A Flowery Feast for Urban-Weary EyesA sprawling Garden of Eden in South Chungchong province bloomed from one seed: Carl Ferris Miller, a naturalized Korean also known as Min Pyong-gal. Thirty-one years ago, the Pennsylvania native began buying plots of land in the village of Cheollipo and transforming them into the Chollipo Arboretum (Cheollipo Sumokwon). These days, illness may keep the master away from his kingdom, but a 15-member staff lavishes the garden with care, maintaining its idyllic beauty.
The estate, the bulk of which is on a low cliff by the Yellow Sea, draws 14,000 people annually. Botanists and flower lovers travel three to four hours from the bustle of Seoul to be refreshed by the soothing beauty of the garden and its natural surroundings. Some go to study the 7,000 varieties of flowers, of which 30 percent are native to Korea and 70 percent are exotic.
The garden is, said one regular visitor, "a living painting that changes every day."
The 60 hectare arboretum boasts two lakes, rice paddies and sand dunes. The main focus of the arboretum is on woody plants from United States Department of Agriculture hardiness zones four to eight (gardeners recognize 10 different growing climates, known as hardiness zones).
While the best times to visit are spring and fall, the estate must be visited soon to view its famed magnolias and camellias.
The arboretum is divided into seven areas, one of which is Magnolia Hill. The hill is now ablaze with bruised purples, creamy yellows and sensual pinks. The types of magnolias to watch for in May are Daybreak and Ivory Chalice. Even though the estate is southwest of Seoul, the flowers bloom later than their equivalents in Seoul; the cool breeze from the sea keeps the temperature lower than in Seoul.
Botanists may consider the magnolia family the most primitive of floral species, but its sensual beauty is a heady vision. Sitting on one of the wooden benches on Magnolia hill and taking in the colors is akin to feasting. The magnolias are not confined to the hill; 450 species of magnolias, some of them hybrids, are scattered throughout the arboretum.
The camellias are now reaching their height of glory. The tight buds of the camellias are much bigger than a clenched fist, and when they bloom, they create a riot of color that would put a flock of parrots to shame.
These are just two of the flowers that have brought fame to the arboretum. The arboretum is also famous for acer negundo, a tree commonly known as box elder that flowers in early spring.
The care that goes into raising each plant is evident in the little stories behind some of them. While leading a cultural tour group from the Royal Asiatic Society last Saturday, Song Eun-suk, a horticulturist at Chollipo Arboretum, shared stories about many of the plants. There was the Diva, a type of magnolia that was exquisite last season. But this season, said Ms. Song, "she is sulking and has not put on a good show." Ms. Song also pointed to the slipper tree, saying with a laugh, "Even a monkey will slide down its trunk."
Each plant has its own flowering season. Wilting buds give way to new leaves, creating a cycle of birth and death that is echoed even in the architecture. Carpinus House, the most elegant traditional house in the arboretum, fell victim to a fire last year. A carpinus tree now marks the entry to the old building site, which is covered with flowers and a picnic table.
The garden itself sprung from barren land and from the dedication of a man who has transplanted himself to Korea. Mr. Miller, 79, first came to Korea with the U.S. Navy in 1945. From Incheon port, he traveled to Seoul, which was run-down after the Japanese occupation. After the destruction of Okinawa, he found Korea "a beautiful oasis."
Mr. Miller traveled all over Korea and fell in love with Korean temples. But to get to the temples, he had to hike through rugged tree-lined mountains. The scent of forests ablaze with flowers in spring and the sight of haunting colors in fall soon stirred his imagination.
When he was sent home, he told his mother, "I haven't quite got Korea out of my system yet and I want to go back for one more tour before I settle down."
He returned to Seoul in 1949 with a U.S. government aid agency, but was evacuated to Japan in 1950 when the Korean War broke out. Not through with Korea, he returned again through Pusan, but was stricken with hepatitis and had to return again to Japan. Thus bounced around between Japan, Korea and the United States, he returned for good in 1951 and found a job with the Bank of Korea in 1953, where he worked for the next 30 years.
When Mr. Miller bought his first five acres in Cheollipo in 1962, the village was poverty-stricken. The land was barren except for a few Japanese black pine, but Mr. Miller dreamed of building a summer cottage there.
Finally, in 1970, he disassembled and moved several traditional Korean houses from Seoul to the countryside, and started planting trees. As other villagers started selling him additional land, his property grew to 60 hectares of land. The arboretum was only a natural extension of his love for Korea and nature.
In 1979, Mr. Miller became firmly planted in Korean soil when his application for Korean citizenship was approved. He took on the name Min Pyong-gal, a name derived from characters that sound similar to his American name. For many years, Mr. Miller was the only Caucasian Korean male in Korea. He never married, but he did adopt a son, Chin-su, and continued investing in a life in Korea.
Mr. Miller has amassed a fortune in banking, but his life's work and contribution to Korea is his arboretum, which is his way of preserving a part of Korea for future generations. He thinks of the project not in terms of 25 or 30 years, "but of the 200 years that the plants will continue to live after I die," according to the arboretum's Web site, www.chollipo.org.
Now stricken with cancer, Mr. Miller is often forced to spend days away from his garden love to go through chemotherapy. Before his illness, his close friends used to kid around with him, saying that when he dies, they would honor him with a grave at the arboretum. He would lament the space his grave will occupy, saying, "In my burial spot, a tree could be planted."
HERE'S THE BUZZ
As Chollipo is a private estate, admission is open to arboretum members, horticulture students and select tour groups, such as the Royal Asiatic Society, only. Several staff members speak fluent English, so private tours can be arranged in advance. Membership costs 60,000 won ($45) for individuals, 100,000 won for families and 30,000 won for students. For more information, call 041-672-9310.
If you want to go by public transport, buses depart Nambu Bus Terminal. Ask for a bus to Mallipo; nine depart daily. Once you get to the beach, the arboretum is a leisurely walk away.
by Joe Yong-hee