- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Jim Hughes, the soft-spoken fourth curator of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum, stands bent over a wooden table, squinting in bright sunlight with his nose and the khaki rim of a baseball cap almost touching the spindly needles of a small, 200-year-old Ezo spruce.

He holds pruning shears in his right hand while his left, gently probing for dead branches, burrows through the interior canopy of this multitrunked miniature tree native to the towering forests of the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

“You need to keep stepping back and ask yourself what shape you want the tree to take,” Mr. Hughes says, then turns to a group of middle-aged women peering intently as he prunes.

“These aren’t genetically altered dwarf trees,” he explains emphatically. “This tree and other bonsai would grow to a normal size,” he says, if released to their natural habitat.

Welcome to bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh), the art of dwarfing trees and plants. Container grown, judiciously pruned and painstakingly trained to evoke an artist’s image of a landscape, these diminutive specimens become not just minicopies of their taller brothers but Lilliputians with their own stories.

And welcome to the Bonsai and Penjing Museum, one of the largest collections of these pint-sized trees in North America. Established in 1976, with gardens, four pavilions — International, Japanese, Chinese and North American — and a tropical conservatory on the arboretum grounds, this shrine to minimalism showcases hundreds of expertly designed small trees and allows for a comprehensive look at the art form.

This weekend makes an opportune time to visit: The museum will be the site, tomorrow through Sunday, of the Potomac Bonsai Association’s annual Spring Bonsai Festival, featuring more than 100 exhibitors displaying trees and shrubs from their personal collections.

The umbrella group, with more than 350 members in 12 clubs, or chapters, from Lancaster, Pa., to Fredericksburg, Va., aims to promote interest in bonsai through education and events such as this weekend’s show, which will be the group’s 36th.

Experts from the association will demonstrate training, pruning and bonsai maintenance. Vendors, 14 of them, will sell the ingredients a bonsai artist needs — pots, soil mix, books, magazines, tools for pruning — and a variety of bonsai, from starter plants (the so-called pre-bonsai) to seedlings, cuttings or trees already in training for some years.

Past shows have drawn thousands of bonsai enthusiasts and curious onlookers. Club officers expect the same this weekend, because so many are so eager to see how it’s done.

The art of dwarfing

So, how is it done?

It takes a lot of concentration, Mr. Hughes says, and a lot of that “stepping back.”

Just as a painter does with a canvas, a bonsai artist designs a tree with a particular aesthetic in mind. The form might be upright, or raft-like if the tree has toppled over, or cascading as if the tree were growing over water. Mr. Hughes’ Ezo spruce is triangular in shape, with the apex on top but not perfectly over the center.

The museum’s trees carry an admirer far beyond Washington, and lead a viewer to imagine rugged mountains as portrayed in Asian paintings or wet crowded spaces deep in a valley.

A tree with a nearly horizontal, S-like trunk evokes the wind blowing. A tiny tree less than a foot high, with a mass of branches and hundreds of small leaves, gives the feeling of a dense forest. A micro flowering azalea that fits in the hand catches all the glory of spring.

That’s precisely what the artist seeks to convey: a piece of the natural world.

“A bonsai artist must have a great love of nature,” says Janet Lanman, 84, a resident of Bethesda and a mainstay of the Potomac Bonsai Association. She became enchanted with the horticultural art form 30 years ago and is one of the original volunteers still working at the arboretum a couple of times a week.

Because the trees are in small containers with minimal soil, they drain and dry out rapidly and require frequent watering, though not at scheduled times, and constant care.

“You have to be emotionally involved with your trees,” Mrs. Lanman says. “You water in response to the tree’s needs.”

Each species is different; each site, each position in the light, the wind strength and amount of rainfall all vary. During the spring and summer growing season bonsai typically need to be watered at least daily. In winter the trees are dormant, as they are in nature, so they need less water.

“They are on the back burner of my mind all the time,” Mrs. Lanman says. “In the middle of a tennis game I might say ‘Oh, sorry, guys, I have to go home and water.’”

