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Artistic beauty of bonsai trees is on display at National Arboretum

A business trip to Washington last week was too early to witness the spectacular blooming of the Japanese cherry trees of the Tidal Basin or the rhododendrons and azaleas of the National Arboretum. The reason: Washington’s spring has been similar to ours with a long string of cold and even snowy days.

In fact, a ride around the Arboretum grounds produced only a few dozen blossoms where other years I had seen thousands. Only a cardinal and a pair of tow-hees brightened the winter landscape.

As an alternative, my brother and I spent the morning in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum that is located within the Arboretum. It was a serendipitous opportunity.

Through World War II, the word banzai was identifiable as a war cry of Japanese soldiers when they attacked our forces in large numbers. (This frightening yell is an abbreviation for the phrase “tenno heika banzai” meaning “long live the emperor.”) Thus, I was quite unprepared when shortly after that war my teaching colleague and friend Roy Ketchum told me of his interest in bonsai.

Despite the similarity in pronunciation, the words represent very different concepts. Roy had to explain the meaning of bonsai. “The bon of bonsai is Japanese for tray or pot and the sai is interpreted as planting. But bonsai is not just raising plants in flowerpots; rather, it is an art form: raising miniature trees in remarkably artistic displays.” Only when he showed me his own bonsai did I realize what he was talking about.

A bonsai, Roy pointed out, is the product of a great deal of effort usually over many years. Simply planting a tree seed or seedling in a shallow pot is not an art; within a short time you will have a pot-bound dead plant. For bonsai you begin with a seedling or cutting of a species with appropriate characteristics: in particular small leaves or needles suitable to these miniature displays. Once planted in the display pot, the branches are carefully arranged (and often temporarily held in position with wires) to fit the artist’s plan and to limit growth to areas where further development is needed.

At the museum, I would see the results of decades and even centuries of artistic development. Each of the individual exhibits is a highly stylized living form that captured my full attention. And while each forest tree represents a unique part of nature, these trees, like carefully managed flower gardens, represent a manipulation of nature to further enhance its beauty. As I paused before each one, I found myself awed by what must have been and continues to be the artist’s patient care.

This collection began at the time of our nation’s bicentennial in 1976 with Japan’s gift to the United States of 53 bonsai trees. The museum was built to house these and additional exhibits in the early 1990s. It now also contains the Chinese or Penjing Pavilion, the International Pavilion, the North American Pavilion and a Tropical Conservatory.

Apparently the Chinese initiated this art form more than 2,000 years ago, with Japanese scholars adapting it to their culture a millennia later.

The oldest bonsai in the museum dates from 1625, the tree cared for by generations of the same family.

Bonsais are also on exhibit in the C.V. Starr Bonsai Museum in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.