Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Robert Neff
previously published: The Korea Times
featured picture: Mrs Emberley and her garden in Seoul, circa 1900.

garden odors
An excellent book about Korean fauna is “Flowers and Folklore from Korea” by Lorence-Hedleston Crane. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the descriptions of Seoul were filled with complaints of streets packed with oxen, ponies and people all trying to avoid falling into the open sewers or stepping in the excrement of man and beast, and the fetid stench that seemed to hang in the smoke-filled air. While there may have been some truth to these descriptions, there were also very positive descriptions by more objective observers ― those who were willing to open their eyes (and nose) to the positive things:

“One might almost call [Korea] the Land of Lilies.

Were it not that other families of flowers, violets, eglantine, roses, white and red, lilacs and rhododendrons are equally prolific, while in the orchards, peach and pear blossoms fill the land with glory and beauty. In the endless procession of the seasons, there are lovely blossoms from snowfall to snowfall again. Hills and valleys become a riot of colour from the azaleas that strike the gamut of tints from snowy white to deepest orange. One botanist, in a single afternoon s ramble over the hills around Seoul, brought home a bouquet of forty-seven varieties of flowers; another near [Jemulpo ― modern Incheon], in one day, exceeded this number by a dozen.”

Joy in the garden fragrance.

While others complained of the “fetid smells” of Seoul and its sewers, the writer found joy in the fragrance of spring: “Not all the flowers are affluent of sweet odours, but enough of them carry aroma in their chalices to make the breezes sweeping from the mountain heights delicious to the senses. In springtime, especially, the winds often come perfume-laden to refresh and delight. In the autumn odour yields to colour and the hardier flowers. Among these, the aster and goldenrod drape the hills in scarlet, gold, purple and varied tints.”

garden odors
One of the great things about living in Seoul is the city government’s dedication to planting flower gardens throughout the city. Flowers bloom along the bike lanes in the spring of 2019. Robert Neff Collection

One of the great things about living in Seoul is the city government’s dedication to planting flower gardens throughout the city. Flowers bloom along the bike lanes in the spring of 2019. Robert Neff Collection

Lillias Underwood ― who arrived in Korea in the mid-1880s and, for a time, served as the Korean queen’s Western physician ― was not shy in her writing, describing her good and bad impressions of Korea. She wrote: “Korea is glorious … the country fairly revels in blossom beauty in May and June … [and] all the environs of Seoul are sweet with the exquisite fruit blossoms, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries and pears.” She went on to add, “The hills are all ablush with rhododendrons and a dear little eglantine with the daintiest perfume riots all along the roads and fences.” One of her favourite flowers was the “virginal white honeysuckle” that grew on the slopes of Namhansan in the spring.

garden odors
Part of the city wall around Seoul in the spring of 2020. Robert Neff Collection

To sell lilies of the valley.

Apparently, some young Korean entrepreneurs realized money could be made through the foreigners’ appreciation for wildflowers. In 1899, the Korean Repository (an English-language magazine published in Seoul) wrote:

“Lads with lilies of the valley for sale are visiting houses of foreigners. It has been suggested that as these beautiful flowers when transplanted rarely, if ever, grow foreigners [should] discourage these boys by not purchasing.”

Many ― if not most ― Western residents in Seoul cultivated their own gardens. Of course, vegetable and fruit gardens were essential as they provided the foreign community with most of their needs. In 1897, nearly 500 quarts (473 litres) of strawberries were harvested from the gardens in Jemulpo. General William McEntire Dye ― the American advisor to the Korean military ― had a vast orchard in Seoul in which he grew Bartlett pears, apples, cherries and other fruits.

Flower gardens were also essential as they were visually and fragrantly pleasing and adorned with celebrations such as weddings and christenings, and helped lift the hearts of the bereaved in the all-too-common funerals of the late 19th century.

