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Ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures in China
Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine volume 19, Article number: 19 (2023)
In China, many ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures, including the Sakyamuni, Bodhisattva, and Arhat, were grown and worshiped because of their cultural and religious significance. However, the systematic collation and ethnobotanical information about these culturally important plants have yet to be fully understood.
Online information was collected from 93 e-commercial platforms for ornamental plants all over China. Field sampling was conducted in 16 ornamental markets and 163 Buddhist temples using key informant interviews and participatory observation with traders, tourists, and local disciples. The types, distributions, and associated characteristics of the screened plants were summarized and the evolving characteristics of these ornamental plants were analyzed.
A total of 60 ornamental plants, including six varieties and one subspecies, were screened, of which 43 species were associated with Sakyamuni, 13 with Bodhisattva, and four with Arhat. Among the 60 species, three were regarded as the Asoka tree related to Buddha's birth, ten as the Bodhi tree connected to Buddha's enlightenment, three as the Sal tree associated with Buddha's nirvana, nine were related to Buddha’s head, belly, or hand, and 18 were connected with Buddha as lotus throne, bamboo monastery, or Bodhi beads. The evolving characteristics of these ornamental plants primarily constituted the substitution of the original plants by similar native plant species, followed by the introduced species with comparable morphology to the Buddhist figures.
People grow ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures to reflect their love and praise for plants and Buddha. The association between the ornamental plants and Buddhist figures will aid the inheritance of Buddhist culture and promote ornamental plants in the commercial market. Thus, the ethnobotany of ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures can serve as a basis for future investigation of modern Buddhist culture.
Various plant species have been worshiped and praised worldwide for their cultural significance . Sakyamuni was born in Kapilavatsu, Nepal, in about 565 B.C., and later became Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion . Sakyamuni's life is believed to be closely associated with three different types of trees. He was born under the Asoka tree (Saraca asoca (Roxb.) W.J.de Wilde), enlightened under the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa L.), and gained nirvana under the Sal tree (Shorea robusta Gaertn.) [2, 3]. Furthermore, Buddha loved the flower of Nymphaea tetragona and often sat on a lotus throne while lecturing . Buddha’s bamboo monastery in the Patna region of Bihar, India, was the first building dedicated to Buddhists [2, 3].
Along with the spread of Buddhism from its origin, the elements of Buddhism, such as worshiping trees, Asoka, Bodhi, and Sal trees, have been planted around Buddha temples to commemorate Buddha [2, 3]. These trees constituted an important component of the temple landscapes. Later, other ornamental plants, including bamboo and lotus-like flowers, were also grown by Buddhist disciples to commemorate well-known Buddhist figures, such as Sakyamuni Buddha, Buddhist Bodhisattva, and Arhat (the self-conscious figure who is lower than Buddha and Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism) [4, 5]. In China, more and more ornamental plants were gradually planted and linked to Buddhist figures. These plants were commemorated and prayed for blessings in daily life and have become the carrier of Buddhist culture .
Buddhism spread northward from its origin, northern India, to China during the Han Dynasty (about 67 A.D.). Then, it moved to Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan . Buddhism practiced in East Asia (north of India) is often known as Northern or Mahayana Buddhism . As Buddhism expanded north, different plant species gradually replaced the associated ornamental plants from the south due to different climatic conditions and aesthetic value . Despite the widespread adoption of various ornamental plants to commemorate Buddhist figures, the systematic collation and diversity of these plants have yet to be fully understood. This paper summarized the ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures in China to understand their evolving characteristics.
Online information was collected from 93 e-commercial platforms for ornamental plants used in horticulture and landscaping all over China. Field sampling was conducted in 16 ornamental markets and 163 Buddhist temples from September 2021 to March 2023, using key informant interviews and participatory observation with traders, tourists, and disciples in local temples. Dounan flower market (29°39′N, 91°7′E, Fig. 1) in Kunming, Yunnan, received particular attention during the surveys because the market is one of the biggest flower markets (fresh cut flowers and potted flowers) in Buddhist regions. Other markets (Fig. 1), namely the Lucheng flower market in Sanya (Hainan), Lingnan in Guangzhou (Guangdong), and Yuanhu in Nanning (Guangxi) from South (S) China, were considered to collect data. In addition, data were collected from the Dandong flower market in Wuhan (Hubei), Zhengdong in Zhengzhou (Henan), and Hongxing in Changsha (Hunan) from Central (C) China; Houguan flower market in Fuzhou (Fujian), Xianlin in Nanjing (Jiangsu), and Kutao in Qingdao (Shandong) from East (E) China; and Huayang flower market in Chengdu (Sichuan) and Wanghai in Chongqing from Southwest (SW) China. Laitai flower market in Beijing from North (N) China; Ha’erbin flower market in Ha’erbin (Heilongjiang) from Northeast (NE) China and Boya flower market in Xining (Qinghai) and Mingzhu in Wulumuqi (Xinjiang) from Northwest (NW) China, were also considered for data collection.
