centuries of tradition.  The three essential elements in a Japanese Garden are rocks, water and plants.  It is the plants that provide seasonal changes and color in the garden.

Plants in a Japanese garden do not need to be native to Japan.

While The Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden includes plants that are native to Japan, it also features plants native to Michigan and other temperate climates throughout the world. All of the plants were sourced from nurseries in the United States. The important things to notice are how the plants are planted, how they are pruned and the way they are nurtured.

Ten prominent plants in The Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden:

Pines are one of the most important trees in a Japanese Garden.  They can act as a backdrop or be meticulously pruned. Trees or woody shrubs in a Japanese garden are called “niwaki”.  Niwaki are carefully pruned to represent the “idealized form of a tree.”

  • Niwaki Austrian pines, Pinus nigra, are located outside the entry gate and throughout the Japanese Garden. Austrian pines are also planted around the perimeter of the Japanese Garden to provide screening.
  • A specimen Scotch pine, Pinus sylvestris, is located at the entrance to the Cherry Tree Promenade. This is known as the “gate pine.” Scotch pines can also be found among boulders at the waterfalls. Notice the lovely orange bark on older specimens!
  • Additional pines include the mugo pines, Pinus mugo, Eastern white pines, Pinus strobus, and Japanese white pines, Pinus parviflora.

Niwaki Pine

Japanese maples, Acer palmatum, are used throughout the garden.  Notice the different forms, leaf shapes and colors. In Japan, their brilliant autumn colors are a big attraction. Japanese maples also make great bonsai specimens. There are more than 700 different cultivars and the leaf shape varies considerably. Our Japanese Garden has more than eight different cultivars and these include ‘Butterfly’, ‘Nuresagi’, ‘Sangokaku’, ‘Bloodgood’, and ‘Crimson Queen.’

Japanese Maple

Japanese flowering cherries are featured in the Cherry Tree Promenade and along the shore near the Zig-Zag Bridge.  Our garden features upright, weeping and contorted forms. They typically bloom in mid to late-April (depending on weather conditions and the variety) and peak bloom lasts for about one week. The flowering cherry (sakura) is the national flower of Japan. They are celebrated every spring with cherry blossom “viewing parties.”  Even the falling petals are admired.

Serviceberry, Amelanchier spp., is an example of a tree that is native to our region and planted throughout the Japanese Garden, including at the Main Gate.  It has small white flowers in the spring, followed by small red to dark purple fruits that attract birds.  In the fall the leaves turn a lovely orange-red color.

Wisterias have been grown in traditional Japanese gardens for more than 1,000 years. Wisterias are featured on an arbor between the North and South Waterfalls.  They produce pendulous clusters of lavender flowers in the spring. Wisteria plants can live for hundreds of years!


Spireas are native to Japan and a new cultivar called ‘Double Play Gold’ is featured on the Mike and Sue Jandernoa Viewing Hill.  It produces golden yellow foliage and pink flowers throughout the summer. As they grow they will provide a low, undulating effect. 

Azaleas can be found throughout the Japanese Garden.  Lovely flowers cover the plants in the spring. We planted many different types in a variety of colors. Most of the azaleas we planted are evergreen.  Notice several lovely, large specimens tucked in amongst the large boulders at the waterfalls.


Many people are surprised to learn that some kinds of bamboo are winter hardy in Michigan. We planted ‘Yellow Groove’ bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata forma aureocaulis) and Incense bamboo (Phyllostachys atrovaginata) near the Zig-Zag Bridge, Tea House, and restrooms. Incense bamboo is named for its fragrance—it produces a wax on its stems (culms) that has a fragrance similar to sandalwood. Bamboo can be found growing in the wild throughout Japan. It is also a part of daily life and is used in many different ways—to make fences, brushes, rakes, chopsticks, bowls, flooring, scaffolding etc. Bamboo symbolizes strength and flexibility.


Hundreds of Japanese irises, Iris cristata and Iris versicolor ‘Gerald Darby’, are growing in the water and along the shore near the Zig-Zag Bridge. They bloom in early summer and will produce a stunning display of blooms.

Japanese Iris

While many people try to eliminate moss from their gardens, in Japan it is regarded as an essential element. It grows over boulders and across the ground. There are more than 100 different types of moss. This lovely plant does not have true roots and absorbs moisture and nutrients through its leaves. It thrives in climates with high humidity and surprisingly, it can be difficult to grow. It can take many years for moss to form a dense mat. In our Japanese Garden we have a section called the “Natural Style Moss Garden” where you will see just how beautiful moss can be overtime.

MossPlants are used in unique ways in the Japanese Garden.

In a Japanese Garden, trees are often planted on an angle—on purpose!  In our Japanese Garden you’ll notice this is most common along the edges of the ponds, but you can see it in other places too. This echoes what happens in nature—branches extend over the water to reach the sunlight, their shallow roots don’t provide as much support in the steep, moist soil and the trees lean.

Plants are tucked in small pockets of earth between the boulders. You’ll see this in many areas of our Japanese Garden, including the approach to the Tea House. Along this path, the uneven stones require you to look down and watch your footing. Here you will see plants growing “naturally” between the stones and boulders, much as you would experience in nature.

Bamboo is used in a variety of structures, including the fence near the Tea House and the wisteria arbor. The largest canes come from a class of bamboo known as timber bamboos.

Some pines are meticulously pruned.  This is done in the spring and autumn and requires great skill and patience to do this correctly.

In Japanese gardens, groupings of shrubs, often azaleas, are clipped into organic shapes that suggest mountains, waves, boulders, clouds or clumps of trees. This is different than European topiary, which is more formal or geometric. This is not obvious now, but you will see this develop over time.

The Cherry Tree Promenade features several different varieties and forms of Japanese flowering cherry trees, including weeping, upright and contorted forms. The promenade also includes large boulders and views of a tranquil waterfall. The intention is to help visitors leave cares and concerns behind before you enter the garden.

Lawn, which is so prevalent in American gardens, is used in only one area in our Japanese Garden—it is included in the gathering area at the north end of the Cherry Tree Promenade.

About 15-20 bonsai are prominently featured in the Bonsai Garden, displayed from April through November (weather permitting).

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