Beauty sprouts from toil at the garden of Sodam

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Beauty sprouts from toil at the garden of Sodam

It’s easy to be impressed by the beauty of flowers. But not many look through that delicate loveliness to appreciate the hard work it took to plant and nurture them. On my last trip, I did just that.

I visited a botanical garden in the southern region of Korea expecting to see a vast sea of colorful flowers looking their best in the warm spring air. But I soon realized I was on a different kind of botanical getaway.

For starters, it looked too small to be called a botanical garden. There were flowers, but rather sparsely dispersed here and there. “This is it?” I thought. Disappointed, I deliberated for a while and turned to leave. But then, luckily, I began to get it: The garden was in its most natural state. Somebody had purposely decided to just let it be.

Driving along the coastal road in South Gyeongsang Province’s Goseong County, named one of “Korea’s 100 Most Beautiful Roads” by the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs last year, I came across a sign on a hillside that read “Sodam Botanical Garden.”

Passing through a white fence, I climbed up the slope. Vivid colors splashed the landscape on my right and left. A backdrop of green Chinese juniper was dotted with yellow blooms of Korean forsythia and Oriental paper bush flowers. Red camellias and pink azaleas also peeked through.

At the ridge of the hill, a sweet little cafe that looked as if it had just popped out of a fairy tale awaited me. As my eyes took in the scenery around me, I was awestruck. Mount Janggun lay behind me, Mount Noin to my left and Dongjin Bridge to my right, and the blue sea flowed quietly under the bridge.

I wondered, “Where is the garden?”

Behind the cafe, all I saw was a mountain. There was a colony of tall, straight pine trees. But other than that, there was only a forest of broadleaf trees. There were some flowers strewn in sunny areas, though: narcissi, Adonis plants, more Korean forsythia and even white camellias, which are very rare. But still, something was missing.

The garden is owned by Seong Man-gi and his wife, Lee Sang-suk.

“I guess it does look nicer if you plant flowers and trees in an orderly fashion, all of one color and one kind. But don’t you think that’s too artificial?” said Seong. “In nature, Prince Ruprecht larch and golden-rain trees grow next to oaks. Peach blossoms and narcissi grow together. That’s the kind of garden I want to create.”

Seong had a point. The garden around me started to make more sense. I saw how the flowers that decorate apartment buildings and theme parks in the city are just “instant” flowers, all of one color and one shape.

They are first grown in greenhouses and then replanted as decoration. Hot wires or hot-water pipes are put in the soil to heat the roots. Dead flowers get replaced immediately. We all know it. Yet, we enjoy them because they are easy on the eye.

“I traveled around the world more than 700 times when I was working,” Seong said. “I’ve been to numerous arboretums and botanical gardens worldwide. But I think the best gardens only come around once in a century.

Seong, 62, used to work as chief cabin manager for Korean Air. He retired in 2000 as director of the cabin management department.

“I know my garden needs a lot of improvement. That is why I don’t charge visitors entrance fees even though it’s been approved as a tourist attraction. But it’s been only 30 years for me. I hope one day my garden will be good enough. Only then will I charge fees.”

Seong was born in a seaside village, which can be seen from the Sodam garden. But he was away from there most of his life.

He went to middle school in Masan, South Gyeongsang, attended high school in the port city of Busan and university in the United States.

His job required living away from home. And that’s how he befriended trees and plants. Whenever he could, he visited arboretums and plant stores to learn about them.

“As I traveled, I was impressed by how people in other countries valued nature and lived in harmony with their natural surroundings. For the elderly, it provides relaxation and for youngsters, an inspiration.”

At first Seong planted trees he purchased from others in his garden. Later he bought seeds from overseas to plant and grew his own trees. Seong’s trees have been pretty popular, selling for high prices. Some have been sold to add to the landscape at golf courses. Others were used to set up arboretums.

He poured the money he made and invested his time into a hill in his hometown. Hoping to create a beautiful view like that of the Philosopher’s Walk in Heidelberg in Germany, he planted trees, moved rocks and drove in nails whenever he had time between flights. He also designed the landscaping himself.

“At first it was practically a no-man’s land,” he said. “But I considered it both my privilege and duty to share with others what I’ve seen and learned from other parts of the world.”

After retiring, Seong left Seoul and moved back to his hometown. His family couldn’t have been more supportive. Seong’s wife, a former flight attendant, now serves food at the cafe in the garden. Seong’s son, a medical school student in Busan, comes to the garden every weekend to help manage the Web site, serving food and giving a hand where he can.

Seong planted his first tree here in 1978, when his son was born. Thirty years later, his very own botanical garden came to life. The garden isn’t small at all. It is 115,703 square meters (11.6 hectares). If you climb the hill at the back, you can get a full view of the sunrise over Danghang Bay.

Time flew as I studied the trees and flowers. As darkness fell on the garden, Seong took me to a camper van. He and his wife live with his elderly mother in a two-room house in his hometown.

“As trees grow and flowers bloom, the scenery changes. So I thought instead of a house fixed to one spot, a camper that can be moved around would be better,” Seong explained.

Available for guests, a rental camper van is equipped with three beds (two single and one double), a bathroom and a kitchen. Barbecue gas grills are provided upon reservation.

As I stood on the wooden deck of the camper, a breathtaking view of the dark sea caught my eyes. Without waves, not even a ripple, the quiet waters looked like a crystal ball under a hazy moon.

An azalea trembled in the night chill. Soon more flowers will bloom around it.

“We’re leaving. The Sodam garden is all yours now,” said Seong.

He and his wife then drove down the hill.

Only trees and flowers, grown with three decade’s worth of sweat, a Jindo dog and a Labrador Retriever and a guest from Seoul remained in the seaside garden under starry skies.

For more information:

For details on Sodam Botanical Garden, visit (in Korean) or call (016) 538-5889.

For stories and pictures of the garden and Seong Man-gi’s family, see and (in Korean).


To get to Sodam Botanical Garden, take the Namhae Expressway toward Busan.

Exit at Jinseong Interchange and drive toward Masan. Make a U-turn under the Dongjin Bridge. It is then two kilometers to Sodam Botanical Garden.

Fees and Hours:

Entrance is free. The garden is open from 11 a.m. to sunset (6 p.m. in the summer and 7 p.m. in the winter). April to June are the best times to see the flowers.

If you want commentary on the plants, make a reservation with Seong (016-538-5889).

The cafe serves coffee and herbal teas and sandwiches.

Camper rentals are 120,000 won ($114) during the week and 150,000 won on weekends.

By Kim Han-byul JoongAng Ilbo []
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