All the ornamental plants were photographed and identified to species using standard literature according to morphological characters and geographical origins . The types (trees, shrubs, herbs, and vines), associated characteristics (which figures, and how to associated), and multiple uses (ornamental, medicinal, edible, and economical) of the screened plants were summarized. The evolving characteristics of ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures were also analyzed.
A detailed inventory of the substitutes for the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa, Fig. 1A) in temples was carried out to calculate an occurrence frequency (OF). For example, if N temples sold Bodhi tree type “A” (N ≥ 1), then the occurrence frequency of “A” is OF(A) = N/126 × 100%.
Results and discussion
A total of 60 ornamental plant species (including six varieties and one subspecies) belonging to 37 families and 48 genera associated with Buddhist figures were identified from China (Table 1). Among the 60 plants, 25 were tree species (41.67%, 10 evergreen and 15 deciduous), 13 shrubs (21.67%, nine evergreen and four deciduous), 13 herbs (21.67%), and nine vines (15.00%). Thirty nine species (65.00%) were native to China, whereas 21 (35.00%) were introduced from other countries. Among the identified species, 43 species (71.67%) were associated with Shakyamuni Buddha, 13 (21.67%) with Bodhisattva, and four (6.67%) with Arhat. It can be concluded that Shakyamuni Buddha, who can guide human moral behavior and deter various evils , is the most popular Buddhist figure in China.
Ornamental plants associated with Buddha
Ornamental plants associated with Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and nirvana
Buddha was believed to be born under a Saraca asoca tree, regarded as the original Asoka tree  with drooping tender leaves that look like Buddhist kasaya. Asoka and its expanded species S. dives, originated from tropical Asia and grew in S China, but cannot perform well in C and N China because of different climatic conditions. In these regions, the local species Sapindus saponaria has been planted as an alternative to the original Asoka tree. For instance, a 250-year-old S. saponaria tree was cultivated in the Guanyin Temple, Xuchang (Henan Province). The Chinese name for Sapindus, “Wu huan zi”, means have children, which is equivalent to birth, like the Asoka tree. Like the Asoka tree, S. saponaria has pinnately compound leaves with similar leaflets. Additionally, the seeds of S. saponaria are regarded as Bodhi beads “Gui jian chou” .
The original Bodhi tree Ficus religiosa, under which the Buddha is believed to have meditated and attained enlightenment, has heart-shaped leaves with long drip tips (Fig. 2A), symbolizing magnanimity, enlightenment, and wisdom . While the species can be planted in southern tropical and subtropical regions to commemorate Buddha and his enlightenment, it cannot grow well in temperate regions  and is substituted by climatically suitable local tree species with heart-shaped (or inverted heart-shaped) leaves (Table 1). For instance, F. religiosa was substituted by Syringa sp. (Fig. 2B) in N China, by Celtis bungeana (gold-yellow leaves in autumn, Fig. 2G) in N and E China, by Tilia sp. (Fig. 2E) and Catalpa bungei (Fig. 2F) in N, E, and C China, by Ficus virens (Fig. 2D) in SW China, and by Ginkgo biloba (golden leaves in autumn, Fig. 2C) in C, E, N, NW, and SW of China. These substitute species have been planted as ornamental trees in temples, urban green spaces, courtyards, and indoors as bonsai in China [10,11,12,13].
The most common alternative species used to replace the Bodhi tree was Ginkgo biloba (Fig. 2, OF = 74.23%), the Chinese Bodhi tree . This substitution of the species dates back to at least 1400 years ago when a ginkgo tree was planted by Shimin Li, the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, in Guanyin Temple, Xi'an, China. Similarly, in NW China, the substitute species S. reticulata for the Bodhi tree traced back to 1379 when the Taer Temple was built around a S. reticulata tree at Xining, Qinghai Province, China.
It is believed that Buddha attained nirvana under a Shorea robusta tree, which is native to the tropical rainforests of Asia  and cannot be grown in temperate areas. In the temperate regions, master Xuanzang brought Aesculus chinensis to Tongchuan City 1300 years ago to substitute S. robusta because Sakyamuni gathered his disciples for the first time under the A. chinensis tree . Subsequently, the species was cultivated in Buddhist temples in N, E, and C China. For example, the Great Ci'en Temple in Xi’an, the Wofo Temple in Beijing, and the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, China, harbored more than 1000 years old A. chinensis trees commemorating Buddha. In S China, the Couroupita guianensis replaced the original Sal tree. Its flowers and fruits develop together all year round , implying reincarnation after death.
