museum tourist: national bonsai and penjing museum

Bet you didn’t know this museum existed: The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. It’s right across the street from the National Herb Garden and a short walk from the National Boxwood Collection and the National Grove of State Trees. They’re all part of the National Arboretum, one of Washington’s real hidden gems. It’s on New York Avenue, a road that wants to be a highway, lined mostly by motels and unattractive semi-industrial-looking sites. But behind its fence is this lovely, green refuge you would never imagine.

The museum started in 1976, when a bunch of Japanese bonsai growers donated trees to the U.S. as part of the Bicentennial celebrations. This was one of the original gifts, and it’s the oldest tree in the collection:

This Japanese white pine has been “in training,” the label says, since 1625. 1625! It was passed down through generations of the Yamaki family, who had a bonsai nursery in Hiroshima. Their nursery was less than two miles from where the atomic bomb went off, but the Yamaki family and their trees avoided major injury. Here’s a nice article about the tree from the National Bonsai Federation.

Normally I think that tree is displayed with a less distracting background, but in winter they collect all the bonsai and penjing (the Chinese version of bonsai) in one pavilion and put a temporary roof on it. Since everything outdoors was covered with a hard, thin crust of ice yesterday, this decision seems to make a lot of sense. These trees are from temperate environments, so they need shorter days and cooler temperatures for part of the year, but that doesn’t mean they need East Coast-style ice storms. “Greetings, venerable pine! We hope you don’t mind if we hang 16 pounds of ice on your perfectly shaped branches!”

Those branches don’t perfectly shape themselves. Here’s a European Hornbeam having its twigs molded:

This plant is a bit younger–an upstart, really, compared to the Yamaki pine. It’s only been in training since 1972. The bonsai collection has been supplemented over the years by donations from bonsai enthusiasts, including a gorgeous Japanese white pine given by King Hassan the 2nd of Morocco. I don’t know if he was a bonsai grower, but he apparently owned at least one.

It’s cool to see all these plants in winter. It also made me want to go back to see them when they bloom and leaf out in the spring. Just think of the years, decades, and centuries of loving care that go into making and maintaining these perfect indoor representations of outdoor life.

Bonsai appeal to my sense of cuteness. You expect to see little fairies dancing on the moss under the trees. We’ll have to settle for this guy, though.

For all my Museum Tourist posts, click here.

This entry was posted in Museum Tourist, Museums and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to museum tourist: national bonsai and penjing museum

  1. Lila says:

    Love it, Helen. My dad used to go every time he came to visit. (He grew bonsai and even won some local prizes in MA.) I sometimes drove him straight there from the airport. I need to go back sometime soon. Tx for putting it in my mind!

  2. Helen says:

    Oh, that’s so cool! I feel like it’s the sort of collection that lends itself to visiting a bunch of times, to see how the trees change through the season.