It is a citrus fruit like no other: a thick, shiny skin in shades of green and yellow, with numerous elongated shapes pointing downwards, not unlike fingers with long, pointy nails. From its appearance alone, it is not difficult to imagine why it this citrus fruit is known as Buddha’s Hand Fruit (foshougan 佛手柑).
Foushougan, also known as busshukan in Japanese (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis, or the fingered citron) is relatively rare in Europe. The photo to the left was taken by Nicholas Tomlan, Botanical Director at Chenonceau, one of the finest French chateaux along the Loire.
The plant bears seven fruits at present (in late August 2016), and unsurprisingly, it is kept at arm’s length from the crowds that visit the Chenonceau gardens on a daily basis. The gardeners tend to it in the privacy of their own greenhouse (instead of in the beautiful public gardens of the chateau), and at some point in the near future, the Chef Patisserie will undoubtedly design something delicious that will feature this fruit.
The obvious question that presents itself is, of course: why? How come this exotic fruit named for the hand of the Buddha is here, in the heart of French food and wine culture, at a Loire chateau?
As Nicholas Tomlan explained, the chateau, which has its origins in the early sixteenth century, has extensive gardens, for which detailed records remain. Of course the garden was there in the first place to provision the castle residents with regular supplies of fruit and vegetables. The elegantly designed formal gardens were later additions.
Over the course of the seventeenth century, building a ‘limonerie’ became fashionable. Built to protect the delicate citrus plants from the cold, a limonerie was usually an elongated, single-story building, without heating, where several varieties of citrus fruit were cultivated. The botanical team at Chenonceau is busy restoring the gardens to their former glory, while working closely with the Chenonceau’s teams of florists and chefs to integrate the produce of the gardens into the menus and decorative schemes of the castle.
Of course Chenonceau was not the only famous garden with an orangerie in the seventeenth century. The botanical gardens at Leiden University, established by Carolus Clusius in 1590, also had an orangerie, with guidance on how and when the delicate plants should be exposed to the fresh air, and how they should be protected.
The Leiden Hortus recently (2014) established a Chinese herb garden, complete with a Buddha’s Hand Fruit, although the climate proved too harsh for the plant, and in so far as we know, it only once bore a single fruit (picture below).
So the arrival of an orangerie at Chenonceau is not so surprising. It fit into a larger interest in the seventeenth century of cultivating flowers and plants, which increasingly included plants from the far-flung locations that Europeans were beginning to explore and understand. Food, flavours, herbs, and gardens all benefitted from the arrival in ever-larger quantities of food and plants from Asia.
The archival records for Chenonceau may well indicate when the first fingered citron arrived at the chateau, but plants were not the only way in which Europeans learned about this fruit that looked like the Buddha’s hand.
European travellers to Asia also brought back painting manuals that featured this fruit, such as the album collected by the German doctor Engelbert Kaempfer, Opperhoofd in Deshima in the late seventeenth century, now in the British Library.
And closer to home, in the Van Gulik Collection of Leiden University Library, we also find a beautiful example of the Buddha’s hand fruit.
Chosen for its colours, shapes and textures, the fruit had a very special appeal to painters and other artists, who were fond of representing it on porcelain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also has erotic connotations, which is why it features in the Sexy Ceramics exhibition that is currently on show at Princessehof in Leeuwarden.
Many reasons, then, for the Botanical Director at Chenonceau to add it to his gardens!
Shared Taste collaborates with the European Institute for the History and Culture of Food, Tours (France), Part 2. Read Part 1 here.
Links and notes:
- Official website of the Chenonceau chateau, France (also photo credits of aerial view photo)
- Princessehof Sexy Ceramics Exhibition, 27 August 2016 to 9 July 2017
- Copper engraving : Commelin, J., & Doornick, Marcus Willemsz. (1676). Nederlantze hesperides, dat is, Oeffening en gebruik van de limoen- en oranje- boomen; gestelt na den aardt, en climaat der Nederlanden. Met kopere platen verçiert. Tot Amsterdam: By Marcus Doornik op den Vygen-dam. Leiden University Libraries, VDSAND 237 A 12.
- Buddha’s hand at Chinese herb garden, Hortus Leiden, september 2015. Photograph : Alice de Jong
- ‘Three Buddha’s Hand Fruits’ from Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Painting, edited by Hu Zhengyan. H 25 x W 27 cm. Nanjing, China, ca. 1633. British Museum, 1930,0319,0.1. © Trustees of the British Museum.
- Bai hua shi jian pu 百华诗笺谱. Two volume collection of letter-papers, depicting floral designs. Leiden University Libraries, SINOL. Van Gulik E Pai HSC, 1911