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).

Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan Exhibition Spotlight- Spring

Throughout the course of Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan, we’ll be featuring some of our favorite works of art from the exhibition and providing a more in-depth look at some of our favorite pieces.

This week we’re featuring three remarkable pieces from Phase Two of the collection, which will be on display March 28-June 4, and is devoted to themes of spring:

Kitchen model

This meticulous work is on loan from the Museum of Omihachiman City—Grand Rapids’ Sister City in the Shiga Prefecture. It is a perfect scale model of a traditional Japanese kitchen and its wide range of instruments and utensils. Originally, it would have been commissioned by a wealthy merchant family for young children. More than simply a toy, it would have been essential to their success in future life. Note the complete mastery of numerous materials in wood, metal and ceramic, which replicate everyday objects in minute detail.

Miniature kitchen model
Shōwa Period, 20th Century
Wood, material, stoneware
Collection of Omihachiman City
Courtesy of The Museum of Omihachiman City

Koto Ware

Koto Ware, a highly refined form of ceramics from Shiga Prefecture, flourished in 19th century. The kiln where this nest box was created opened in 1842 in the city of Hikone, and produced luxury items until 1862. The delicacy and decoration of Koto Ware was the antithesis to the irregular shape and earthy colors and textures of Shigaraki pottery.

This multi-tiered stackable box was meticulously made and decorated by hand. The square shape and flat bottoms of each level would have been difficult to create and could only have been produced by an artist of the highest skill. It originally functioned as a type of luxury lunch box perhaps given as a royal gift and used only for special guests.

The namesake decorative elements of the peacock and peony are found across the exterior. Such forms were undoubtedly influenced by the art of China. So too, the use of porcelain with blue underglaze also evidences an interest in Chinese art and pottery.

Koto Ware, Nest of boxes with peacock and peony
Edo Period, 19th Century
Porcelain with blue underglaze
The Museum of Shiga Prefecture, Biwako-Bunkakan

Dainnichi Nyorai

This figure represents the central deity of Esoteric Buddhism. Simply put, he represents the Supreme Buddha seated atop the iconic lotus flower. Traces of gold leaf can be found across the surface of the cast bronze figure suggesting the prominence of the sculpture. An extremely rare loan from the Binman-ji Temple, this sculpture is among the oldest objects on display in this exhibition. Located in the rural city of Taga Town, this temple was one of the most visited and prosperous temples of medieval Japan (13th-16th century).

The firmly seated position and contemplative demeanor are iconic for Buddhist statuary. Although the body and floral form are decidedly iconic, there is a strong vertical structure to this composition. One can easily follow a visual central core that stretches from the conical headdress through the torso of the figure down to the pedestal upon which the Buddha rests. Such a strong central core grants the illusion of monumentality to the sculpture.

Dainichi Nyorai

Kamakura Period, 13th Century
Cast bronze
Collection of the Preservation Meeting of Binman-ji Temple’s Historic Relics and Culture
Courtesy of the Museum of Taga Town

Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan Exhibition Spotlight – Sculpture

Throughout the course of Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan, we’ll be featuring some of our favorite works of art from the exhibition and providing a more in-depth look at some of these pieces.

This week, we’re featuring two pieces of sculpture from the collection:

Buddha at Birth

This rare sculpture from the 8th century describes the infant Buddha. According to tradition, the infant took seven steps from his mother, pointed to the heavens and declared he was venerable on both heaven and earth while under his feet lotus flowers bloomed. The sculpture describes a very young figure pointing to the heavens with his right hand and to the earth with his left hand; beneath his feet is a stylized representation of a lotus flower. Figures such as this were placed on display at festivals celebrating the Buddha’s birth on April 8. Then, it would have been surrounded by flowers and sweet tea poured over the figure. The latter possibly accounts for the surface colors seen today.  On loan from the Daiko-ji Temple, it is one of several Buddhist devotional figures and accessories which will be on display over the course of the exhibition.

Buddha at Birth
Nara Period, 8th Century
Cast bronze
Collection of Daiko-ji Temple
Courtesy of The Museum of Shiga Prefecture, Biwako-Bunkakan

Seated Senju Kannon

The ancient bronze shown above,Seated Senju Kannon, is on loan through the Kannon-ji Temple located on the shores of Lake Biwa in the center of the Shiga Prefecture. It represents the God of Mercy who, according to Buddhist beliefs, has the highest rank after the Buddha himself. The figure is described with multiple arms at his sides and multiple heads atop his head symbolizing a thousand armed and a thousand eyed deity capable of managing everything in the universe and able to save all situations in the world. A subject of great devotion, this deity also appears frequently in traditional paintings from the 16th through the 18th centuries. Careful observation of this bronze form reveals traces of gold leaf indicating the sculpture was at one time completely gilded. This is another of the several Buddhist devotional figures and accessories that will be on display over the course of the exhibition.

