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Japanese xylarium bearing the seal of Chikusai Kato

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


11 Meiji (1878).
Wood, tempera and paper panels depicting botanical specimens: 'Chamoerops excelsa, Trachycarpus fortunei Chusan palm', 'Diospyros kaki, Japanese persimmon' and 'Pyrus communis, Pyrus pyrifolia Asian pear'

Part of a series of 26, these Japanese panels are scientific specimens, made from the wood and framed in the bark of the trees represented. But at the same time, they are also examples of botanical art, featuring painted illustrations of the leaves, flowers and fruits. Both the visual composition and the use of Latin names in the paper labels suggest the influence of Western botanical illustrations at a time when Japan was opening up to foreign influences. Yet the decorative style remains exquisitely oriental, particularly in the shading and rendering of details. These plants were, and still are, commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, and are endowed with special cultural associations.

Trachycarpus fortunei (Chusan palm, named after the Chinese island of Chusa) is considered in Chinese medicine to be a mild essential herb with haemostatic and astringent properties.

Diospyros kaki (Diospyros meaning ‘divine fruit’, ka ‘soul’ and ki ‘energy’) is traditionally used in Chinese medicine to treat hiccups. Its symbolic associations with life and death also mean that this fruit is used in offerings for the souls of ancestors, stillborn children and the unknown dead in Shinto shrines.

Pyrus pyrifolia (Asian pear) is native to China and common in Japan. It has large fruits, which are traditionally offered as gifts.

There are many oriental artefacts in Wellcome Collection, particularly relating to Chinese medical traditions. Go to the Medicine Man gallery and see if you can find a feng shui geometric compass, a remarkable example of an acupuncture figure, pages from Wu-Chen’s 16th-century Chinese medical text The Golden Mirror of Medicine and a Tibetan chart for bloodletting.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 

39985 YY, 40003 YY, 39992 YY

This will be on display at Wellcome Collection between 19 April - 29 May 2011

See this object in its context at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (on display 20 January - 6 March 2011)
See this object in its context at the Science Museum (on display 8 March - 17 April 2011)
See this object in its context at the Horniman Museum (on display 1 June - 10 July 2011)
See this object in its context at the Natural History Museum (on display 12 July - 21 August 2011)

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