In Japanese, bonsai translates roughly as ‘tray planting,’ but over the centuries the term has come to mean so much more. Today, bonsai and its Chinese predecessor penjing represent the highest forms of horticultural art. And happily, one of the best collections in North America of these amazing miniature trees and landscapes is located right here in Washington, D.C. It’s called the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.
The difference between bonsai and penjing
Bonsai and penjing are closely related art forms with shared roots in traditional Asian culture. Penjing, meaning roughly ‘tray scenery,’ is the ancient Chinese art of depicting trees, landscapes and rockeries in miniature. In the past, penjing took on unusual or unnatural shapes that were imbued with deep symbolism. Today, it often features miniature figures and structures that add meaning to the landscape.
Chinese Hackberry/Chinese Penjing Collection
Bonsai, meaning roughly ‘planted in a container,’ borrowed many elements from its predecessor penjing, but evolved into its own more naturalistic, free-flowing style. These days, penjing has adopted some of the more relaxed style elements as well, making it difficult to tell the two art forms apart.
Masters of both bonsai and penjing adhere to a strict regimen of trimming, pruning and arranging of branches to create their living sculptures over time. They closely observe natural scenes and plants, then combine advanced horticultural techniques with artistic practices to express their particular interpretation of nature. This is achieved through balance, simplicity and harmony both in the plant and the container.
About the Museum
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum was founded in 1976 and today houses one of the largest collections of bonsai and penjing in North America. The museum began with an original gift of 53 bonsai from the people of Japan to the people of the United States in honor of the nation’s 200th birthday. To commemorate the special relationship between the two countries, the Japanese donated 50 trees, one for each state, and an additional three to represent Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.
Today the museum has grown to include 150 plants housed in three separate pavilions. The Japanese Pavilion is home to the original gift of bonsai trees, the Chinese Pavilion (opened in 1995) displays penjing plants and landscapes and the John Naka North American Pavilion showcases the works of American artists including what is considered to be one of the most famous bonsai trees in the world. (More on that later.)
North American Pavilion/National Bonsai and Penjing Museum
To enter the open-air museum, visitors pass through a rustic Japanese-style gate and are immediately plunged into the shade of tall trees. This is the Cryptomeria Walk. Designed to set the tone for the exhibit, the overgrown specimens tower overhead, offering an interesting contrast to the miniature ones that appear once you step into the upper courtyard.
Cryptomeria Walk/National Bonsai & Penjing Museum
Immediately to the left of the upper courtyard is one of the crown jewels of the collection, a Japanese white pine that has been in training since 1642 and is the oldest tree in the museum. The 374-year-old bonsai has passed through five generations of a single Japanese family, the Yamakis, who were well known in Japan for their dedication to bonsai art. The Yamakis miraculously survived the atomic bomb blast of 1945 (along with their bonsai) and thirty years later, Master Masuru Yamaki donated his most prized tree as part of Japan’s Bicentennial gift to the American people.
Japanese white pine donated by Yamaki family
Close up of the 374-year-old tree trunk
At the time of my visit, the Japanese Pavilion was under renovation, but the trees were on display in the outdoor courtyard as well as in the other open-air pavilions. Many of the larger trees are over 100 years old and some were just sprouting new leaves.
This Ezo sprunce has been in training since 1925.
Ezo Spruce/Japanese Collection
This Japanese maple has been in training since 1946.
Japanese Maple/Japanese Collection
And this Chinese Quince has been in training since 1875.
On the right, just past the Japanese pavilion and down a flight of steps is the John Naka North American Pavilion. John Yoshio Naka (1914-2004) dedicated his life to sharing the joys of bonsai with the world. Born in Colorado to Japanese parents, he became one of the 20th century’s greatest bonsai masters, publishing many popular books on the art form’s techniques. He believed bonsai “belonged to the world.”
The open-air space showcases bonsai and penjing created by artists who live in North America. These newer artists have introduced new vegetation to the art form, drawing upon native plants from their different surroundings to create unique interpretations of nature. Included in the collection are many California junipers that have been trained into dramatic shapes.
California Juniper/North American Pavilion
Bald Cypress/North American Collection
One of the most famous bonsai in the world, Goshin, is a forest planting by John Naka. The trees represent each of his 11 grandchildren.
Goshin by John Naka
Adjacent to the North American Pavilion is the Tropical Conservatory, which houses bonsai and penjing from tropical and subtropical species such as banyan and buttonwood. There are also a small number of plants from Florida, Hawaii, Vietnam and southern China.
Water Jasmine/Tropical Conservatory
The Chinese Pavilion is located across from the North American Pavilion off of the central courtyard. It features the museum’s Chinese penjing collection. Visitors enter through tall red doors and pass through a moon gate, which is the threshold to the inner courtyard of the pavilion.
Moon gate to Chinese Pavilion
Inside, penjing are displayed in ceramic pots on wood benches. The miniature trees and landscapes include Chinese figurines and sayings as well as some landscapes with no plants at all. Most are housed in colorful and unusual containers, many of which were crafted in Chinese provinces renowned for their ceramics.
Rock Penjing ‘Lijiang River in Spring’/Chinese Collection
Trident maple/Chinese Collection
In this penjing, the artist created the illusion of wind blowing the branches in keeping with the ‘windswept style.’
Chinese Elm/Chinese Collection
The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum is open daily from 10 am to 4 pm. For more information on the museum, its collections and special exhibits as well as a virtual tour, click here for the website.
There is also an extensive library located in the International Pavilion containing a comprehensive collection of published materials on bonsai, penjing and other related art forms.
All photos by Here By Design