The National Bonsai Foundation is a section 501(c)3 nonprofit organization established in 1982 to sustain the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. It cooperates with the U. S. National Arboretum. This private/public collaboration between the Foundation and the Arboretum enables the Museum to promote the art of bonsai and penjing to visitors through masterpiece displays and educational programs.
My summer apprenticeship has certainly been keeping me busy, leaving very little time for these blog posts! As the waning heat of the summer transitions into the coolness of the upcoming autumn season, watering requirements begin to lessen there is a bit more time for pruning, wiring and other tree work. Here are some of my favorite trees from my recent work:
Eurya (Eurya emarginata) Continuous Tightening
Image: Eurya Before
Eurya before pruning work to tighten pads
This eurya from the Japanese Collection is one of my favorite bonsai on display in the museum. It has a very stout trunk that almost resembles the “sumo” style that seems to be currently in vogue within the bonsai community. I have to admit that I, too, enjoy this style and the power that it presents within the confines of these tiny trees. E. emarginata have small, glossy leaves when reduced, but they can grow to be quite large if the trees are allowed to run and gain vigor. Therefore, consistent pruning is required to maintain the tight shape and tiny leaves that we enjoy about this bonsai. I’ve now pruned and wired this tree a few times over the summer and have been typically following up a pruning with a pinching shortly after to prevent the energy from redirecting fully into the remaining buds and blowing the new shoots out of proportion. I’ve found that this gives quite dense and even growth throughout the developed pads.
Post-work. Pads tightened back to silohuette and some branches wired into good position
Ezo Spruce (Picea glehnni) Post-Growth Season Pruning
After growing and extending all season, spruces can be cut back to shape. With these, we must be very careful to cut back to new buds to allow the cut tips to continue to grow in next years’ extension. I could locate good buds to cut back to across the entire canopy for the tree, so all the tips should continue to remain healthy while maintaining the crisp presentation intended in this tree between now and the next growth season.
I’m now in the final week of my apprenticeship. It’s been an incredibly busy summer full of new experiences, fun travels, and a ton of new learning. I’m very grateful to National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the US National Arboretum for the opportunity to work on and develop my skills using some of the best and most prominent bonsai in the country, and I’m very appreciative of the support that Toyota has offered to the National Bonsai Foundation in supporting with funding for this wonderful apprenticeship.
Following the completion of my apprenticeship, I’ll be moving to a new home in San Antonio, TX, where I’ll begin delving into my own personal bonsai garden space while continuing my journey with bonsai. The climate in Texas will be entirely new to me and will present many new challenges to manage watering and sun exposure in the extreme heat of the summer, but compensates for those with a longer growing season to develop and refine material and a far milder winter season. I intend to continue sharing my work on social media and various online platforms, so please do not hesitate to send me requests if you’re interested in seeing how I progress and where I travel throughout my journey.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me up to this point.
Museum gardener Erin Holder just completed a multi-week training on Japanese gardening technique and philosophy in Portland, Oregon. Read below to find out more about what she learned.
For the last half of July I was lucky enough to attend the Waza to Kokoro: Hands & Heart Japanese garden seminar at the International Japanese Garden Training Center in the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon. This was an intense, eleven-day training that combined experiential cultural instruction, lectures, and hands-on learning to pass on not only traditional Japanese gardening techniques, but also the heart and soul that underlies the design and stewardship of Japanese gardens.
Lectures on the principles of the Japanese tea ceremony – wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity), and jaku (tranquility) – were reinforced by a visit to the Garden’s tea house, where we got to walk through the roji (tea garden) and witness a tea ceremony led by the staff. A professional gardener visiting from Japan demonstrated how to split fresh bamboo and tie knots to build bamboo fences, we participated in a master class on maple pruning at a local nursery, and spent four days at a stone yard designing and constructing a nobedan and tsukubai – the stone pathway and water basin arrangement that are key elements in a roji.
As if all that weren’t enough, there was the Portland Japanese Garden itself – everywhere I turned I saw a technique or idea that I couldn’t wait to incorporate into the Bonsai Museum’s gardens. The most immediate element I plan to add are traditional Japanese bamboo fences, both to impart a feeling of authenticity and as an aesthetically pleasing way to protect the garden beds. I also received advice from other professional Japanese gardeners on how to include the design principles of simplicity and enclosure to improve specific areas of the garden, and visually unify them with the collection as a whole.
