Japanese Style House Plants

The Japanese have always been fascinated by the way that the natural elements of wind and weather shape plants and landscape. For centuries they have reproduced these effects in miniature, using stone, wood and water to highlight the texture and shape of a plant.

Simplicity and restraint

Deliberately simple, Japanese arrangements use a few, carefully selected items that will create a united whole. For example, a plant of a specially interesting shape is carefully matched with a container to echo that colour and that shape — perhaps a wide and shallow tub for a spreading, miniature tree.

Restraint is very much part of Japanese style, so each item is positioned to be viewed independently, with any accessories serving only to highlight the shape, texture or colour of the main plant.

Neutral colour

Container colours are almost always deliberately kept neutral, the colours of the earth and sky: brown, stone colour, soft blue, olive green. Usually, neutral colours are used as a background too. But an alternative is to use mainly neutral colours, adding a small amount of a striking colour to provide a strong focus and stop the whole effect from being too bland. For instance a scheme of black and white could be shown off by the addition of a brilliant scarlet flower, bowl or fan.

Contrasting texturesJapanese Style House Plants

The Japanese are highly skilled at using one texture to show off another. This could be a small, shiny, white ceramic bowl containing just one flower used as an accessory with a gnarled Bonsai. Other popular materials used for their texture are smooth stones, rough, interestingly shaped rocks, sand, often combed to create swirling patterns, and both shiny and matt ceramics. The rough texture of tree bark is shown up by the smoothness of polished pebbles, or by a pottery container. In the same way matt and shiny materials, strong and neutral colours, are used so that each of these strongly opposing materials highlights the texture of the other.

Repeating patterns

Two or three plants of the same shape may be used together as a repeating theme, or an accessory may be chosen because its shape echoes the plant shape or because it repeats the texture of bark or the colour of leaves.


Objects should be balanced carefully against plants: symmetry is not essential to Japanese style. Have one strong, off-centre diagonal such as a Bonsai trunk, or place a few red flowers or ceramics strategically to draw the eye.

Elements of Japanese Style

Plants with strong and interesting shapes that look best displayed alone or with a second plant that repeats the shape. Bonsais arranged in sculptural miniature landscapes or displayed in a broad, low container.

  • Backgrounds that are neutral.
  • White walls, cane or paper blinds, white, light wood or black shiny tables.
  • Natural accessories: softly coloured and shiny pebbles, rough, interestingly shaped larger rocks or stones, driftwood, sand.
  • Manufactured accessories, still simple in shape: bowls and plates in white, black and neutrals, bright red shiny glazes, lacquered oriental objects or matt or stain-finish pottery.
  • Flowers are often added. Include a single bloom or just a few floating heads of Water Lilies, Chrysanthemums, Rhododendrons, or Azaleas.

Outdoor Bonsai

Choose interestingly shaped young trees and shrubs, then highlight their special characteristics by training. Some suitable plants are Flowering Cherry, Juniper, Maple, Pine, Wisteria, Pyracantha.

Indoor Bonsai

  • Indoor plants can be trained in the same way as outdoor varieties. Try Camellia, Gardenia, Umbrella Tree, Weeping Fig, Azalea.
  • Chrysanthemums are traditionally used in many Japanese displays.
  • Myrtle can be grown indoors in winter and put outside in summer.
  • Citrus trees look effective when kept small by being pot contained.
  • Umbrella Plant has a look of bamboo with its long, slim stems and feathery foliage.
  • European Fan Palm has a strong shape that needs to be shown off on its own for an oriental look.

On the patio

The simplicity of Japanese style particularly lends itself to tiny outdoor areas, such as balconies, patios and back yards. Aim for a spacious effect and an interesting view from indoors. Here are some of the materials you could include:

Water can be used with effect. Semi-circular stone or concrete containers in simple shapes are ideal. Fill them with water and add one plant — a miniature Water Lily or an Iris — for colour. Group two or three identical containers but place them at different heights.

Stones naturally polished to smoothness by sea or weather in soft greys, browns and off-white add essential textural interest.

Wood can be very effective. Choose driftwood, storm-shed branches, the twisted stems of ivy or gorse or slices of small tree trunks of varying depth to define separate areas. Use thinner slices as stepping stones for a pathway or as supports for pot plants.

Sand in shallow containers (trays, for example) can be combed to form decorative patterns or sculpted into simple, asymmetrical landscapes.

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