Lillias described her garden as:

“It was lovely nearly all the year-round. First of all, in the early spring were masses of yellow forsythia, then violets, and some of the first fruit blossoms, then flowering almonds and white lilacs, wisterias, fluffy greenish-white snowballs, and two great bushes on either side of the front door of yellow roses that recalled grandmother’s garden in dear America. In June came the roses in the greatest hurry to be seen, and, well, after that nobody could think of anything else. There was a whole hedge of damask rose bushes; they were cut every day by [the] hundreds, every bowl, jar and vase in the house crammed with them, they were sent to all the neighbours, yet still, they kept blossoming on and on never tiring, and the family could never keep up with them.”

Of course, with such a cornucopia of blossoms, there were great swarms of bees. “Such a humming you could hardly hear yourself think.”

Nice odor in Korean small gardens.

The foreigners were not the only ones cultivating gardens. Peppered here and there in the correspondences home and magazine and newspaper articles are references to Koreans cultivating small gardens wherever they could find space. Sometimes these Korean gardeners ran afoul of narrow-minded bureaucrats as evidenced by this article that appeared in the local paper in 1897:

“An enterprising man named Tai Duk-yep of this city has constructed a pretty garden in his compound, displaying horticultural skill and the art of landscape gardening. He admits visitors to his garden and charges them a few cents admission fees, which, he thought, was proper and lawful business. But to his surprise, the Assistant Chief of the Police Department ordered him yesterday to stop the business on the ground that it is injurious to the pockets of the people.”

Garden odor demands money and work.

Cultivating gardens was not easy. It required a lot of work and money. Many of the flowers and bushes were purchased from the United States and Europe but this tended to be rather risky. Sometimes the seeds were lost or stolen en route ― John Sill (the American minister to Korea) had a box of seeds stolen, along with some cigars, while they were being transported from Jemulpo to Seoul. He offered a reward of ten dollars (a princely sum of money) but the cigar-smoking thief was never apprehended.

Sometimes, when the seeds, bulbs and seedlings arrived, they were rotten or dead ― a waste of time and money. A couple of Japanese horticulturists realized that money could be made if they provided seeds and plants quickly ― and with a guarantee ― from Seoul. The competition between these horticulturists was fierce and they duelled one another not with a sword but with the local English language newspaper, The Independent.

garden odors
A tsunami of blossoms along the bike lane in 2019. Robert Neff Collection

On December 15, 1896, The Independent, reported in its local items column:

“The Japanese horticulturist, Mr Takahashi is desirous of obtaining orders for flowers, fancy trees and construction of gardens from the foreigners in Seoul. He guarantees first-class work.” While it was not an advertisement per se, it did provoke his rival.

Four months later, K. Yamashita took out an ad in the paper in which he advertised his selection of “fancy trees, either flower or fruit trees” that would be delivered as soon as the order was received. He also offered a guarantee: “In case the trees should not thrive they will be replaced without further charge.” He also offered to construct fancy gardens and flower beds for a low price and noted for reference that he was the “constructor of gardens for the French Legation and Japanese Consulate of this city.”

Y. Takahashi retaliated.

Two weeks later, Y. Takahashi retaliated and not only advertised “various kinds of fancy trees, fruit trees and shrubs and flowers will be supplied upon receiving an order,” with moderate prices but also declared that he was an “expert agriculturist and horticulturist.”

A year later both upped the stakes when Yamashita advertised himself as being “the only expert florist and landscape gardener in Seoul.” He offered “25,000 fruit, flower and shade trees have been imported from Japan” and the “most complete collection of rare and beautiful trees in his gardens.”

Takahashi responded by citing his own impressive background in horticulture: “member of the Japanese Horticultural Society and associate of the Imperial Agricultural Society.” He went on to state: “I have a number of beautiful shade trees, fruit trees, shrubs and flowering plants in my garden for my customers. I will plant them for you and guarantee that they will give you perfect satisfaction.”

What became of this rivalry is unclear as the newspaper ceased to publish regularly after December 31, 1898. In all likelihood, they continued to battle with one another and all-new interlopers for a great many years ― the peacefulness of their livelihood interrupted only by their competitiveness.

My appreciation to Diane Nars for her invaluable assistance and the use of her images.


Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters. Robert D. Neff is a freelance writer and historical researcher specializing in Korean history during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Asia Society Korea’s Matthew Fennell caught up with him to discuss this new release. interview

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