Tree Talk: A short journey into bonsai

Tree Talk: A short journey into bonsai

Tree Talk: A short journey into bonsai

Travel is more than physical movement from one place to another. It is a journey into history and culture. It is a vehicle to the discovery of exotic riches.

Some travel takes a specific focus: art, architecture, food, theater, animals, perhaps horticulture and gardens. Yes! Horticulture and gardens. I’ll be traveling this month, so I’m suggesting to readers that you do a bit of traveling yourselves. 

Less than an hour from Seattle, the Pacific Bonsai Museum is nestled into native woodland, adjoining the old Weyerhaeuser corporate headquarters in Federal Way.

The museum is open air with a collection of over 150 bonsai, 60 of which are on display at any one time. Every plant stands at eye level, tucked into carrels, so that the viewer’s focus is on each of these incredible creations.

Simply stated, bonsai uses the techniques of pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation and grafting to grow miniature trees that have the shape and style of full-size plants.

The trees are often artistically contorted, reminiscent of the gnarled conifers we see growing in the rocky outcroppings of Japanese mountains and also our own high Cascades.

Bonsai dates back to the sixth century in Japan. Buddhist students, visiting mainland China, returned home with potted trees. Over the centuries, the cultivation process was refined, reaching its peak in the 17th century.

A few of these old trees survive, the oldest, a Japanese National Treasure, began its bonsai training in 1610.

Fascination with this living art form spread. By the early 19th century, bonsai became a widely popular hobby.

Today, largely due to the post-World War II interest in Japanese culture, groups and individuals cultivating bonsai have sprung up in pockets around the world, none more vigorously than in the Western United States. 

The trees in the Pacific Bonsai Museum’s collection come from Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the United States. To enjoy the subtle seasonal changes in these trees, visit the museum in autumn, winter, spring and summer. There is good reason, however, to go this month. A special exhibit, entitled World War Bonsai — Remembrance and Resilience, is on view through this month and into November. 

The idea of Aarin Packhard, bonsai historian and the museum’s curator, the show features 35 trees, all cultivated during, or soon after, World War II. Each tree is a rhapsodic manifestation of nature, art, painstaking cultivation, constant attention and love, all under the stressful circumstances of surviving the war and its ramifications. 

What makes this show resonate, as much as the incredible beauty of the bonsai, is the story that accompanies each of the plants. Posted in the carrel, many with photographs, the text is to be read where the visitor can see the plant. Every tale is compelling.

Ben Oki, a Japanese-American studying in Japan, was trapped there with the outbreak of the war. In a split-second decision, he chose to go fishing rather than take the train into downtown Hiroshima for a job interview on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. What seemed a reckless impulse saved him from the Atomic Bomb and certain death.

His brother, who was with him and chose to go into the city, was lost. After the war, Ben returned to Los Angeles where he ran a successful landscape design and installation business. He practiced bonsai, becoming the curator of the bonsai collection at the famous Huntington Library Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, holding that position until he died at the age of 88.

Juzaburo Furuzawa was incarcerated in Tule Lake Segregation Center.  There, in a tin can, he planted seeds of black pine that had been sent to him by relatives in Japan, where pine trees symbolize strength, resilience and longevity. The seeds germinated, a pine grew and the bonsai on display is the one he tended through life. 

The stories go on, each one as compelling as the next. You’ll want to buy a catalog of the show, replete with beautiful photographs and well-written and informative text. 

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. For directions, holiday closing dates and access to some excellent taped interviews, see the website,

Set aside time to walk the well-groomed trails meandering through the adjoining forest. You may want to visit the Rhododendron Species Foundation and Botanical Garden in the same wooded area. Make a day of it!

Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…” 

’Tis unlikely that any readers of this publication suffer from any of those maladies. Still, it is always healthy to broaden your view of our wonderful earthly whole.

While I am out and about, I urge our readers to take a journey into history and culture and all the exotic riches that can offer. Travel — head south, down to the Pacific Bonsai Museum.