With its pale bark, symmetrical form and intricate branches tipped by reddish-brown leaf-buds, a miniature Japanese Beech at the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection seems to glisten...
With its pale bark, symmetrical form and intricate branches tipped by reddish-brown leaf-buds, a miniature Japanese Beech at the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection seems to glisten with frost — a living emblem of the season, meant to evoke a feeling of serenity. For those who prefer an edgier design, the single bare stalk of a Staghorn Sumac whisks through the air like the stroke of a master calligrapher.
In Japan, winter is considered the perfect season for bonsai viewing. “When the leaves are off you see the architecture of the plants,” says David De Groot, curator of the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, a one-acre outdoor museum at the Weyerhaeuser Company campus in Federal Way. “The division of the branches reveals the years of work and indicates the maturity of the tree.”
Sixty bonsai remain on view year-round, with some rotations to show off blossoms, fall color and plants with special seasonal importance. Weyerhaeuser Company began its collection in 1989 as part of the Washington State Centennial celebration and now owns more than 100 bonsai. It is among the best of only 23 public bonsai displays in North America, De Groot says. Washington, D.C., has the largest and finest display, with other top collections in Boston, Oakland and Montreal.
Not all bonsai are trees. Azalea bushes and wisteria vines are among the many plants used to shape miniature landscapes whose proportions, colors, form and age all must be considered when choosing the perfect shallow container. Fine bonsai pots, works of art themselves, can be more valuable than the plants they hold. And established art-quality bonsai in the U.S. can range in price from $2,000-$25,000 and up, De Groot says.
Bonsai were created to represent a scene or feeling from nature and date back at least to the second century in China, where they are called penjing, meaning potted scene. The practice of cultivating miniature bits of nature probably traveled through Korea to Japan, where a different style evolved.
Bonsai have two ages: one for the plant and another for the time it has been cultivated. The oldest tree at the Pacific Rim collection is about 1,000 years old but has been a bonsai for only a few decades. A convoluted and weather-worn 500-year-old Rocky Mountain Juniper was collected near Raymond, Colo., from an elevation of about 8,000 feet and has been trained as a bonsai for 40 years. Other bonsai are started as slender young shoots that are clipped and wired into shape. De Groot says it takes a minimum of 6-10 years to develop a bonsai, and they need continuing root-pruning and shaping throughout their lifetimes.
The oldest bonsai in the collection has been trained for 125 years. That tree, a Trident Maple, was brought from Japan to San Francisco for the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. Afterward, it was purchased by a Japanese-American nurseryman in California, who passed the tree on to his son. During World War II, while the bonsai’s owner was briefly interned and then worked in the Midwest, the maple was neglected. It received enough water to survive, but its roots — which normally would be regularly pruned — grew through the hole in the pot and established in the ground, allowing the tree to grow rapidly. The natural proportions of the maple were lost and it had to be cut back and reshaped. The tree has been on loan to the collection since 1990.
Except for the tropicals, which have a special greenhouse, bonsai must grow outdoors. In the winter, to protect the shallow roots from abrupt temperature changes, special Plexiglas display cases enclose the trees. On freezing nights, doors are added and some cases get heaters as well. To see the trees without the visual distraction of the cases, visit the collection from mid-April through mid-November.
Bonsai are works of art and also delicate living things that can be easily destroyed by improper care. Most of the world’s bonsai are less than 50 years old, De Groot says. Many fine old plants were lost or destroyed in Japan during World War II and in China during the Cultural Revolution. In this country, De Groot said, most bonsai collectors are hobbyists who want to make their own. But in Japan, connoisseurs collect venerable bonsai and board them with a master who can properly tend them. If you pay half a million for a bonsai, it needs expert care, De Groot points out. “You can do-it-in in two hours on a hot summer afternoon.”
Sheila Farr: firstname.lastname@example.org