Seated Senju Kannon
Edo Period, 17th Century
Cast bronze
Collection of the Kannon-ji Temple
Courtesy of The Museum of Shiga Prefecture, Biwako-Bunkakan

Click HERE to learn more about our Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan exhibition.

Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan – Exhibition Spotlight

Throughout the course of Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan, we’ll be featuring some of our favorite works of art from the exhibition and providing a more in-depth look at some of our favorite pieces.

This week, we’re featuring three bowls from the collection:

Shigaraki Ware, Tea Bowl Asanikeni by Ueda Naokata

This tea bowl was made by Ueda Naokato who is a specialist in tea ceremony ceramics. A leading master of the famed Shigaraki pottery, he is the fifth generation of his family to work in this tradition and is revered as a Shiga Prefectural Intangible Asset or Treasure. The earthen colors, highly textured surfaces and slightly irregular form epitomize the Shigaraki tradition. This vessel was made on a hand-propelled wheel and in a wood-fired kiln. The fingerprints seen on the interior base of this bowl are intentional. Works by Naokato have also been commissioned for use in the teahouse in the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden. This particular vessel will be on display over the entirety of the exhibition.

Shigaraki Ware, Tea Bowl Asanikeni
Ueda Naokata (born 1927)
Shōwa Period, 1964
Courtesy of Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park

Shigaraki Ware, Lozenge-styled vase with natural firing effect by Takahashi Shunsai

This vessel was made by Takahashi Shunsai, a specialist in ceramic vases and jars. Part of a family of potters, he is celebrated as a Shiga Prefectural Intangible Asset or Treasure. Although he initially follows traditional shapes, he has experimented with forms, firing techniques and natural glazes as a means of bringing the history of Shigaraki pottery into the modern age. The carefully marked glaze decoration on this vessel has not been painted, but results from the chemical reaction of wood ash across the surface of the clay and the controlled movement of air in the firing process. This particular vessel will be on display over the course of the exhibition.

Shigaraki Ware, Lozenge-styled vase with natural firing effect
Takahashi Shunsai (1927–2011)
Heisei Period, 1997
Courtesy of Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park

Large crazed celadon bowl by Shimizu Uichi

Born into a family of potters in Kyoto, Shimizu Uichi was declared a Living National Treasure by the Japanese Government over the course of his extensive career.  He established a studio on the shores of Lake Biwa near the Shiga Prefectural Capital of Otsu in the 1970s. He is known for using clay from the site, which contains many fossils and shells, and for experimenting with iron glazing. The color, translucent quality and overall crackling effect epitomize his most celebrated works. Such crackling effects result from a carefully controlled cooling process for which the artist is most well known. This work of art will also be on display over the entire course of the exhibition.

Large crazed celadon bowl
Shimizu Uichi (1926–2004)
Shōwa Period, 1975
Stoneware with overglaze
Courtesy of Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park

Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan Exhibition Preview

Opening to the public on Friday, January 30, Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan is a unique partnership between Meijer Gardens and Shiga, Michigan’s sister state in Japan. The artistic and cultural traditions of Shiga Prefecture are among the most distinguished and profound in Japan.


This exhibition will display more than 75 historical works of Japanese art aging back to the 8th century. Shigaraki pottery, delicate scrolls, screens, kimono, and works on paper and wood will all be on display and will change every two months through August. Changing the works on display allows protection of the artifacts as well as a new experience for our visitors throughout the winter, spring and summer.

Most of these rare works of art have never been seen outside of Japan, and this collection will not be on display anywhere else in the world. Many of the works are regional and national treasures! This exhibition highlights masterworks from the collections of: Museum of Shiga Perfecture, Biwako, Bunkakan; Museum of Modern Art, Shiga; Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park; and Omihachiman City Museums.  Additional works will be on loan from Daiko-ji Temple, Binmanjii Shiseki Bunka Hoshokaii, Taga City Museum, Kannon-ji Temple, Hando Shrine, and Saimyo-ji Temple.

Building on the more than 40-year sister-state relationship between the Shiga Prefecture and the State of Michigan, Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan will reflect on and celebrate the cultural richness of Japan in anticipation of the opening of The Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden in June. All works shown have been selected by a joint committee of Shiga’s museum and state government officials along with experts from Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

Over the next few months, we will be sharing more in-depth information about the exhibition and the works of art that will be on display.

