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Bonsai Exhibits: 6 Places in the U.S. to See Great Bonsai

September 15, 2020General

Bonsai exhibit

An artist learning impressionist painting might visit a museum to study originals by Monet and Cezanne. By the same token, someone interested in the art of bonsai should make a point of visiting exhibits, museums, and nurseries where the finest bonsai are displayed. Let’s take a look at places across the United States where bonsai lovers can enjoy seeing prime examples of this ancient art.

Newcomers to bonsai can learn and gain inspiration by studying high-quality examples of the art. The six places outlined in this post play host to some of the best bonsai specimens in the U.S. They should be must-sees for any bonsai enthusiast visiting the areas where they are located. Let’s take a look at the six:

Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum, Washington, D.C.

The museums and landmarks located in our nation’s capital offer a wealth of fascinating history and information encompassing a variety of subjects . . . including bonsai! The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum is home to more than 150 examples of these living art forms.

The museum’s collection began with a gift of 53 bonsai by the Nippon Bonsai Club in Japan to commemorate the 1976 U.S. bicentennial. The gift prompted American bonsai enthusiasts to form the National Bonsai Foundation. In association with the National Arboretum, the foundation raised funds to support the development and building of a museum to properly care for and display the trees.

Today, the museum cares for one of the biggest collections of bonsai and penjing in North America. Plants are displayed in one of three pavilions. The Japanese pavilion exhibits bonsai. Likewise, the Chinese pavilion features penjing, the variation of the art commonly practiced in China. Finally, the International pavilion is dedicated to ikebana and suiseki, both art forms related to bonsai. Ikebana is a Japanese form of flower arranging, and suiseki are Japanese viewing stones.

Chicago Botanic Gardens/Annual Mid-America Bonsai Exhibition, Chicago, IL

The Chicago Botanic Gardens boasts a collection of almost 200 bonsai. From late April to early November, depending on the weather, the organization displays about 50 trees in the two outdoor courtyards of the Regenstein Center.

The exhibit rotates bonsai throughout the display months to showcase those at the height of their beauty. Based on the season, visitors might enjoy the colorful spring blossoms of azaleas, the summer perfume of jasmine, or the brilliant fall foliage of maples. Conifers and other evergreens round out the displays.  

North Carolina Arboretum/Annual Bonsai Exhibition, Asheville, NC

The North Carolina Arboretum boasts more than 100 bonsai specimens in their collection. According to the arboretum, they focus on styling bonsai with a Southern Appalachian interpretation. They model their bonsai on the appearance of trees growing wild in the area.

The arboretum also hosts a two-day bonsai exhibition each fall that attracts several thousand enthusiasts annually. Attendees can enjoy many bonsai in their autumn glory, view demonstrations, attend workshops and purchase trees and supplies.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA

Founded by railroad and real estate businessmen Henry Huntington and his wife Arabella in the early 1900’s, this institution has focused on building upon the couple’s extensive collection of books, art and botanicals and making them available to the public. 

Bonsai figure prominently in the botanical collection. In addition to their private holdings, The Huntington serves as a repository for the Golden State Bonsai Federation’s collection. While the institution cares for bonsai numbering in the hundreds, they rotate specimens in and out of display. Therefore, on any particular day, they exhibit around 75 bonsai, located in two serene courtyards within the Japanese garden.  

The Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA

Lake Merritt houses the sister collection to the one residing at The Huntington. The organization exhibits approximately 100 bonsai at any given time in the outdoor garden’s viewing area, changing displays regularly with the seasons. Lake Merritt has the distinction of being the only major all-volunteer bonsai garden in the country.

The organization cares for approximately 200 bonsai, including a tree estimated to be more than 1,600 years old. In addition, the Lake Merritt collection boasts a historic oak bonsai gifted by the Japanese government to a U.S. ambassador during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

The Pacific Bonsai Museum, Federal Way, WA

The Pacific Bonsai Museum near Seattle is one of only two museums in the U.S. dedicated solely to bonsai. Founded in 1989, its diverse collection numbers more than 150 specimens from the U.S., Japan, China, Canada, Taiwan, and Korea. Its works include a Korean Yew estimated to be approximately 500 years old and a maple that has been in training for more than 100 years.

The museum rotates the display of its collection. It exhibits around 60 bonsai at any given time in a unique and elegant outdoor setting. The museum displays trees when they are the most interesting. Signage accompanying each specimen lists the estimated year the tree originated and the year it went into training as a bonsai.

Other Options

But what if you don’t happen to live near any of the places mentioned?  Here are some ideas:

  • Plan a trip. All six places are located in great vacation destinations, so keep that in mind when planning your next trip! In addition, if you happen to be passing through one of the cities or there on a work-related trip, try to squeeze in a visit.
  • Is there a bonsai club in your area?  If so, check it out!  These groups of local bonsai enthusiasts can be a valuable resource for the beginner. Also, many clubs hold an annual bonsai exhibit where you can see nicely styled bonsai from club members and other hobbyists.
  • Search for nearby bonsai nurseries or training classes. A visit to a nursery in your region can be a source of supplies and stock. It’s not uncommon for a bonsai nursery to devote a small area for display of more developed trees not intended for sale. In addition, training class instructors might provide an inside scoop on bonsai resources that don’t have websites or aren’t well-publicized.
  • Consult a book or two. Even if your only option is to look at photos of bonsai on the internet and in books, you can still gain an appreciation of how good composition, styling and care can transform a once-ordinary plant into a living work of art. Check out some book recommendations in one of our other posts.

In Summary . . .

This article explored six places in the United States with extensive collections of fine bonsai specimens. Enthusiasts, from beginners to the more advanced, can learn and gain inspiration by visiting these bonsai exhibits. 

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