- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2014

If you’ve ever been envious of the beautiful view giraffes have, head over to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, where you’re guaranteed to overlook treetops.

Among through the expansive 412 acres of the National Arboretum in Northeast, the soft strum of Asian strings draws you off the main trail toward a gravel path that leads to a wooden gate.

Through the gate lies the Cryptomeria Walk, a bamboo stick-lined stone path cutting through a garden dotted with evergreen trees and plants.

“The Cryptomeria Walk is always peaceful and cool,” said Jack Sustic, the museum’s curator. “In Japan, cryptomeria gardens were traditionally in front of shrines or temples. Walking through was meant to cleanse your mind and stop you from thinking of earthly matters. We hope it does the same here.”

The walk ends at a wooden Japanese archway called a torii that invites guests to enter into a world of miniature trees, or rather, bonsai and penjing plants.

At the heart of the museum lies a serene courtyard, complete with a water fountain, a vibrant purple flowering tree called a powhatan, and multiple wooden benches donated to the museum by members of the National Bonsai Foundation, which helps fund the museum.

For the time being, the courtyard also displays the Japanese bonsai collection.

The first tree, a tiny ezo spruce, resembles a miniature Christmas tree. Its artist, Saburo Kato, gave the spruce to President Bill Clinton as a gift. The spruce sits next to a toringo crabapple tree standing about two feet tall, and the twisting, smooth, white trunk of a sargent juniper.

Also in the collection: a Japanese white pine. “In training” (marking the year an artist begins cultivating a plant into a bonsai) since 1832, the pine was a gift from Moroccan King Hassan II in 1983.

(Bonsai are grown from a specimen of source material, typically cuttings or roots from a living perennial tree or shrub. Artists cultivate the plant, continually pruning and confining it to a small pot to stunt its growth, for years before it can be deemed a bonsai.)

A Japanese red pine on display in the courtyard, donated by bonsai master Masaru Yamaki, has been in training since 1625, earning its title as the museum’s oldest bonsai.

A path to the right of the courtyard leads into the Japanese Pavilion, which currently is closed while it undergoes renovations.

“It’s going to have a more formal arrangement, with pedestals for the bonsai instead of benches,” Mr. Sustic said. “It was just time for the renovations and repairs, especially since it’s the oldest pavilion.”

The building of the Japanese Pavillion, and the museum itself, was initiated to store 53 bonsai plants and six viewing stones gifted to the United States from Japan in celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976.

However, the museum has grown to include pavilions dedicated the bonsai and penjing artists from North America and China.

Inside the North American Pavilion, bonsai ranging from a leafy sweetgum tree to a spiky, needled blue atlas cedar sit atop the wooden benches that line the walls. Tags beneath the plants give their name, the year they began training, and the name of the artist or person who donated them. The benches lead to the pavilion’s most cherished showcase: the John Naka Gallery.

This gallery displays all seven of the bonsai Mr. Naka, a famed bonsai teacher and writer, donated to the museum. Each is accompanied by text explaining its story.

Naka’s Chinese juniper planting, titled the “Goshin” (“Protector of the Spirit”) is considered the most famous bonsai in the United States. The Goshin resembles a miniature forest, with 11 tiny trees rising up — one for each of Naka’s grandchildren.

Bordered by a shingled Chinese dragon wall, the Chinese Pavilion stands to the left of the courtyard. Guests first are greeted by a circular opening in a concrete wall, called a moon gate. Stepping through the traditional moon gate reveals a Chinese garden that gives way to benches featuring the penjing (“tray scenery”).

Unlike Japanese bonsai, which translated into English means “plant in a pot,” penjing can include earthly structures. While some penjing have plant’s roots extending onto rock structures, others don’t even include plants.

One such rock penjing, titled “Spring Rain,” is solely comprised of gray qi stone. Other penjing include ceramic figurines, such as the “Chinese Hackberry,” which casts shade onto a tiny man playing a flute.

The International Pavilion showcases the famous viewing stone collection, consisting over 100 stones from all over the world. One of the most vibrant stones showcased here is a bright turquoise Mountain Stone from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The collection includes the 148-pound “Chrysanthemums in Moonlight” stone from Japan. This polished black stone looks as if it has sprouted small, white chrysanthemums all over.

The museum is open Fridays through Mondays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is located near the Visitor’s Center; the closest arboretum entrance is off of Bladensburg Road.

In the winter months, the museum is condensed to the Chinese Pavilion, where it displays selections from all three collections. The museum also offers demonstrations and classes throughout the year.

So come and leave your earthly worries in the cryptomeria garden, stroll through the serene courtyard, and contemplate your view of the treetops.

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