Five Things You Didn’t Know About . . . Bonsai

Compiled by Marsha Mercer, Certified Master Gardener

Museum sign at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum

The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum Photo © 2017 Elaine Mills

In honor of World Bonsai Day on May 12, we looked into the history and art of bonsai. You may know the proper pronunciation is “bones-eye” or “bone-sigh,” but did you know the Japanese weren’t the first to practice the art or that a gardener of tiny bonsai plants might need a crowbar? Read on.

  • The world’s first bonsai museum wasn’t in Tokyo or even in Japan. In a gesture of friendship during the American bicentennial, the Nippon Bonsai Association gave 53 bonsai and 6 viewing stones to the United States in 1976. The bonsai became the core collection of The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, the world’s first museum devoted to bonsai. It’s still the largest bonsai collection in North America.
  • Example of penjing

    An example of penjing
    Photo © 2017 Elaine Mills

    Before there was bonsai, there was penjing. The Chinese originated the art of miniaturizing trees, called penjing. The Japanese adopted and adapted the art form and called it bonsai, which translates as “dwarfed ancient trees in pots without landscape” or, more simply, “tray tree” or “potted planting.”

  • Bonsai takes a (very) long view. The oldest bonsai at the national museum is the Yamaki pine, a Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora ‘Miyajima’). It has been in training since 1625 but appears older, we’re told, because of its gnarled trunk. The Yamaki pine survived the bombing of Hiroshima.
  • In bonsai, looking old is beautiful.
    Oldest bonsai in front of museum's entrance fountain

    Oldest bonsai in front of museum’s entrance fountain
    Photo © 2017 Elaine Mills

    An ideal bonsai produces the illusion of a mature tree with its parts perfectly proportional. The best plants for bonsai have small leaves—no avocados or sycamores, please. Plants can be collected from the wild, with care. Take along plastic bags to wrap the root ball, moss to cushion the roots, and water to keep it moist, if it will not be replanted soon. And the crowbar? You’ll need it to pry roots that sometimes cling tightly to rocks, experts say.

  • One day isn’t enough for World Bonsai Day. The celebration at the National Arboretum lasts three days—May 12 through 14. There will be vendor tents, exhibits, and beginner bonsai workshops each day. For more information, go to World Bonsai Day 2017 Festival Schedule.

Want more than five? Check out:

Bonsai and Penjing: Ambassadors of Peace & Beauty

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