This was only the tip of the iceberg, and I’m still processing all I learned so that I can best foster the gardens at the Bonsai Museum, all the while keeping wa, kei, sei, and jaku as the guiding principles in my approach.
Bridge over a small babbling stream
Bonsai display in the courtyard
Pathway leading up to the Tateuchi Courtyard
Upper bonsai terrace
Cleared site for future nobedan and tsukubai arrangement
Completed nobedan tsukubai and takegaki – bamboo fence
View of inner roji with koshikake waiting bench for guests and tea house chashitsu in the distance
When David Rizwan first saw a bonsai tree while searching online for plants to decorate his apartment, he thought there must be something “magical” about it.
“It’s a common misconception that there’s something mysterious there,” Rizwan said of bonsai. “There is a general lack of knowledge in the public, and I was a part of that – I didn’t know what was being done, I thought the trees were all special, small species, and it wasn’t something that a normal person can just do.”
Nonetheless, he was hooked, and took a deep dive into bonsai. He watched hundreds of YouTube videos on bonsai to learn everything he could about how “normal” people could possible create such an other-worldly work of art.
His personal collection quickly went from one Trident Maple to more than 60 trees before he was forced to “downsize.” His love for bonsai eclipsed all else, even prompting him to put his career as a quality manager and engineer in the medical device industry on hold to apply for the First Curators’ Apprenticeship at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.
“I put my career on hold to have more time for bonsai and fully immerse myself in the art,” he said. “Everybody thought I was crazy, but I firmly believed that wholeheartedly dedicating the time to learn and practice the fundamentals would set the best foundation for my artwork going forward.”
Less than three years after starting with bonsai, Rizwan is one month into his apprenticeship, and is pleased to confirm that no magical skills are required.
“Bonsai is for everyone,” he said. “It’s not a wealthy person or a magical person thing; it’s an everyone thing.”
The move also impressed his new team at the Museum: “David left a good job to work at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum,” said Museum specialist Michael James. “That’s priceless.”
Although he is relatively new to bonsai, Rizwan has already learned a lot – both in technical skills and life lessons. He said that he has experienced many ways in which bonsai benefits its practitioners – a better understanding of nature, strengthening of empathy skills, and taking a new perspective to personal relationships.
“Bonsai mirrors other relationships in life,” he said. “Sometimes you have to do something that isn’t immediately as pleasant, but knowing that the future outcome is worth the temporary sacrifice. It’s that same feeling when cutting off a branch that isn’t quite fitting well, knowing that its removal will allow another branch to develop that will carry the design forward one day.”
In addition to getting more experience working with the high caliber of historic specimens at the museum, David hopes that this experience will help him further his goal of making bonsai more accessible to the general public, and help them recognize that bonsai is something they can do and benefit from.
David encourages visitors to come to the museum in each season to experience the breathtaking way that bonsai trees can change throughout the year, and to see different highlights from the collection.
“There’s only a fraction of trees on display at any given time,” he said. “Visitors should try not to get a false sense of lack of diversity if they just see lots of pines and maples. Visiting throughout the year will allow you to experience very different things in the collection, and in individual trees themselves. The same tree experienced three months apart can be drastically different, and each season has its value.”
David will be blogging his experiences as the First Curator’s Apprentice on our website. Be sure to sign up for our email list to receive David’s blog and all updates from the National Bonsai Foundation in your inbox.
Have you always dreamed of making bonsai your career? The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is looking for a curator, and it could be you! Click here for more information about the position. Accepting applications until April 18:
“This position is located in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National Arboretum Gardens Unit located in Washington, DC. Established by an Act of Congress in 1927, the USNA is a collections-based research facility and public garden administered through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), whose mission is to enhance the economic, environmental, and aesthetic value of ornamental and landscape plants through long-term, multi-disciplinary research, conservation of genetic resources, and interpretative gardens and exhibits.
