9 Traditional Japanese Plants

Create a Peaceful Paradise

Camellia Shrub

Nobuo Iwata / Getty Images

The mountainous topography of Japan means that a wide variety of plants thrive there, with some plants thriving in hot humid summers, while others require dry conditions and heavy snowfall with a period of dormancy. The following nine plants are Japanese icons, and anyone planting a zen garden or simply expressing love for Japanese culture should strive to include at least one of these plants in the garden. 

Warning

  • Both hydrangeas and azaleas are toxic to children and pets.
  • 01 of 09

    Azalea (Rhododendron)

    Japanese Azalea Garden

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    Japanese gardeners have been growing azaleas for centuries, prizing them for their trumpet-shaped spring flowers in shades of pink, yellow, salmon, red, violet, and white. Modern hybridizers have developed a reblooming azalea, so you do not have to wait for another spring to enjoy the floral feast of this perennial shrub. Give your azalea shrub a site in partial shade, and amend the soil with organic materials like compost or leaf mold to increase acidity. Azaleas like regular moisture, but they will rot in wet winter soils. 

    • USDA growing zones: 3 to 8 depending on the variety
    • Color varieties: Red, pink, yellow, and white depending on the variety
    • Sun exposure: Full to partial
    • Soil needs: Well-drained, rich, acidic soil
  • 02 of 09

    Bamboo (Fargesia and Phyllostachys)

    Japanese Bamboo

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    Bamboo has insinuated itself into many parts of Japanese culture. Timber bamboo grows throughout Japan, and when harvested, it can be used for everything from homes and fences to chopsticks and fans. When choosing one of these members of the grass family for the garden, select a clumping type rather than one that spreads by runners. The running type is invasive and may even be prohibited in your region. A medium grower like dragon bamboo (Fargesia dracocephala) is hardy to zone 5 and grows about 7 feet tall, which is just right for a focal point in a zen garden. Bamboo plants appreciate some shade and regular moisture. 

    • USDA growing zones: 1 to 5
    • Sun exposure: Full to partial
    • Soil needs: Aerated, light, and rich
  • 03 of 09

    Camellia (Camellia Japonica)

    Camellia Shrub, Camellia japonica

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    Planting a Camellia japonica in the garden can be the beginning of a life-long love story, as these slow growers can live for hundreds of years. Large, lushly petaled blooms and glossy foliage brightens up the landscape in otherwise drab winter months, provided you live in zone 6 or a warmer zone.

    • USDA growing zones: 7 to 9 depending on the variety
    • Color varieties: White, pink, or red depending on the variety
    • Sun exposure: Light or dappled shade
    • Soil needs: Well-drained, rich, loamy soil
  • 04 of 09

    Cherry (Cornus Mas)

    Weeping Cherry Tree Zen Garden

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    Plant an ornamental cherry tree, and it will reward you with four seasons of beauty for many seasons to come. Pink or white spring blooms typically have an almond scent and attract eager bees just emerging from hibernation. Bright green leaves soon follow, and provide an attractive anchor in the border, especially on weeping specimens. Fall and winter highlight handsome bark if you plant the paperbark cherry, which features reddish bark with a striated texture. 

    • USDA growing zones: 7 to 9 depending on the variety
    • Color varieties: Yellow
    • Sun exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil needs: Well-drained soil of any type
    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    Hosta

    Hosta Garden

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    A shady glen full of hostas is well-suited to the Japanese garden aesthetic. The hosta is a naturalized plant found throughout Japan, and these native types are valued more than the hybrids North American gardeners grow. When you take into account size, leaf color and shape, and flower appearance, you can have a very diverse shade garden comprised entirely of hostas. The key to success in growing hostas that increase in size every year is irrigation. Water is like fertilizer to a hosta. 

    • USDA growing zones: 3 to 9
    • Color varieties: Deep purple to white
    • Sun exposure: Shade
    • Soil needs: Well-drained amended soil
  • 06 of 09

    Hydrangea (Hydrangea)

    Mophead Hydrangea in Acid Soil

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    Hydrangeas are a popular ornamental plant in Japan, especially the macrophylla types that color shift between pink and blue depending on soil acidity. Hydrangeas are at their most lush state in climates with mild summers and ample rainfall. If your area has hot summers and dry spells, try the paniculata varieties, which are more forgiving of harsh weather than the big leaf types.

    • USDA growing zones: 5 to 9
    • Color varieties: Blue, pink, and white depending on soil
    • Sun exposure: Partial shade
    • Soil needs: Well-drained amended soil
  • 07 of 09

    Iris (Iris)

    Japanese Iris in Nagai Ayame Park

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    Do you have an area of the garden that never seems to dry out? Take advantage of a soggy area with a planting of Japanese irises, which love to stay moist year around. The Iris ensata is always hungry for both water and fertilizer, and it will reward you with flower stalks up to 5 feet tall. Planting Japanese irises near a water feature like a pond or stream will satisfy the growing needs of these plants, leaving you with nothing more to do than dividing old clumps every three years.

    • USDA growing zones: 3 to 9
    • Color varieties: Blue, purple, white, yellow, pink, orange, brown, red, black depending on the variety
    • Sun exposure: Full sun
    • Soil needs: Well-drained amended soil
  • 08 of 09

    Lotus (N. Nucifera, N. Lutea, and Hybrids)

    Lotus Blossom in a Japanese Garden in Kyoto

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    If you are lucky enough to have space and resources to create a water garden, the lotus is a must-have plant for Japanese gardens. A mature lotus specimen is something to behold and some varieties sport leaves that are 3 feet in diameter. However, home gardeners can grow dwarf varieties of this perennial like 'Baby Doll' or 'Crystal Beauty' in smaller ponds or barrels, as long as the roots do not freeze. Large flowers appear over two weeks in late summer.

    • USDA growing zones: 4 to 12 depending on the variety
    • Color varieties: Blue, purple, white, pink, red depending on the variety
    • Sun exposure: Full sun
    • Soil needs: Soil with low organic content, either sandy or clay
    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    Wisteria (Wisteria Sinensis)

    Japanese Wisteria Growing on Gazebo

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    When caring for a wisteria vine, you must not become a victim of your own success. A mature wisteria vine can pass the tipping point, where it feels like the plant could take over the earth. After flowering, prune the wisteria's floribunda close to its support structure. This keep growth in check and keeps the blooms easy to see. You may not even need support, as you can train the Japanese wisteria as a tree, limiting growth to a few limbs with biannual pruning.

    • USDA growing zones: 5 to 8
    • Color varieties: Bluish-purple, lavender, or mauve
    • Sun exposure: Full to partial sun
    • Soil needs:  Well-drained amended soil