Landmark of the Month (November): The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum

Fall is an absolutely beautiful time to be here in DC. I’m not sure if it’s something special about this year (or maybe we haven’t been around trees like this in a long time), but the fall colors seem undeniably brighter and more vibrant this year. To celebrate, we took a trip out the National Arboretum.

The National Arboretum is a 433 acre site owned and operated by the Department of Agriculture. To answer the first question, an arboretum is a living museum where trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants are cultivated for scientific and educational purposes. It was established in 1927 by an Act of Congress to serve the public need for scientific research, education, and gardens that conserve and showcase plants to enhance the environment (Quick random fact; it was originally established around 1900 as the “Economic Botany Herbarium” and changed the name when officially recognized by Congress.)

I’d like to spend more time exploring here, but we really came for one purpose: to visit the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Unlike some of the vast and grand monuments and memorials in DC, this museum is a small, contemplative space that draws you in and forces you to slow down.

The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum began when Japanese bonsai enthusiasts donated 53 bonsai to the people of the United States to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. The collection has grown steadily with the addition of pieces from American Bonsai masters and Penjing from China. Today, three pavilions house about 150 plants.

What the difference between Bonsai and Penjing?

Penjing is the ancient art of growing trees and plants, kept small by skilled pruning and formed to create an aesthetic shape and the complex illusion of age. Penjing originated in China over two thousand years ago and was brought to Japan by imperial embassies to Tang China (the 7th – 9th century). When the art form was introduced to Japan, it was called Bonsai.

Even though the pieces are small, they still follow the growing cycle. Like their larger counterparts, most of the deciduous trees are undergoing color change.

Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styracificua)

Nepal Firethorn (Pyracantha crenulata)

I want to highlight several fascinating pieces:

This piece is called Goshin, and it’s a spectacular forest-style planting of eleven Foemina Junipers (Juniperus chinensis). It was created by John Naka way back in 1948 and the eleven trees represent his eleven grandchildren. (John Naka was a second-generation Japanese-American who is really thought of as the “father” of bonsai in America.)


I thought Goshin was old, until I saw this Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) that had been in training since 1896!

I thought the Gingko was old until I saw this Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum), which had been in training since 1856.

You get the point…but the one that really took the cake was this Japanese White Pine (Pinus parviflora) that had been in training since 1625!. That’s not a typo…roughly 5 years after the Pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock, some unknown and now forgotten bonsai master started training this tree. Now, 378 years later, it sits on a bench in NE DC….I find that truly amazing.

What is it that is so appealing about bonsai? I think it has something to do with the deliberate control, the total dedication and commitment. The idea that someone has been training that tree since the 1600’s is hard to believe—especially here in America where we think something from 1950 is dated. I resonate with the discipline it takes to create such works of art. The infamous Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "The essential thing 'in heaven and earth' is...that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living." We often simplify this obedience with words like, faithfulness, and perseverance and determination and discipline.

Stones near the entrance path.

It truly is a fascinating place, and I highly recommend it. If I was a coffee drinker, and if I was a person who wrote in a journal, then I’d go there to drink coffee and journal about all my inner feelings. It's almost enough to make me start drinking coffee...

I’ll leave you with a quote from John Naka, “..The dove of peace flies to palace as to humble house, to young and old, to rich and poor. So does the spirit of bonsai.”

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