The primary purpose of this position is to perform maintenance, enhancement, development, improvement, and expansion duties associated with the internationally recognized collections and gardens of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.”
Last month, our staff, board members, friends, and supporters of the National Bonsai Foundation gathered to celebrate the long-awaited re-dedication of the Japanese Pavilion.
The Japanese Pavilion was originally built in 1975 to house and display the 53 bonsai gifted to the American people for the bicentennial from the Nippon Bonsai Association on behalf of the Japanese people.
After nearly 40 years serving as a symbol of peace, and hosting visitors from all over the world to view the historic collection, the pavilion was in need of renovations. The $2 million project was almost completely donor-funded, and the National Bonsai Foundation is so grateful to those who contributed, particularly Dr. Deborah Rose, whose generous leadership gift made the pavilion redesign possible.
The new pavilion was designed by world-renowned Japanese garden designer Hoichi Kurisu. Kurisu’s design for the pavilion invokes traditional Japanese design concepts Shin, Gyo and So, featuring natural elements like boulders and running water.
In his own words:
“Unlike painting or sculpture, bonsai is a pure and living art form. My challenge is to express that beauty and dignity, as well as the timelessness of the trees … We need peaceful moments in our lives. I think 99 percent of people in this country are missing that. To understand nature is to understand the universe.”
You can read more about Kurisu’s life, work, and vision for the garden here.
At the October opening, guests heard remarks from Dr. Richard Olsen, director of the U.S. National Arboretum; Mr. Felix Laughlin, president of the National Bonsai Foundation; Mr. Takehiro Shimada, minister for communications and cultural affairs at the Embassy of Japan; Mrs. Naemi Iwasaki, chair of the Nippon Bonsai Association; and Mrs. Marybel Balendonck, vice president of the National Bonsai Foundation.
Throughout the weekend, guests enjoyed other events like a presentation on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi from Bonsai Master Seiji Morimae, who recently donated three trees to the Museum’s collection, and Bonsai Artist Peter Warren. The National Bonsai Foundation also hosted a dinner to honor Dr. Deborah Rose for her leadership gift and our guests from Japan, including Mrs. Naemi Iwasaki, the chair of the Nippon Bonsai Association.
Finally, we were honored to welcome Mr. William Valavanis into the Bonsai Hall of Fame, presented by former Museum Curator Jack Sustic.
The renovated Japanese Pavilion, along with the rest of the national bonsai collection, is open to the public daily from 10 am – 4 pm. (All photos by Colella Digital).
After middle school students in Tacoma, Washington, were heartbroken to find their bonsai collection vandalized, bonsai enthusiasts across the country stepped in to help them fund their club’s future. A note from Barry Figard, Baltimore Bonsai Club President:
I received several emails from members who saw the news about the vandals destroying the Bonsai trees at Gray Middle School in Tacoma, Washington, which were going to be sold at their annual auction to provide funding to continue the Bonsai Club at the school. The school provides no funding. Members were “heartbroken” and wanted to know what we could do.
The Club needed $500.00 to continue since the trees could not be sold. I thought the right thing to do was reach out and help these students be able to continue growing in the art. I contacted clubs in the Potomac Bonsai Association as well as members of The Baltimore Bonsai Club to make them aware of the situation and put together a plan to help them. I directed Baltimore Bonsai Club to send $500.00 immediately to the school to help them get the money they needed.
I then asked other Clubs to donate to the school directly, as trying to co-ordinate this would take too much time. I spoke with Martin Brown, the teacher who is running the Club, about what we were going to do. He was thrilled that people on the other side of the country were interested and cared enough to help this little Bonsai Club. He sent thank you notes from students.
The point of this story is that there was a really bad event and we responded to this need to help with a positive resolve. When you are in a position to help with a need and do so, it is very gratifying. It taught the kids, who were devastated at first, that good things can happen with bad situations. I think this reflects very well on the Bonsai Community and I am very, very glad we were able to help.
This reflection was written by Porter Taylor and published on his website.
This weekend Jo and I went to the National Arboretum. Created in 1927 it’s in the Northeast corner of the District of Columbia and covers 446 acres. Because it’s February (even though it was 65 degrees Saturday) not much was in bloom, but being there was stunning.