Ornamental plants associated with Buddha’s body
During the spread of Buddhism, nine ornamental plants were adopted to commemorate Buddha's body. For instance, the adoption of Annona squamosal (Fig. 3A) was linked to its fruit resembling Buddha’s head. Similarly, the succulent stem of Larryleachia cactiformis (Fig. 3B) and the swollen stem of Phyllostachys edulis “Heterocycla” (Fig. 3H) resembled the spiral hair of Buddha’s head and face, respectively, and were adopted to commemorate Buddha’s body. Some other species adopted to commemorate Buddha included Bambusa ventricosa (Fig. 3D), Jatropha podagrica (Fig. 3E), and Brachychiton rupestris, as their swollen stems resemble Buddha’s belly. Moreover, the fruit of Sechium edule (Fig. 3C) and Citrus medica “Fingered” (Fig. 3F) fruits looked similar to Buddha’s closed and open hands, respectively, and were adopted during the expansion of Buddhism to commemorate Buddha. In addition, the leaves of Sedum lineare (Fig. 3G) resemble Buddha’s fingernails, and the plant was adopted to worship Buddha. Besides adopting to celebrate Buddha’s body, these plant species were widely used as potted ornamentals and planted across the urban landscape and agricultural parks.
Ornamental plants associated with Buddha as lotus throne, bamboo monastery, and Bodhi beads
Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus throne while lecturing. The original lotus that Sakyamuni sat was the Nymphaea tetragona (Fig. 4A), which has rosette flowers and heart-shaped leaves, representing the symbol of love. Survey results showed 13 plants with lotus-like flowers or leaves were adopted to honor Buddha. For instance, Nelumbo nucifera, Passiflora caerulea, P. coccinea (Fig. 4B), and Trollius chinensis (Fig. 4C) replaced N. tetragona in N China. Curcuma alismatifolia (Fig. 4D) was substituted in S China and Protea cynaroides (Fig. 4E), Lirianthe delavayi (Fig. 4F), Camellia reticulata (Fig. 4G), Musella lasiocarpa (Fig. 4H), and Manglietia insignis (Fig. 4I) in SW China. The remaining Tropaeolum majus (Fig. 4J), Clematis florida, and succulent Echeveria secunda were adopted as a substitute for N. tetragona and to commemorate Buddha. Especially, the flowers of L. delavayi (Fig. 4F) and M. lasiocarpa (Fig. 4H) have a standing upright part in the middle, demonstrating Sakyamuni sitting on a lotus seat.
It has been suggested that Buddha’s bamboo monastery was the first Buddhist building, which later became a Buddhist temple. Although the original species used in the first bamboo monastery were unclear, some excellent bamboo plants were introduced around Buddhist temples named after bamboo plants. For example, Jin Zhu Temple in Chongqing was named after the bamboo Phyllostachys sulphurea (locally named “Jin zhu”, which means golden bamboo) with golden stalks. The Fang Zhu Temple in Lushan (Jiangxi Province) was named after the Chimonobambusa quadrangularis, with square stalks, called “Fang zhu” in Chinese, which means square bamboo. The Qiong Zhu Temple in Kunming was named after C. tumidissinoda with swollen nodes and is locally called “Qiong zhu”. Additionally, the Senecio rowleyanus was associated with Buddha because its leaves are comparable to Bodhi beads. Nevertheless, these ornamental plants are widely planted in parks, courtyards, and Buddhist temples, as well as indoors, to pray for blessings [3, 18,19,20,21,22,23].
Ornamental plants associated with Bodhisattva
Thirteen ornamental plants were associated with Bodhisattva, including ten species with Guanyin, one with Maitreya with a swollen trunk, one with Manjushri, and one with Sangharama having a homophonic name.
It is believed that the compassionate Bodhisattva Guanyin (known as the Bestower of Children in China) can save and liberate the victims by using the plant branches dip water in her holy bottle and then sprinkle drops of holy water to the human world . The holy branches representing the compassion and softness in Guanyin’s bottle were generally the branches of Salix babylonica (Fig. 5C), S. matsudana, Tamarix chinensis (Fig. 5D), and the leaves of Reineckea carnea (Fig. 5E). The introduced species Alocasia macrorrhizos (Fig. 5F) was associated with Guanyin because its flowers look similar to Bodhisattva Guanyin. It was also believed that Guanyin preaches in the bamboo forest dominated by Phyllostachys nigra (Fig. 5H). The Zizhu temple in Kaohsiung (Taiwan Province, China) was named after P. nigra (Chinese name “Zi zhu”, which means purple bamboo). Additionally, the Bambusa multiplex var. riviereorum (Fig. 5A), Rhapis excelsa (Fig. 5B), and Dracaena sanderiana (Fig. 5G) were regarded as “Guan yin zhu”, which means Guanyin’s bamboo. The plant species associated with Guanyin have been planted around most Chinese Buddhist temples, as well as in parks, courtyards, and indoors [25, 26]. Particularly, the leaves from these plants are cut and used to decorate indoors [25, 26].
