Michael James


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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.  

Takahiro Mori Performs Bonsai Demonstration at U.S. National Arboretum

Mori works on bonsai during demonstration.

Mori works on bonsai during demonstration.

Japanese bonsai master Takahiro Mori held a bonsai demonstration at the U.S. National Arboretum on July 20th.

In February, Yoshiko Higuchi of the Japanese Embassy wrote to Museum curator Michael James that Mori, a Japanese bonsai master who operates a nursery in Saitama, Japan, planned to visit D.C. in July. Higuchi and James then asked Mori to perform a couple of public and private demonstrations while he stayed in the District. 

At the public Museum demonstration, Mori held a talk about bonsai and performed a one-hour demonstration on a juniper collected on the Arboretum’s grounds five years ago. Museum staff members who have been caring for the tree since its collection will complete any remaining wiring and pruning the juniper needs.

The juniper collected on the Arboretum’s grounds five years ago that Mori worked on during the demonstration.

The juniper collected on the Arboretum’s grounds five years ago that Mori worked on during the demonstration.

U.S. National Arboretum Hosts Receptions for American Public Gardens Association Conference

The American Public Gardens Association annual conference was held in Washington, D.C. from June 17th to the 21st. The U.S. National Arboretum hosted a dinner and five small receptions for APGA on June 20th.  

Before dinner in the Great Meadow, the Arboretum held receptions in five different locations on the grounds: The Washington Youth Garden, Friendship Garden, The Turf Grass Exhibit, The National Herb Garden and The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.  

Photos Courtesy of Olivia Anderson Photography

Photos Courtesy of Olivia Anderson Photography

The National Bonsai Foundation hosted the Museum’s reception, serving sushi and Japanese beer. Guests were able to enjoy the Museum’s renowned tree collections throughout the party. 

Photos Courtesy of Olivia Anderson Photography

Photos Courtesy of Olivia Anderson Photography

During the reception, Museum curator Michael James and 2019 First Curator's Apprentice Andy Bello gave bonsai pruning demonstrations. Museum volunteer and artist Young Choe composed a kusamono (the Japanese botanical art of a potted arrangement of wild grasses and flowers). 

Landscape architect, Joseph James from Reed Hilderbrand fostered a discussion about upcoming renovations to the Museum complex and presented a display of preliminary renovation plans. 

Photo Courtesy of Olivia Anderson Photography

Photo Courtesy of Olivia Anderson Photography

Authors Sandra Moore, Stephen Voss and Ann McClellan also staffed a bookstand that held books they have written about the Museum. The National Bonsai Foundation and U.S. National Arboretum are grateful to all who attended and helped make the event a big success!

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.



When David Rizwan first saw a bonsai tree while searching online for plants to decorate his apartment, he thought there must be something “magical” about it.

“It’s a common misconception that there’s something mysterious there,” Rizwan said of bonsai. “There is a general lack of knowledge in the public, and I was a part of that – I didn’t know what was being done, I thought the trees were all special, small species, and it wasn’t something that a normal person can just do.”

Nonetheless, he was hooked, and took a deep dive into bonsai. He watched hundreds of YouTube videos on bonsai to learn everything he could about how “normal” people could possible create such an other-worldly work of art.

His personal collection quickly went from one Trident Maple to more than 60 trees before he was forced to “downsize.” His love for bonsai eclipsed all else, even prompting him to put his career as a quality manager and engineer in the medical device industry on hold to apply for the First Curators’ Apprenticeship at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.

“I put my career on hold to have more time for bonsai and fully immerse myself in the art,” he said. “Everybody thought I was crazy, but I firmly believed that wholeheartedly dedicating the time to learn and practice the fundamentals would set the best foundation for my artwork going forward.”

Less than three years after starting with bonsai, Rizwan is one month into his apprenticeship, and is pleased to confirm that no magical skills are required.

“Bonsai is for everyone,” he said. “It’s not a wealthy person or a magical person thing; it’s an everyone thing.”

The move also impressed his new team at the Museum: “David left a good job to work at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum,” said Museum specialist Michael James. “That’s priceless.”

Although he is relatively new to bonsai, Rizwan has already learned a lot – both in technical skills and life lessons. He said that he has experienced many ways in which bonsai benefits its practitioners – a better understanding of nature, strengthening of empathy skills, and taking a new perspective to personal relationships.

“Bonsai mirrors other relationships in life,” he said. “Sometimes you have to do something that isn’t immediately as pleasant, but knowing that the future outcome is worth the temporary sacrifice. It’s that same feeling when cutting off a branch that isn’t quite fitting well, knowing that its removal will allow another branch to develop that will carry the design forward one day.”

In addition to getting more experience working with the high caliber of historic specimens at the museum, David hopes that this experience will help him further his goal of making bonsai more accessible to the general public, and help them recognize that bonsai is something they can do and benefit from.

David encourages visitors to come to the museum in each season to experience the breathtaking way that bonsai trees can change throughout the year, and to see different highlights from the collection.

“There’s only a fraction of trees on display at any given time,” he said. “Visitors should try not to get a false sense of lack of diversity if they just see lots of pines and maples. Visiting throughout the year will allow you to experience very different things in the collection, and in individual trees themselves. The same tree experienced three months apart can be drastically different, and each season has its value.”