In Chinese art symbolism, the three friends are pine, plum, and bamboo, often depicted in Chinese porcelain, paintings, and garden poetry. Years ago, I happened on this motif and it opened up an entire world of plant symbolism to me. Plant groupings, whether in pictures, vases, or in the ground, can convey specific concepts, but only to those schooled in the mysteries of such symbolic groupings. In this particular case, since these three abide in harsh winters, they present an instant metaphor for strength and endurance in the face of age and adversity.
The concept of planting gardens like secret decoder rings made me feel sophisticated and wise. I decided to replicate the three friends at the top of an embankment bordering the back of my yard. Sadly, being initiated in the esoteric Chinese symbolic meaning of these plants didn’t make me an accomplished garden designer. Here is my arrangement in 2004, with the dignified three friends being upstaged by Jesse's pink plastic flamingo in the foreground.
I started with a pine tree, knowing it would be the slowest to grow. I transplanted a tiny seedling from a 2-inch pot – a free gift of the local family Christmas Tree Farm to all customers buying full-sized Christmas trees. Because I didn’t transplant it very well, over the years, it has leaned further downhill to the point where it now grows almost horizontally. This may be just as well, because the embankment sits beneath some primary transmission lines for the local electric company, and they periodically send crews to chop the heads off any trees that threaten to trespass on their wires’ right-of-way. When you pause to consider it however, this is the perfect environment for a pine tree that is supposed to symbolize endurance in the face of adversity. By growing horizontally, the pine tree has escaped the fate of its neighbors who routinely have their heads chopped off in the electric company’s annual pogrom.
I planted a purple-leaved ornamental plum adjacent to the pine, and some black bamboo next to the plum. The plum is pretty ugly, because even if I knew how to prune it sensibly to obtain the beautiful open shapes in Chinese calligraphy, I couldn’t reach it because it perches inaccessibly on the steep embankment.
The bamboo, true to it’s nature, is vigorous. Scholarly students of subtle symbolism say the hollow stalk of the bamboo signifies open-minded tolerance. In my yard, a more apt metaphor would be rampant and uncontrolled imperialism attempting to conquer the entire world, beginning with the embankment and creeping annually further into the small level open yard.
As seen in the picture taken today, the three friends in my yard have been joined by a bunch of metaphorically rowdy companions. Instead of standing lonely vigil on some windswept and inhospitable mountaintop, my pine/plum/bamboo are crowded by jostling eucalyptus, a mallow bush that fully intends to become a mallow tree, a native chemise plant, and an undergrowth of rosemary, jade, and other native weeds.
Instead of conceding that I have failed in my attempt to create a secret symbol of strength in my yard, I choose to consider my effort (like an official of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security referring to our failure to capture Osama actually said) a “success that has not happened yet”.
My bamboo, plum and pine, symbolizing the strength, purity and endurance of cultivated Chinese gentlemen, are surrounded by a bunch of young upstarts crowding out their gentle poetry, and reminding me that we were all young, rampant and loudly distracting once. And that these qualities too, are worth remembering in winter when we have become old and wise.