Ornamental plants associated with Arhat
The Buddhist Arhat, pronounced “Luo han” in Chinese, means everything will succeed. The plants in the genus Podocarpus are called “Luo han song” in Chinese to honor Arhat because their seeds and seed stalks are morphologically similar to Arhat. Especially, P. macrophyllus and P. forrestii have been widely planted in Buddhist temples, urban green spaces, and courtyards and are also potted indoors to pray for wealth and honor . For instance, two ancient P. macrophyllus trees were planted at the Lushan Temple in Changsha City (Hunan Province) when built about 1750 years ago.
Evolving characters of the ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures
Buddhist figures are popular and most admired in the daily life of Chinese people. Most of the ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures were planted to admire both plants and Buddhist figures, and to pray for blessings, success, health, and wealth. Some important horticultural plants, such as Annona squamosal and Sechium edule, were associated with Buddhist figures mainly for promoting their commercial market.
Substitution of original plant species associated with Buddhist figures by native species with similar morphological characteristics is considered the main pattern of change for the original plants. For example, the heart-shaped leaves are considered the most prominent morphological feature of the original Bodhi tree, Ficus religiosa, and all nine local substitute species used to commemorate Buddha have heart-shaped leaves. Apart from the shape cues, the color yellow is also an important cue for the adaptation plants, of which 12 species have golden leaves, five species have yellow flowers, and three species bear yellow fruits. Additionally, plants with significant fragrance may help to be selected as the Buddhist figure associated species, such as Curcuma alismatifolia. Another adaptation is introducing non-native species and naming them based on comparable morphological characteristics to Buddhist figures. For example, Jatropha podagrica with swollen stem was introduced from Central America and named “Buddha’s belly tree”. As for the evolving time, the information on the ancient heritage trees in Buddhist temples provides the approximate ages of the beginning of their succession .
Multiple use of ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures
Among the ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures, 33 (55.00%) were medicinal. Ginkgo biloba is the most commonly used medicinal plant, and the extract from its leaves is used to treat coronary heart disease, angina pectoris, and hyperlipidemia . The Siraitia grosvenorii with Arhat-like roots has significant therapeutic effects on diseases like bronchitis and hypertension . Some plant species were adopted for economic values. For instance, S. grosvenorii has been considered an important economic plant in Guangxi Province for many years because the extract of the species, mogroside, is 300 times sweeter than sucrose and can be used to make beverages . Fifteen out of 60 species (23.33%), including Annona squamosal, Sechium edule, Passiflora caerulea, Nelumbo nucifera, Musella lasiocarpa, Musa basjoo, and bamboo species, have been planted for fruits and vegetables [19, 31]. Some species (Syringa spp. and Tilia spp.) have been planted and used as sources of perfume and nectar [11, 13]. Additionally, bamboo has been used to make papers, walking sticks, and artwork materials . Utility aspects may influence the choices for certain plant species to be placed in Buddhist temples. For example, the species Camellia reticulata were cultivated in the many temples in central Yunnan 400 years ago due to its oil from seeds can be used as Buddhist lamp oil .
In China, people grow ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures to reflect their affection for both plants and Buddha, which aid in the inheritance of Buddhist culture and promote ornamental plants for commercial purposes. The current and successive Buddhist figure associated ornamental plants will play an important role in home gardening and landscape greening. The present study can serve as a basis for future investigation of modern Buddhist culture. It can also provide a reference for the construction of specialized ethnic botanical garden and theme park.
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We thank all the survey practitioners who generously shared their experiences and knowledge. Undergraduate and postgraduate students majoring in Landscape Architecture at Kunming University of Science and Technology participated in the field work and discussion. We also appreciated Prof. Danwei Chen and Ying Yang for taking photos.
This study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Numbers 32060691, 32060093, and 32260093).
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Xu, X., Yan, C., Ma, Z. et al. Ornamental plants associated with Buddhist figures in China. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 19, 19 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13002-023-00595-3
- Sakyamuni Buddha
- Asoka tree
- Bodhi tree
- Sal tree
- Substitute species