The Ancient Arts of
Bonsai and Penjing
A welcoming new walkway
greets visitors to the
Bonsai and Penjing Museum
at the U.S. National Arboretum.
Masters of Japanese bonsai and Chinese penjing techniques
are gardening artists. The tiny trees they meticulously shaperanging
in age from newborn to centenariancreate a sense of full-grown
trees in their natural surroundings while taking up only the space of
a coffee table. Perfecting such miniature masterpieces is truly the
pinnacle of gardening skill.
The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, part of the U.S. National Arboretum
in Washington, D.C., is the only museum of its kind in the world that
allows the general public to enjoy and learn about these interesting
living art forms free of charge.
"This is the first true bonsai museum anywhere in the world, and
it's also the largest and most comprehensive one in the western world,"
says arboretum director Tom Elias. "We have the finest collection
of mature bonsai outside of Japan."
Part of the penjing collection
at the National Bonsai and
Penjing Museum, this trident
maple, Acer buergerianum,
has its roots growing over a
rock and its foliage and stems
trimmed in the shape of a dragon.
The museum opened in 1976, when the Nippon (Japan) Bonsai Association
donated 53 bonsai to the people of the United States to commemorate
the nation's Bicentennial. Now, more than 200,000 people annually visit
the museum's collection of 150 plants located in three pavilion houses.
"Newcomers are always amazed by the beauty of the collection and
often become repeat visitors," says curator Jack Sustic.
A well-trained bonsai or penjing specimen should give the impression
of being a tree, not a shrub. Trees have well-defined foliage layers
with open areas between them, while shrubs are masses of foliage that
need pruning to define and improve their branch structure.
Though many people believe such trees are simply dwarfed versions of
natural trees, the truth of the art form lies in the creation of the
image. Masters manipulate potentially full-sized trees and mold them
into beautiful pieces of art that, with proper care, can last for generationssometimes
centuries. But take a bonsai or penjing tree out of its pot and plant
it in the ground, and it'll reach its full, normal height.
This tree, California juniper,
Juniperus californica, by
Harry Hirao, is part of the
bonsai collection at the
National Bonsai and Penjing
An Ancient Eastern Tradition
Penjing is the Chinese word referring to the tree-shaping art of creating
miniature container-grown trees or landscape groupings. Masters coax
the roots of penjing specimens over large rocks placed at the base of
young trees or shrubs in training. The roots of penjing plants often
rise in sculptural shapes above the stones.
A penjing worth noting is the Trident maple (see above), an example
of this "root-over-rock" style. It has been trained, or molded,
into the shape of a dragon, with one of its larger branches looking
like a head and another, a tail.
Curator Jack Sustic moves a
100-year-old Trident maple,
Acer buergerianum, to the
Japanese pavilion at the U.S.
National Arboretum's National
Bonsai and Penjing Museum.
Eventually, the art of penjing migrated from China through Korea to
Japan. The Japanese term "bonsai" refers both to the plant
and to the pot or tray in which it sits. The two must complement each
other to create visual harmony. Bonsai come in all sizes: miniature
(6 inches tall or less), small (6 to 12 inches), medium (12 to 24 inches),
and large (24 to 48 inches).
It takes six people to carry each of the museum's famous Japanese red
and white pines, both of which are centuries old and 3 to 6 feet tall.
But most trees are kept in the 1- to 2-foot range.
The Japanese white pine, the museum's oldest tree, is nearly 400 years
old. To call it a survivor would be an understatement. This "six-person"
bonsai survived in a nursery about 2 miles from where the atom bomb
was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. This bonsai belonged to one
family for six generations before coming to the United States.
This 120-year-old Japanese
quince (Chanenomeles speciosa,
cultivar Toyo-Nishiki) is part
of the bonsai collection at
the National Bonsai and
Next to it is another six-person bonsai, a Japanese red pine that is
the collection's second-oldest tree. This 200-year-old was the first
bonsai ever to leave the Imperial Household. Both of these pines were
part of the Bicentennial gift to the United States in 1976.The most-photographed
bonsai in the museum's collection is Goshin, meaning "Protector
of the Spirit." John Naka, an American bonsai master, designed
this assemblage of 11 foemina juniper trees, each representing one of
California juniper is a remarkable bonsai, one that seems to break
the laws of gravity with a large, extreme-downward-curving branch. This
branch reaches far below its roots and then manages to grow upwards
at the very tip, sort of like roller coaster trackbonsai style.
