It is May, and the time for my spring visit to the Japanese garden in Clingendael, the old country estate of the van Brienen family. Created by Marguerite van Brienen (aka Lady Daisy), the last real owner of the estate, the garden is now over a century old, and one of the very few original Japonnaiserie gardens in Europe. It is fragile, and open only for a few weeks a year.

On an annual pilgrimage, I know what to expect. Yet, as I step through the wooden gates, I am not fully prepared for the sight of a flaming azalea bush, heavy with its magenta flowers, juxtaposed with an ancient, sombre Japanese lantern. Rough ancient stone against new delicate green and exuberant but short-lived flowers. In this image, the essence of the garden.

Many visitors come now for the azaleas – the garden contains some stunning specimen of azalea amoena, and they are spectacular indeed.

Entering the inner gates into the “garden proper”, I am immediately drawn to the twisted trunks on the left of the path. The phantasmagorical shapes from my autumn walk have fascinated me for half a year. They are rhododendrons lutea, their leaves held at the very end of the branches, the twisted trunks unobscured even now. The yellow and apricot-coloured flowers are carried high, too, like wreathes of maidens dancing around a May pole.

Approaching the tea house, I linger to admire the acers framing the view over the pond. Deeply serrated leaves of a weeping acer are impossibly soft, delicate filigree. Tiny bright pink seed pots remind me that it’s a maple. These are “samaras”; in my childhood, we called them “little noses”. Some acers’ colours are so autumnal, it’s disorientating. 

I hurry on to the bridge as I know I am in for a treat – an old wisteria sinensis grows there, flowering now. A special feature of the garden, it is not climbing a wall or set against a trellis; instead, it is free-flowing, spilling over above the water. The pale purple blossoms, set against the red lacquered bridge railings, look at their reflection in the stillness of the pond. The vine’s main stem is very old, gnarled and craggy, the inner workings exposed. The wisteria must have been planted by Lady Daisy herself. An opera, Madame Butterfly, was staged here by the teahouse, twice in Lady Daisy’s time, in 1918 and 1921; there is an old photograph of one of the performances, but much as I try to zoom in, I cannot establish if the vine is already there. It could have been planted later, though – Lady Daisy lived on the estate until 1939.

It is time to admit that as much as for the azaleas, acers and wisteria, I am here for the moss. A spectacular emerald carpet, it stretches and ripples, draping the expanse of the garden. Today, filtered sunrays make a quilt out of light and shadow, a play on the endless gradations of green. In places, the moss takes on a dynamic quality, undulating, spilling over stones and lanterns, swelling up tree trunks in soft green waves.

Marguerite van Brienen didn’t conceive of the garden in this way. On old photographs, it is light, airy, the ground covered with grass and daisies. The character has changed over time, the garden acquiring a reticent, almost mysterious quality. There are over 40 types of mosses growing here now.

Blades of grass and various seedlings poke up through the moss. Here they don’t pick them out one by one like they do in Kyoto. There are, however, bamboo supports for earth-bound branches of old pines, in a very Japanese spirit. Picked out by sunlight, surrounded by the spring exuberance, they look especially poignant.

I kneel to admire small plants on the moss carpet: the heart-shaped leaves of maianthemum bifolium, false lily-of-the-valley; Solomon’s seal (polygonatum), a lovely woodland perennial; young hostas, very upright, leaves whole, unblighted. Japanese primroses provide a bold statement of colour against the subdued background.

Ferns are unfurling their papery fronds. Facing each other, leaning slightly away, they form groups of dancing Graces, poised above the water.

The lanterns, so conspicuous on my October visit, are hiding among flowering bushes this time.

I notice an interesting plant on my way back to the gates, along the little canal on the left. It is another lantern, a nature-made one this time – lysichitum americanum. One of its common names is a swamp lantern. The other is skunk cabbage but I don’t dwell on that.

A stone feature catches my eye. The carving shows a lonely figure, simply clad, with a bald head and closed eyes, holding a long stem with an unopened flower. It gives me an uneasy feeling and suddenly I know what it is – a votive tablet, a commemoration. Later, I read that the carved figure must be that of Jizo, a patron saint of children. The two inscriptions carved in the stone are “little girl” and a date, January 7, 1727. I don’t know this yet as I leave, but my mood shifts and my thoughts turn to autumn.

5 thoughts on “Clingendael revisited: the Japanese garden in spring

  1. Beautiful post! I especially love the curly Rhododendron and all the mosses. I too, am fascinated by mosses when hiking in a woods, and allow it to grow freely anywhere it chooses in my yard. Looks like a lovely and serene place to visit.

    1. Thank you, Cindy! It is a lovely place indeed, although less serene than one would hope, so many visitors, I had to get there really early! Yes, moss is amazing. I recently finished The Signature of All Things and will start on Gathering Moss – very different boils but both born out of the authors’ fascination with moss. And yes, I have given up on my lawn now and am letting it be taken over!

  2. Stunning place – and thank you for allowing us to admire the moss in many different ways, from near and far. I too love moss. I couldn’t understand why people here were trying so hard to get rid of it. It is such a delicate, exquisite thing, so tactile, just perfect.

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