What captured my attention was the Bonsai Exhibit. As I was walking through mesmerized by these small gorgeous plants, I saw a Japanese White Pine that was first planted (if that’s the right word) in 1625. That’s the same year (according to the source of all knowledge—Wikipedia) that New Amsterdam (which became New York City) was established.
This small plant has lived through changes and changes: regimes, countries, technologies, even the atomic bomb (the tree was donated in 1979 but was only two miles from the bomb in Hiroshima in 1945)—all of it. People have cared for it and nurtured it and pruned it so that it’s here.
As I gazed at it, I wondered, in this time of noise and conflict; in this era of change and technology, what will last for six centuries or for one or for another generation? And I liked that what was there wasn’t a building but a plant. It wasn’t a monument but an organism that needs attention. It wasn’t something generations could ignore, but this living tree that had to be cared for with detailed attention.
I have become weary of the noise of the news cycle that takes my energy and attention but has so little substance over the long haul. Instead I find myself reading The Divine Comedy – a text older than the bonsai – and looking at plants that predate the founding of this country. Both are alive and both have something to say that sustains me.
I am not declaring a separate peace from the political scene. There is too much at stake. However, I am saying that for the long-haul I need to see and read and be touched by things that are true and connect with something that has lasted over time. The bonsai and Dante reminded me of how essential it is to be anchored in something bigger than this moment and to focus on the quality and nature of our work so that we might do something for which future generations will give thanks.
The National Bonsai Foundation is located inside the US National Arboretum, and was opened in 1976, with 53 Bonsai trees donated by the Nippon Bonsai Association.
The NBF also has a collection of Penjing trees, gifted by China in 1972 and by Dr. Yee sun-Wu from Hong Kong. Finally there is a section with donated trees from within the US. With these three large donations the collection of the National Bonsai Foundation was immediately well respected.
Earlier this month, the National Bonsai Foundation (NBF) board, donors and special guests – including Atsuyuki Oike, chief of mission of the Embassy of Japan, Japanese bonsai master Tohru Suzuki, members of Ikebana International, and other dignitaries and bonsai enthusiasts from around the country – celebrated the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum’s 40th anniversary. The event also honored Curator Jack Sustic, who is retiring at the end of this month.
NBF President Felix Laughlin delivers remarks at the 40th Anniversary Celebration. | Photo by Mike Colella
“If it were not for you – the strong supporters of this Museum – we wouldn’t be standing here today,” NBF President Felix Laughlin said in thanking the guests. In celebrating the 40th anniversary, Laughlin said, “Two words come to mind: ‘gratitude’ and ‘promise.’ We at NBF have a deep sense of gratitude for all those who have generously supported NBF and the Museum over the years, and I can assure you that NBF will continue to represent a promise to do everything possible to maintain this Museum as the best bonsai and penjing museum in the world.”
Laughlin noted that many people have contributed to the success of the Museum – from John Creech, Yoji Yoshimura, John Naka and Saburo Kato to the many donors, volunteers, board members, curators and other staff, leaders of the bonsai community and of the U.S. National Arboretum over four decades.
In his remarks, Atsuyuki Oike of the Embassy of Japan said: “America is known as a country that celebrates everything big – Big Macs, Big Gulps, Big This, Big That. Even things in nature are big here. There’s the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes, the giant sequoia trees.”
Felix Laughlin, Tohru Suzuki and Atsuyuki Oike. | Photo by Michael Colella
“Bonsai trees,” he continued, “of course, are just the opposite. They show nature in miniature. And, this is conjecture on my part, but I don’t think bonsai lovers see the trees as small at all. They see a largeness and an expansiveness in them.”
He concluded: “I might add that while the bonsai tree may be in miniature, the National Arboretum’s bonsai collection is grand, it is great, and I believe it is a big addition to the culture of this city and the country. On behalf of the Japanese Embassy, I would like to express my genuine thanks to the Arboretum and to Mr. Sustic for their deep, sustaining roots in bonsai. The Museum has my best wishes for another 40 years of caring for these living treasures, and Mr. Sustic has my best wishes for a wonderful and fulfilling retirement.”