Historical Tree Spotlight


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From the cliffs of San Diego to the Gulf Coast, cypress trees can be found throughout the United States. But how did this bald cypress, or Taxodium distichum, end up in a bonsai museum? 

The late Vaughn Banting, a former National Bonsai Foundation board member, a former director of the American Bonsai Society and a former director and vice president of Bonsai Clubs International, donated the tree to the Museum in 2000. 

Banting was no stranger to plant care and garden design. His history with trees dates back to his childhood when he worked on bonsai at his family's plant nursery in New Orleans. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he studied horticulture and landscape architecture at Louisiana State University. After returning home he started a horticultural service company and founded the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society. 

Banting’s cypress tree began as nursery stock, which is a plant that has been cultivated from a seedling or cutting and grown in a container, according to Museum curator Michael James. The stock is then planted into the landscape to grow into a full-sized tree or shrub. This particular cypress was instead destined to become a bonsai and has been in training in a pot since 1972. 

The cypress in 1976 in its first form, the formal upright.

The cypress in 1976 in its first form, the formal upright.

The bald cypress, a deciduous conifer native to the Southeast United States, is often found in swamps where its roots can be fully submerged in water. One would be hard-pressed to find this particular species of cypress growing in Japan or China, because the tree would have to travel to those countries by boat or plane, James said. 

When Vaughn Banting first began training this tree, he aimed for a traditional Japanese formal-upright formation, which is the natural growth habit of young bald cypresses. But he later realized that old bald cypresses are different.

Museum curators and volunteers train the cypress in a flat-top configuration – the same style the tree sported when Banting first gifted the tree to the Museum. According to James, Banting observed the bald cypress’ unique growth habits as they matured at his parent’s nursery, which led him to create the flat-top style. 

Related Reading – Know Your Styles: A Guide to Bonsai Configurations

Banting realized that the flat-top style’s success relies on the positioning and thinning of the upper branches.

“As the trees become old and mature, they lose the triangular silhouette with a sharp apex and wide lower branch spread,” James said. “The lower branches break off over time, and that triangular silhouette of the formal upright style inverts itself. Upper branches then form a broad flat canopy with multiple apices and lower branches hold their foliage close to the trunk.” 

After nearly fifty years of training and three different training stages, Banting’s bald cypress is on display in the Museum’s North American pavilion. The flat-top configuration has become very popular, and the Museum is looking forward to the next innovative bonsai design to come our way.  

HISTORICAL TREE SPOTLIGHT: “Spring Rain” Stone Penjing

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When thinking of bonsai or penjing, one naturally imagines perfectly manicured trees. But in this month’s Historical Tree Spotlight, we’re shifting gears and taking a look instead at a unique stone presentation called “Spring Rain.” Museum curator Michael James says the rocky display exemplifies a fundamental difference between bonsai and penjing.

“Penjing, in the literal translation, is more of a theme or a landscape in a shallow container, whereas bonsai is really the minimalist, iconic tree we all know,” he said.

A gift from the Shanghai Botanical Garden to the Museum in 2006, “Spring Rain” is usually on display during the summer months in the Chinese Pavilion.

The penjing sits in a nearly five-foot tray crafted from white marble – a prolific resource used often in Southern China – which is meant to portray the surrounding sea. Its jutting landscape is a representation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site composed of a group of land masses protruding from Halong Bay in the South China sea.

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Although “Spring Rain” represents a physical place on Earth, James said penjing are not always crafted to resemble real locations. The displays are often created as a poetic representation of an imaginary world or whimsical place.  

“With some of the other penjing we have in the Museum, the trees are so curvy they don’t even look the way trees naturally grow,” he said. “But they do look like an amazing place to be if you were miniaturized in that setting.”

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According to James, the small boats under the main rock signify another capital difference between bonsai and penjing. The tiny pewter or ceramic figurines are accents used in penjing to create a humanistic scale. James said the presence of greenery is minimal in penjing, and the lack of plants in “Spring Rain” speaks to the minimalistic approach of the art.

He added that penjing artists use a freeform “clip-and-grow” method, rather than training the trees with wire, to redirect the trees’ energy into the desired form.

“With penjing, artists and creators allow the tree to do more of what it does naturally,” James said.


Ezo spruce

Ezo spruce

After a journey that started in Japan and led to the White House, before eventually settling at the Museum, it’s safe to say the Ezo spruce has an amazing history. We spoke with Museum curator Michael James about the small evergreen’s impressive origin story for this month’s historical tree spotlight!

According to James, international bonsai master and philosopher Saburo Kato first presented the tree to the late Japanese Prime Minister Keizō Obuchi in 1998. The prime minister then gifted the spruce to former President Bill Clinton at a formal state dinner in Tokyo that November.

In December 1998, the tree was flown to Washington, D.C. and placed in quarantine at the National Plant Germplasm Quarantine Center, until it was released to the National Arboretum the following year.

The tree was then displayed in the White House’s blue room in 1999, when Saburo Kato personally introduced President Clinton and Prime Minister Obuchi to the sensational art of bonsai. Kato’s well-respected family was the first to establish a nursery in Omiya, Japan – called  Mansei-en – which earned a reputation as a global bonsai hub.

Tomekichi Kato II, Saburo’s father, was the first to develop the horticultural techniques necessary to cultivate the Ezo spruce as a bonsai: Saburo Kato’s spruce boasts the Formal Upright style, exhibiting the rare and highly prized Japanese concept of “Shin.”

Kato collected the tree in 1939 from Kunashir, a Japanese island with a subarctic climate. It has been in training ever since.

In its native area, which ranges from mountains in central Japan to the China-North Korea border, the spruce can grow to be a large evergreen towering at more than 100 feet tall. The tree is used to cold climates, so although it mostly grows during the four warmer months of the year, it can survive under a protective blanket of snow in winter.

The Ezo is difficult to import, as the spruce hosts a fungus known for infecting species of rhododendron and azalea, but the Museum houses three of the trees in the Japanese Pavilion.

James said one should spray the spruce’s foliage to reduce its temperature on hot days, and that the tree must always be kept moist because it grows surface roots.

“Its beauty is most spectacular in the spring, when its lime green shoots emerge from winter dormancy and contrast the dark green needles from years past,” he said.

After new shoots emerge and begin to elongate, curators carefully pinch the shoots to keep the tree in balance and maintain its good form, James said.

He added that the Ezo’s fibrous surface roots allow the tree to produce healthy and full “nebari,” or root flare, which add to the tree’s visual balance. The spruce’s fine and delicate needles are compact, which creates the impression of a tree that is over 100 feet tall when it actually stands less than four feet tall.

“Its bark has a very fine flakiness that contributes to a look of age that is in proportion to its small size as a bonsai,” James said.


Dan Robinson carves the dead wood on the ponderosa pine.

Dan Robinson carves the dead wood on the ponderosa pine.

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.”