Visitors to the Bonsai Collection are treated to an ever-changing display of one of the largest and finest public masterpiece collections in the United States. Started in 1968 with trees donated by the late Bob Watson, the bonsai holdings now number in the hundreds, representing many different species, styles, and sizes, from centuries-old twisted junipers to majestic pines, stately elm forests, and more.
Contemporary bonsai designs follow ancient Japanese tradition in that they are intended to replicate the character of old trees found in nature, but with trees, shrubs, or woody herbs grown in containers. Some bonsai in the Huntington collections are estimated to be over 1,000 years old. Most are much younger, but using current horticultural science, modern tools, and advanced training techniques, each has achieved a masterpiece quality.
History of Bonsai
Known as penjing in China, miniature trees can be found in Chinese scroll art, poetry, and even mythology dating as far back as the Eastern Han dynasty (25–221 A.D.). Tomb paintings from the Tang dynasty (618–907 A.D.) portray attendants carrying potted trees. Buddhist monks from China introduced miniature trees to Japan sometime around the 13th century. There the art form became highly formalized, reaching its peak in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bonsai gained worldwide exposure—and fashionable acclaim—at the Paris World Exposition in 1900.
Suiseki and Shohin
The Huntington collection is spread throughout two serene courtyards, with trees set on pedestals against a backdrop of handcrafted fence treatments. The two courtyards are linked by the Harry Hirao Suiseki Court, which features a collection of American suiseki, or viewing stones (expressive stones of special shape, color, and texture), that visitors are encouraged to touch. Within the upper bonsai court, a water feature provides a calming backdrop for the smallest bonsai in our collection, the shohin, or trees under 8 inches tall.
No two visits to the bonsai collection are ever exactly the same, as trees are rotated throughout the year to highlight seasonal features such as flowers, foliage color, and fruit. Occasionally, trees that encounter pests or disease are removed from public display to enable treatment. While visitors may see 75 bonsai on any given day, these displays represent only a portion of the overall collection. Since 1990, The Huntington has served as the Southern California site for the Golden State Bonsai Federation collection. Today, this blended collection represents the long tradition of bonsai in Southern California and serves as a living legacy to our bonsai pioneers, as well as to our contemporary bonsai visionaries.
Ask Our Bonsai Expert
What is a bonsai tree?
The Japanese word “bonsai” translates as “tree in a pot.” Bonsai are living plants, typically a tree, shrub, or woody herb grown in a pot and trained to develop characteristics found in a very old tree.
How old are bonsai trees?
There are two ways to measure bonsai age: real age (the time the tree has been growing), and the age of training (the time the tree has been worked on). Some trees in The Huntington’s collection were hundreds of years old when they were collected for training into bonsai. Others were under 20 years old. Both might have the same age of training. There are a few trees in the collection that have been in training since the 1950s, which is fairly old for an American bonsai.
Where do bonsai trees come from?
Some trees, such as the California junipers and oaks, are collected from nature. Some, like pomegranates, are collected from urban landscapes. Many come from plant nurseries. The bonsai displayed at The Huntington have been donated or acquired from private bonsai hobbyists, primarily but not exclusively from Southern California. The trees in the Huntington collection, which includes the Golden State Bonsai Federation collection, represent some of the finest and oldest examples of bonsai in the United States.
How do bonsai trees stay alive in such small containers?
The trees are grown in a mix of crushed and cleaned lava, pumice, and naturally compressed clay aggregate, including imported Japanese clay products. This mix provides a stable structure with a balance of aeration, water, and nutrient storage and a sharpness that promotes strong root development. Pots dry out as trees use up moisture, which is why trees must be watered daily.
Can they stay in their pots forever?
As a bonsai continues to grow, the pot will eventually fill with roots and compress, which can weaken a tree. Every once in a while and only at the right time of year, a tree has to be repotted, with some of the old soil and roots removed, and put in new bonsai mix so it has room for new roots to grow. Younger and deciduous trees need more frequent repotting; older conifers can sometimes stay in their pots for 15 to 20 years.
What’s wrapped around the branches?
Some branches are wrapped in wire, either anodized (colored) aluminum or annealed (heated/softened) copper. Wire is used to move and hold a trunk or branches in a certain position until new tissues grow and harden. Branches are wired in a spiral fashion so even if the wrap cuts into the tree, it won’t girdle the branch, or cut off the sap flow all the way around, which can kill a branch.
Why are bonsai trees outdoors?
Trees need lots of light and air, and benefit even from the moisture in the air. Interiors are too dark and dry for them to thrive. Different trees have different needs for light. In many cases, this means full morning sun, and then shade or partial shade in the afternoon when temperatures rise.
Why are there different trees and different shapes?
Bonsai are not one species, nor are they one shape. Today, bonsai is practiced around the world and new indigenous tree species, forms, and styles are being developed all the time. Trees are also shaped by their environment. Trees at high latitudes develop tall, columnar forms that allow them to capture sunlight at low angles. Trees in the tropics are more broad and flat, which is the most efficient way to capture light coming from directly above.
Is it hard to maintain a bonsai?
There are many challenges to growing a bonsai, the most important being the health of the tree. They won’t survive indoors and can die for many reasons, from improper watering to untreated pests and/or disease, from overworking the tree to neglect. Bonsai with rocks glued to the surface of the soil are dying the day they’re purchased, although they may not look like it. Most new bonsai die because they’re kept indoors where it is too dry and dark for them to survive.
How do I get started in bonsai?
A local bonsai club is the best way to learn about the art, as well as the local horticulture and available resources, including teachers. There are several bonsai clubs in Southern California and throughout the country. The Golden State Bonsai Federation lists member clubs in California.
The Huntington offers bonsai classes and workshops at various times throughout the year. Visit the Calendar or search “bonsai” for upcoming events.