The “winter” portion of Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan will run from January 30—March 22. The exhibition will be temporarily closed from March 23-27 in order to change the artifacts that are on display. The spring display opens on March 28 and will run through June 4. We hope that you can join us for this wonderful and once-in-a-lifetime exhibition!

The Foundation of a Japanese Garden: Boulder Placement Ceremony

For centuries, designers of Japanese gardens have placed special emphasis on boulders for their permanency. The solid and unchanging structure of boulders form the skeleton and foundation, and their selection and placement gives a sense of maturity to a new garden.

Selection of these boulders and rocks is important to the aesthetic and careful consideration of the qualities of each boulder is required. Our Japanese Garden’s Designer, Hoichi Kurisu, recently visited a West Michigan rock quarry and selected the individual boulders based on qualities necessary for a Japanese garden: size, weathered appearance, interesting shapes and subdued coloring.

These boulders were used to commemorate our own foundational beginning of The Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden. Yesterday, we celebrated this permanency during a Boulder Placement Ceremony held for our members, donors and the public.

Boulder Ceremony in Grand Room.

Kicking off the Boulder Placement Ceremony, President and CEO David Hooker welcomed the crowd of more than 400 people and thanked all those who were there to celebrate the foundational beginning of the Japanese Garden. Hooker explained how more than 156 families, foundations and companies donated to the Japanese Garden campaign, helping Meijer Gardens meet and exceed the fundraising goal just six short months after announcing the new garden.

“The boulder placement is more than a ceremonial beginning of the Japanese Garden – it’s the foundation on which the garden will thrive for generations to come,” said Hooker. “We were given a great and significant gift that will be cherished and nurtured, not only by staff, but by the community and region.”

Consul General of Japan Kuninori Matsuda followed with remarks about promoting a mutual understanding of Japanese culture through the creation of this Japanese Garden.

“This garden has been received with much enthusiasm and I don’t have the slightest hesitation the Japanese Garden will become a ‘must-see’ once completed,” said Matsuda.

Following Matsuda was Japanese Garden Designer Hoichi Kurisu who spoke of his gratefulness to be a part of the project after meeting with Fred and Lena Meijer last year. A short film showcasing Kurisu and his team placing the first boulder of the Japanese Garden was shown (below) and Japanese poem titled, “Infinite Voice” was read by Kurisu.

“Good ground, good soil. Fred and Lena dropped the seed in the ground by the name of the Japanese Garden. That seed will grow from the good soil and we have to commit ourselves to nurture and share so the seed will grow,” said Kurisu.

Below is a gallery that includes images of the boulder placement with Hoichi Kurisu, presenters during the ceremony and behind-the-scenes of the construction site in its current state.

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The Japanese Garden is located in the northeast corner of the 132-acre property. Its design will convey the essence of the Japanese tradition—tranquility, simplicity and beauty —and include a variety of elements such as scenic bridges, waterfalls, a tea house, moss and bonsai gardens, among other features. The new garden will also feature works of contemporary sculpture by major international artists, such as Anish Kapoor and Zhang Huan, whose aesthetic forms will work in harmony with the space.

Nearly seven months ahead of schedule, view the garden’s progression during your next visit or look for photo updates on Facebook until the Japanese Garden’s completion in 2015.

Boulders and tree from Kurisu’s nursery place in the Japanese Garden.

Japanese Garden: Ahead of Schedule

Great news – The Richard and HelenDeVosJapaneseGarden is ahead of schedule!

“Due to the outpouring of generosity from donors and the community, we were able to reach and exceed our $22 million capital campaign goal in early June,” said President and CEO David Hooker.

Original plans called for construction to begin in January or February of 2013, but now groundbreaking will start months in advance.

Initial construction to the site will begin in the coming weeks, as we are eager to work on our latest endeavor. For safety reasons, the work site has been surrounded with fences and signs before construction starts.

The new garden, located in the northeast corner of our 132-acre property, will convey the essence of the Japanese tradition—tranquility, simplicity and beauty. The garden’s design elements will include scenic bridges, waterfalls, a tea house, and zen-style, moss and bonsai gardens, among other features.

The artist’s sketch of the Japanese Garden.

Garden Designer, Hoichi Kurisu, plans to move to Grand Rapids in August to oversee the design and construction of the new garden. A special boulder-setting ceremony is planned for this fall.

Keep checking for monthly updates about The Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden on this blog and our webpage until its completion in spring of 2015!