Staying ‘cool’

The practice of bonsai requires horticultural skills, imagination and at least a modicum of artistic talent. Most of all, it takes patience, a virtue not necessarily common in Washington personalities prone to holding a cell phone or BlackBerry or IPod in one hand while the other grabs the steering wheel or a sandwich or a Coke while the mind strategizes a client presentation, wonders about a latchkey child or makes a mental shopping list.

So common is multitasking here it seems infinitely more difficult to do just one task with heart, mind and fingers looped around one thing, the way Mr. Hughes handles his Ezo spruce.

Yet Jim Sullivan, a Bowie bonsai enthusiast in his 60s who will display some of his specimens at the show this weekend, says anyone can create an exceptionally good bonsai with the appearance of great age and the visual impact and refinement of a piece of art.

All it takes is perseverance, boundless energy and steady commitment.

“To have a fine collection requires a lot of time, patience and a willingness to suffer some frustration,” he says.

The stars of his home garden are two 35-year-old bald cypresses, both grown from seeds of the same tree, which he collected by the Pocomoke River on the Eastern Shore. One, allowed to grow naturally, is 50 feet tall. The other, trained with bonsai techniques, is 30 inches high.

Remarkably, flower and fruit size are not affected by bonsai culture because their size is genetically directed, hence normal.

“By continually pruning leaves as they emerge, successive buds are reduced in size,” Mr. Sullivan says. Subsequent new leaves are smaller.

For example, bonsai azaleas in bloom at the arboretum a few weeks ago were a miniature solid mass of magenta and pink. Their flowers were the same size as those in anyone’s back yard, yet the shrubs themselves are the size of dinner plates.

Serenity now

Does the practice of bonsai induce serenity or is it simply that imperturbable souls take up bonsai? It seems to be a fact that the demands of the art go hand in hand with a tranquility and openness of spirit.

Take, for example, Terry Adkins, 54, superintendent of the sprawling Glenwood Cemetery perched on a hill in Northeast, who has designed a private bonsai garden adjacent to his residence on the cemetery grounds.

As he waters his bonsai plants and turns their pots to catch the sun, Mr. Adkins suggests only half-jokingly that his decades-long love for bonsai was sparked by the position of the moon and stars.

And evidently by many things Asian, tranquil or not: As a young man in his 20s he was a big Bruce Lee fan, he says, and saw the film “Enter the Dragon.”

“It was everything Oriental after that,” he says, standing in his garden.

Indeed, his cemetery office is flush with Japanese decor. His bonsai garden boasts two bronze Chinese sculptures, a curled dragon and tall slender Chinese monk with one hand on a cane and the other caressing a bird. The license plate on his van reads SAMURAI.

To enclose his garden and protect his bonsai from wind, he built a 10-foot-tall circular hedge of Leyland cypress. From his second-story bedroom window overlooking the hedge the garden appears in the shape of a keyhole.

Mr. Adkins takes pleasure in the whole life cycle of bonsai and occasionally “frees” bonsai by removing them from their small containers and returning them to nature. In the half-acre Freedom’s Garden of Scattered Memories he designed in a corner of the cemetery to receive cremation remains, he has placed a couple of “freed bonsai” among the grasses, flowering shrubs, fountain and undulating Japanese holly hedge around the perimeter.

Out of the East

The practice of bonsai began certainly hundreds of years ago, perhaps even thousands, in Asia — Japan, China and India — and today it is truly worldwide, with a following throughout Europe, Israel, South America and Australia.

Each culture has different rules and styles. For example, the Japanese are more precise about details and refinement. Their technique includes both pruning and wiring, which enables the artist to refine the position of branches more exactly.

The Chinese, whose art style is called “penjing” and is the precursor to the Japanese bonsai, use a clip-and-grow method to achieve artistic intent.

All these come together at the arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Museum, established with 53 specimens presented to the United States by the Nippon Society, the Japanese bonsai organization, in celebration of the U.S. bicentennial.

Today two of the museum’s four pavilions — the Japanese and North American — are simple, white, stucco-walled structures open to the sky with a few crossbeams overhead casting sliver-like shadows onto the wooden tables of bonsai. (The museum’s Chinese pavilion has a roof that can be removed depending on its plants’ needs; the Tropical Conservatory is roofed with glass panels.)

Engraved at the museum entrance are these words, unsigned:


Shaped by human hands.

