While visiting the North American collection, you might notice one bonsai that stands out from the rest – but hardly like a sore thumb. Museum curator Michael James sat down with us to talk about the pine’s history and defining features.
Towering sometimes two whole feet taller than its neighboring bonsai, the ponderosa pine stands at about 56 inches tall and almost as wide. The pine tends to hold its own as a large bonsai because of its large needle size, but careful fertilization and pruning efforts may be employed to reduce its leaves, James said.
This particular pine has been in training since 1966, when U.S. Forest Service employee Dan Robinson collected the tree from a rocky region of Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington. The pine is believed to have been about 150 years old when Robinson first brought the pine home and began to train its bristly branches, James said.
“It was an extraordinary feat to get this out of the ground,” he said.
Robinson trained and cared for the pine for about 15 years and affectionately nicknamed it “Jackie Gleason Dancing” for its weaving and curving trunkline, James said. Jackie Gleason was a famous TV comedian in the 1950s and 60s who was known for a swivel-hip motion!
“It has a very strong jin that goes up into the middle of the tree, and then the trunkline drops down and curves back up over the top of that jin,” James said. “It’s kind of like a swinging look to it.”
In October 1980 the U.S. Forest Service held a special donation ceremony for the pine at the Museum in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the service, he said.
James added that when the pine first arrived, Robinson had situated the tree in a non-traditional container created from rigid styrofoam insulation Robinson had carved into the form of a stone slab and then covered with fiberglass. Robinson’s container was so buoyant that he once placed it in the water and floated the tree around the pond surrounding the National Arboretum’s Visitor Center.
Jim Barrett, a popular potter based in California, made the ceramic container that it currently resides in.
James said Museum curators need to be mindful not to overwater the tree, which is an arid and slow-growing pine. He added that the pine is well adapted to cold weather, so it can remain outside during winter in Washington, D.C. without suffering damaged cells from ice and freezing.
“A lot of care has to be given to this tree, and when a tree is this large it takes more than one person to repot it,” James said. “It would be an honor to re-pot this with Dan Robinson someday.”