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The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington DC offers a magnificent collection of bonsai. The exhibit features 150 specimens, including a Japanese White pine that survived the bombing of Hiroshima.
If you are interested in the horticultural art form of bonsai, trying your hand at the skill, or if you're a longtime bonsai enthusiast, the National Arboretum provides education and inspiration.
The Nippon Bonsai Association donated over 50 bonsai to the United States in 1976, a gift to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. Dr. John Creech developed the concept and collection in an attempt to familiarize the American public with this distinctive art form.
The National Bonsai Foundation helps support the museum and offers special events, workshops, and sales.
A visit to the bonsai collection is free!
What is Bonsai?
Bonsai is the art of creating a miniature tree. These exquisite little trees are not hybrids or dwarfs but are standard trees shaped by pruning, defoliation, wiring, and root trimming. Pronounced "bone-sigh," the practice originated in China in the 7th century CE (AD). By the late 12th century, the art had moved to Japan along with the practice of Zen Buddhism. By the 14th century, bonsai had become a classically refined art form.
Generally grown outdoors, bonsai are the result of many years of attention and cultivation and are often passed down generations. The look of a bonsai reflects a wild tree and should be displayed at eye level. Bonsai collections are spaced so each specimen can be viewed separately. The trees are planted in low-sided ceramic pots. Container colors are usually earth toned. In addition to trees, the art is also practiced on shrubs.
Trees with small leaves or needles lend themselves best to bonsai. Popular plant types used in the creation of bonsai include maple, elm, hawthorn, juniper, cypress, cedar, spruce, Japanese white and black pine, and azalea.
In this gallery, just a small sample of the collection, you can see several classic styles of bonsai. The trees are made to be viewed from one angle.
Formal Upright Style
Bald cypress is a coniferous, deciduous tree. In other words, it has cones, yet sheds its needles in late fall.
Here is an example of the Formal Upright style of bonsai. Notice that the trunk is straight, tapering toward the top with the largest branches at the bottom. One of the hardest parts of shaping this style is to cut off the crown to restrict size, and to wire the topmost branch to form a new tree top.
This bonsai has been in cultivation since 1987.
The Blue Atlas Formal Cascade style bonsai below has been in cultivation since 1960.
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Cascade style demands that the tree grows below the base of the container while the apex (or top) appears in an upright formation. A deep sided pot is used for this style. Cascade style mimics the way a tree might grow in nature if it clung to the side of a cliff.
In Semi Cascade style, the tree grows below the rim of the pot, but not below the base of the container.
Informal Upright Style
This Informal Upright style Blue Atlas Cedar bonsai has been in cultivation since 1960.
Informal Upright bonsai grow upward with a bend in the trunk. There may be several twists, but the apex of the tree appears directly in line with the base of the tree.
The tree tapers toward the top with the heaviest branches at the bottom. Heavy side branches usually appear on the outside of a curve in the trunk.
This beautiful Coast Redwood bonsai has been in cultivation since 1954 and is an example of a style called Shari in which part of the bark has been stripped off the trunk.
In nature, Coast Redwoods are famous for their great height. Notice how this small tree resembles its giant cousins. How majestic it looks, despite its diminutive size! Note the slightly drooping branches that mimic the branches of a full size Coast Redwood.
Coast Redwoods are cypress trees, and they are evergreen.
In the closeup shot above, you can see how a much a bonsai can look like a tree grown in its natural state. Notice the balanced twists and turns and how some of the bark has been removed in the Shari style.
While I do not have a date for this tree, I love how it looks so ancient and reminds us of the mysterious beauty of the natural world.
This blooming Slant Style Japanese Wisteria bonsai has been in cultivation since 1925!
Slant style reminds us of a tree that grows at the side of a stream, lake, or on a riverbank. Unlike Windswept style with its sparse branches and foliage, Slant style shows the plant in full foliage. General practices of Slant style include a heavy low branch that grows opposite of the lean. The second branch grows toward the rear. The third branch grows in the direction of the lean.
The asymmetrical balance creates a visual harmony that can be more pleasing than by use of symmetry.
The Foemina Juniper forest below has been in bonsai cultivation since 1964, using plants from past compositions. Group plantings that resembled small wooded areas can be made with several single plants or created in the raft style which means that one plant planted on its side sends up branches that become the individual "trees."
Foemina Juniper is a shrub that has been long used in bonsai due to its slow growth habit.
Note the jin or bare trunk at the top. Stripping the bark can add a feeling of age to a single tree or a group planting. There are 11 trees in this forest, one for each of the artist's grandchildren.
Bonsai Group Planting
The group planting below has been in cultivation since 1970.
Note that in this composition, the trees appear at different levels. Look at the rocks on the forest floor and notice how moss has been placed on the soil to depict low growing plants in this beautiful woodland setting.
This bonsai planting grows on a slab instead of in a container.
The Japanese Red pine at the right has been in cultivation since 1795. Imagine the care and attention given to this exquisite specimen for over 200 years!
The Summer Camillia or Japanese Stewartia below has been in cultivation since 1926.
Japanese Stewartia is a small deciduous tree with beautiful exfoliating bark. It is a flowering tree that turns yellow, red, or purple in autumn.
Bonsai Survives Bombing of Hiroshima
This old Japanese White pine has been in cultivation since 1625. It survived the bombing of Hiroshima. The garden was two miles from Ground Zero but was protected by a thick, high wall.
After World War II, bonsai master Masaru Yamaki attempted to revive interest in bonsai. He gave this particular tree to the U.S. Arboretum as a bicentennial gift. In later years, descendants of Yamaki have come to visit the tree and provide background information.
The U.S. Arboretum: 3501 New York Ave North East, Washington DC 20005
© 2013 Dolores Monet