The miniature masterpieces that we call bonsai and penjing are the pinnacle of gardening skill, and the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum has one of the largest collections of these timeless trees in North America. The Japanese art of bonsai, and its precursor, the Chinese art of penjing, are rooted in the traditions of Asian culture. The placement of branches, styling, and the pot all convey deep symbolism and reverence for nature.
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum began when Japanese bonsai enthusiasts in the Nippon Bonsai Association donated 53 bonsai and 6 viewing stones 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, 3 pavilions house about 150 plants. The International Pavilion is a focal point that celebrates the related art forms of viewing stones and ikebana, a Japanese style of flower arranging. Throughout the year, you may also find exhibits featuring the work of local bonsai enthusiasts and pieces from the permanent collection with special seasonal interest in the Special Exhibits Wing of the International Pavilion.
The concept of an internationally acclaimed collection of bonsai and penjing was conceived by former Arboretum Director Dr. John Creech in 1972. The Japanese Pavilion was constructed as a result of the donation from the Nippon Bonsai Association of Japan, and became the home of the new specimens. The collection grew again in 1986 with the gift of Chinese penjing from Dr. Yee-sun Wu and Shu-ying Lui. The construction of the Dr. Yee-sun Wu Chinese Pavilion recognizes this important gift and provides a home where his gift can be properly displayed. The growing popularity of bonsai in North America was recognized with the construction of the John Naka North American Pavilion. In it resides one of the most extensive and diverse collections of bonsai from masters in North America, including American master John Naka's Goshin, a spectacular forest-style planting of junipers.
The gardens in the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum are more than a backdrop for the bonsai and penjing pieces. The Ellen Gordon Allen Entrance Garden primes you for the experience of visiting the museum with its sculpted pines. The Cryptomeria Walk calms your soul as you pass through the shade of the evergreen branches. The upper courtyard, with its water feature and bonsai display welcomes you to the center of the museum. As you leave the International Pavilion and Special Exhibits Wing, the pagoda-like entrance to the Chinese Pavilion and the nearby serpentine wall give you a sense of the ancient roots of penjing and the mysticism of Asian art forms. The Japanese Stroll Garden prepares you for the formality and spirituality found in the Japanese Pavilion that is home to the museum’s first and oldest pieces. The Yamaguchi Garden, featuring a variety of plants native to North America, echoes the less formal styling and diversity of inspirations characteristic of American masters who contributed pieces in the North American Pavilion.
The National Bonsai Foundation was organized around the mission of promoting bonsai in North America, particularly by supporting the development of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. The arboretum would provide the space and the resources for the maintenance and display of the specimens. The National Bonsai Foundation would provide the springboard for immensely successful efforts to raise the private funds necessary to build the proper museum structures to house and support the collection. Through the generous gifts of the bonsai community and others, the Museum grew dramatically in the early 1990s. The Haruo Kaneshiro Tropical Conservatory was added for tender bonsai specimens, as well as a behind-the-scenes greenhouse for housing specimens under development. New pieces added in recent years have further expanded the variety of styles and species represented in the collection. The National Bonsai Foundation continues to play a key role in the development of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is undoubtedly one of Washington's key attractions for plant lovers. You will want to budget ample time to see the specimens and gardens at a leisurely pace. An hour can easily pass by before you have a chance to admire the pieces. The recent improvements to the upper and lower courtyards are part of a phased construction plan to improve the visitor’s experience and make the museum handicap accessible. The museum's hours are shorter than those of the arboretum. You may visit anytime between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm except for federal holidays during the months of November through February when the museum is closed. The tranquility of Asian art forms is sure to leave the most tired soul refreshed after a visit. Recharged, you can make the short walk across Meadow Road to the National Herb Garden or visit the aquatic plants, koi, and U.S. National Arboretum introductions in the gardens surrounding the Administration Building.
Special Focus: The Special Exhibits Wing.
The Special Exhibits Wing (SEW) located adjacent to the International Pavilion allows the visitor to experience bonsai and related art forms in a formal setting. Whether conveying a season of the year or a specific location like high atop a mountain or next to a calm stream, much thought and study goes into a formal display. To learn more about what’s happening in the Special Exhibits Wing and other upcoming events in the museum click here.