Editors' pick

National Bonsai & Penjing Museum

National Bonsai & Penjing Museum photo
National Bonsai and Penjing Museum

Editorial Review

Bonsai and Penjing: Living Works of Art

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

I think it's safe to say that the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is the only museum in Washington where the curator waters the art.

Now, I know what some of you may be thinking. Art? Isn't this just a collection of those fussy little trees in ceramic bowls? Either that or: Wait a minute, you mean there's an entire museum dedicated to those fussy little trees in ceramic bowls?

There is indeed, on the grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum. And bonsai -- along with its less-well-known Chinese cousin, penjing -- is indeed a form of living sculpture, tiny horticultural treasures that give new meaning to the term "sculpture garden."

If you're among the newbies, this weekend may be the time to discover what the converts already know, as the three-day-long Potomac Bonsai Festival celebrates the only art form that requires both a green thumb and the eye of an aesthete.

What will you find there? Along with a koi pond stocked with hundreds of colorful fish, a permanent collection that includes the "Mona Lisa" of the bonsai world. Called "Goshin" (Japanese for "protector of the spirit"), it's the most famous bonsai arrangement in the world and features 11 foemina juniper trees, one for each of the grandchildren of the late Japanese American bonsai master John Naka, who once said, "Bonsai knows no borders."

Come with us as we introduce you to that world.


A bonsai can be a single tree, a forest grouping of several trees (as with Naka's "Goshin") or even a micro-landscape setting that evokes, in uncanny miniature, a mountainside, complete with rocks and bushes. It's Mother Nature, only in many cases smaller than the average desktop computer.

The ideal viewing distance is six feet away and centered directly in front, according to National Bonsai & Penjing Museum curator Jack Sustic. How can you tell you're looking at the front? Think of it like a Christmas tree. If you see bare spots that reveal a little (or a lot) of trunk here and there -- spots you might normally be tempted to hide by turning the tree around to face the wall -- that's the front. The shape of the trunk -- ramrod straight, windswept, cascading over the side of the pot or elegantly gnarled -- is part of each tree's idiosyncratic beauty and should be only partially covered by branches and leaves, like a negligee.

In many cases, you notice that a bonsai's branches are staggered asymmetrically as your eye moves up the tree. The largest, or "number one" branch will be on the right, say, followed by a slightly smaller "number two" branch a little higher up on the left. And so it goes, in alternating fashion, all the way up. The branches are often thrust forward toward the viewer at a slight angle, like arms held out in a welcoming embrace, inviting you in.

You'll also notice that all the trees in the museum's collection are dated. "In training since 1795" reads the sign below one Japanese red pine. That's not the age of the tree, but an indication of when it was collected from the wild and began its life as a bonsai. There are a few very old trees here, including a nearly 400-year-old Japanese white pine that lived through the Hiroshima bombing, but you'll also see trees that have been in training for no more than a few years. "You can't help but have a reverence for a 400-year-old tree," Sustic says, "but the true measure of a bonsai artist is how old it looks, not how old it is."

A bonsai, he adds, "is never finished."