Bonsai and Penjing – Little Bits of Japan and China Alive in Washington DC

Cherry blossoms gifted from Japan aren’t the only link to Asia in Washington DC. From the famed tidal basin head northeast and you’ll eventually reach a glorious spot nuzzled into an otherwise urban New York Avenue – the U.S. National Arboretum. Yes, there is a National Arboretum. And one of its greatest treasures is the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.

National Bonsai and Penjing Musuem

An offshoot of the US Department of Agriculture (which, incidentally, was started by Abraham Lincoln in 1862), the Arboretum features living exhibits spanning the familiar dogwoods and azaleas to the practical herb gardens to the more exotic Asian collection. They even have 22 sandstone Corinthian columns that once stood at the east portico of the U.S. Capitol. But by far the most captivating are the bonsai trees and penjing art.

Japanese White Pine

Bonsai is the Japanese art of sculpture using living trees. Each tree is painstakingly managed over many decades and even centuries to limit its size and sculpt its shape. The oldest tree in the museum is the Japanese White Pine in the photo above. It has been in training since 1625, which means that many generations have dedicated thousands of hours to this one tree. How do they sculpt the tree? I’ll talk more about the science of bonsai in a future post. Suffice to say it takes a lot of patience.

Many of the trees in the collection are White, Black, or Japanese Pine, or Junipers. These evergreen conifers lend themselves to being handled and managed. Some of the most beautiful are this California Juniper:

California Juniper

And this Chinese Juniper:

Chinese Juniper

But non-evergreens can also created, like this Japanese Maple:

Japanese Maple

Even trees that we know for their extraordinary size can be kept small by a dedicated bonsai artist. Take, for example, this Coastal Redwood tree:

Coastal Redwood

All of the above would be considered Japanese bonsai. The museum also has a several examples of the Chinese art of penjing. Like bonsai, penjing uses carefully managed miniature trees. But penjing places these trees in the context of a miniature landscape.

Lijiang River in Spring


Roots may be “draped dramatically” over rocks. Rocks may also become the focal point of the work, with the trees acting as highlights. In some cases miniature ceramic figures are included to create a “natural” scene on a tiny scale. The effect can indeed be dramatic.

Penjing with Chinese Elm and figures


I’ll end this post here but plan to come back for more insights into the fine art of bonsai and penjing. Getting these small trees into the preferred shape (including dragons!) takes some significant, some might even argue tortuous, mechanical manipulation. The public rarely sees the science behind the art. I’ll show it to you.

David J. Kent is a scientist and traveler. He is also the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity, the second printing of which will be available in Barnes and Noble bookstores soon.

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3 thoughts on “Bonsai and Penjing – Little Bits of Japan and China Alive in Washington DC

  1. Wonderful post! These beautiful little trees/landscape remind me of my grandpa, who spent lots of time on similar things. Too bad we didn’t have cameras back then. 🙁

    Looking forward to future articles on this topic.

    • It would have been wonderful to watch your grandfather work. Perhaps an idea for something to write about. 🙂

  2. Pingback: The Art and Science of Bonsai | Science Traveler

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