Do-It-Yourself Bonsai and Penjing
It's certainly not easy to create a miniaturized tree, and it can be
daunting. But the museum can serve as a valuable source of knowledge
on the art form, says Liz Ley, who heads the arboretum's Gardens Unit.
"The museum strives to teach the unaware about bonsai, their history,
and how to create them," she says.
Curator Jack Sustic helps
volunteer Karl Green trim
a Japanese maple.
Countless days, months, and years can be spent learning techniques
for creating and maintaining bonsai and penjing. With practice, you
can shape a tree by removing a branch, allowing one to develop in a
desirable location, or allowing the trunk to grow more. Repotting lets
you place the trunk where you'd like in the pot, wiring lets you alter
the position of the branches, and pruning keeps the branches short.
Creating a bonsai from seed can be tricky. So one popular way is to
start by choosing a nursery tree, shrub, or even a vine, then potting
and beginning to style your bonsaia step called "pre-bonsai"
or "bonsai in training." This process of training a plant
in a pot takes several years. With proper care and the appropriate techniques,
one day it may earn the title of "masterpiece." While training
a plant, you may need to replace the original pot as the tree gets bigger,
and special attention needs to be given to drainage and soil mixes so
that the tree remains healthy.
Once fully formed, a bonsai will have a thick trunk, a shape like the
normal-sized tree, branches of the right size and in the right place,
leaves that are as small as they can get, and a pot perfectly matched
to the style and color of the tree. This maintenance process requires
years of trimming and restyling, but it's very satisfying to the owners
and gives a deep sense of artistic pleasure.
Better Service and Access for All
As part of the recently completed $1.3 million facelift that began
in 2001 during the museum's 25th anniversary, the International Pavilion
received a new orientation area. Visitors are now greeted by an exhibit
titled "Bonsai: Test Your Knowledge." It's a series of questions
with multiple-choice options placed on the tops of beautifully crafted
wooden boxes, with the answers inside. Literature relating to the art
is also available to visitors.
The reconstruction project was partially funded by the National Bonsai
Foundation, which has provided support and donations for the museum for
more than 20 years. The rest of the funding came from the Agricultural
Research Service, which operates the arboretum.
Renovations to the bonsai museum's upper courtyard area have made it
more accessible to visitors with limited mobility by replacing narrow,
gravel pathways with hard, wheel-friendly surfaces. An automated irrigation
system; lighting for nighttime events; a new, Japanese-inspired entrance
to the Stroll Garden; improved grading and drainage; and expanded work
space for museum staff have all been added in the past year.
Now that the renovation is complete, visitors can enter the museum's
main entrance, go through the Cryptomeria Walk lined with small Japanese
plants, and see the newly paved upper courtyard with the International
Pavilion to the left and the Japanese Pavilion and Kato Stroll Garden
to the right.
Visitors who venture a little farther down to the lower courtyard will
see the Chinese Pavilion on the left. To the right are the North American
Pavilionhome of the Tropical Conservatory, where Hawaiian and
other tropical bonsai are housedand the Lecture and Demonstration
The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum has become the permanent home
of bonsai gifts made to U.S. Presidents Clinton, Reagan, and Nixon.
Now it is also taking long strides to become home for bonsai enthusiasts
Flores, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Plant, Microbial, and Insect Genetic Resources,
Genomics, and Genetic Improvement, an ARS National Program (#301) described
on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Jack Sustic is curator
of the National
Bonsai Museum, U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave., N.E.,
Washington, DC 20002-1958; phone (202) 245-4529, fax (202) 245-4575.
"The Ancient Arts of Bonsai and Penjing" was published
in the June
2003 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.