Nature’s essence

Revealed in living sculptures.


The world of bonsai.

The collection is maintained by Mr. Hughes, the curator, along with an assistant and about a dozen volunteers. Over the walls one can see the full green foliage of the arboretum trees. The slate courtyard between pavilions is bright and open; benches of stone and wood along the wall offer a spot to sit and contemplate the quiet beauty of bonsai.

The oldest tree in the collection is an extraordinary Japanese white pine on which training began in 1625. The trunk is over 8 inches wide at the base and measures about 4 feet tall. The Yamaki family of Hiroshima cared for the tree until 1976, when they donated it as one of the original 53 plants.

The thought that someone tended this one tree practically daily for centuries and that it survived typhoons, earthquakes, civil and world wars — and the atomic bomb — leaves some observers speechless. Today Yamaki family descendants come to the United States frequently to visit “their” tree.

Bonsai live in a privileged universe, lovingly attended like children and loyally protected by their artist masters. With good care and a little luck these miniature trees can outlive their counterparts in nature. They remind us to slow down and enjoy beauteous nature in an exquisitely small size.

WHAT: The Potomac Bonsai Association’s 36th Annual Spring Bonsai Festival

WHERE: The U.S. National Arboretum and Bonsai and Penjing Museum, 3501 New York Ave. NE.

WHEN: Noon-5 p.m. May 19; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. May 20; and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. May 21. Main display in the Administration Building. Lectures and demonstrations by PBA members on training, pruning and bonsai maintenance 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. May 20 and May 21 outdoors at the koi pond, weather permitting. Plant sales in the vendors’ tent across from the museum.


TRANSPORTATION AND PARKING: Metrobus X-6 circulates regularly between Union Station and the arboretum on weekends. Fare $1.20. Parking on arboretum grounds.

INFORMATION: Call the arboretum at 202/245-4533 or see www.potomacbonsai.com or www.usna.usda.gov.

Club has big ideas forbudding bonsai artists

No doubt the Potomac Bonsai Association hopes to make bonsai fans of the curious onlookers who attend its show this weekend. Once the new enthusiasts are hooked, though, they’ll need more bonsai to feed the passion.

They’ll go first to the Bonsai and Penjing Museum for its exhibits and special events, then to the bonsai specimens in Terry Adkins’ garden at Glenwood Cemetery, then on to the PBA auction at Behnke’s. Here are details:

• National Bonsai and Penjing Museum: U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave. NE. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25. No food, drink, smoking, pets, bicycles. 202/245-2726 or www.usna.usda.gov.

• Satsuki Azalea Bonsai Exhibit: Special Exhibits Wing. Annual show of the most spectacular examples of miniature late-blooming azaleas from the arboretum’s and the curator’s collections. 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. May 26-June 4. Free. No registration.

• Bonsai Silent Auction: An opportunity to bid on bonsai, pre-bonsai and other material from the museum. Preview of auction items 11 a.m. in the Melba Tucker Arbor in the lower courtyard of the museum. Auction 1-2 p.m. Admission free. No registration. Payment for auction items by cash or check only.

• California Viewing Stone Exhibit: Special Exhibits Wing. Show of “viewing stones,” or stone formations that suggest landscapes in miniature, collected in California and held in the museum’s collection and those of private individuals. 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. June 10-25. Free. No registration.

• Father’s Day Bonsai Treasure Hunt for Children: Children 8 to 12 (with their father or other adult) learn about bonsai and search through the museum for the hidden treasure. Small prizes will be awarded. $10 for one adult and up to two children. Registration required, by mail, by phone at 202/245-5898 or online at www.usna.usda .gov/Education/events.html, clicking through to registration form.• Freedom’s Garden of Scattered Memories: The Glenwood Cemetery, 2219 Lincoln Road NE. The public is welcome to scatter or bury the ashes of relatives and friends in this garden. Folding chairs can be set up under a small roof, or mourners are welcome to stand in a cluster at the burial spot they chose. For more information contact Terry Adkins, superintendent, at 202/667-1016.

• Potomac Bonsai Association Annual Auction: Behnke’s Garden Center, 11300 Beltsville Road, Beltsville. 10 a.m.-noon May 27.

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