Bonsai People

Penjing Defined by Master Zhao Qingquan

If you’re not familiar with the nuances differentiating bonsai – which originated in China and has been popularized by the Japanese – from the Chinese art of penjing, the two forms probably seem very similar or even identical. But with a little background, you’ll see there are important differences that distinguish most penjing from bonsai. We spoke with renowned penjing master, Zhao Qingquan, to bring you this blog.

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Zhao was born in Yangzhou City, China, where his father – a penjing enthusiast – first introduced him to the art of penjing. Other than his father, the most influential figure in Zhao’s life was his professor Xiaobai Xu, who bolstered his penjing knowledge.

“I am always proud of my final choice of the penjing as a career,” he says.

As Zhao explained in Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment: “In the Chinese language, we distinguish between three kinds of penjing, shumu penjing (tree penjing), shanshui penjing (which literally translates to “mountain and water penjing” but is usually called “landscape penjing” or “rock penjing”) and shuihan penjing (water-and-land penjing).

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Zhao says that artists in China constantly innovate and develop penjing forms, so the style and content of the art form is becoming increasingly varied, but all have the “same essence of applying natural materials to express natural landscapes.”

Zhao explains that bonsai is actually the same as shumu penjing (tree penjing), one of the three categories of penjing. Tree penjing (bonsai) uses containers to display natural trees and plants, and artists will use wiring, pruning and chiseling techniques to create the composition’s dominant elements, he says.

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In contrast, the second category of mountain and water penjing take the form of landscape scenes: artists will cut and reshape rocks to embody islands or mountains and often add small live plants to flesh out the scene, Zhao says. In the third category of water-and-land penjing, artists depict more “complete” scene, using materials like soil and water, as well as miniature figurines, he adds.

Zhao points out that “as an art aiming at ‘seeing the big from the tiny,’ penjing is often created as a method of self-expression to convey personal emotions.”

He reflects that humans naturally desire a tranquil life that immerses us in nature, but we often alienate ourselves from our natural environment to focus on work and family. Zhao says the pressure to survive in a modern and increasingly industrialized world facilitates humans’ tendencies to not prioritize connections with nature.

 “Penjing art allows us to pursue peacefulness and tranquility in our inner hearts and fulfill our desires of being part of nature,” he said. “Therefore, penjing as an old traditional art has been renewed.”

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Penjing is a traditional Chinese art that can be traced back to as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Bonsai (tree penjing) was brought to Japan during the Southern Song Dynasty of China (1127–1279) or the late Heian Period in Japan (794–1192), Zhao says. 

Three nationwide penjing communities have been established successively in China: the Chinese Society of Landscape Architecture Flower Penjing Suiseki Association, the Chinese Penjing Artists Association, and the Penjing Branch of China Flower Association. 

“As an art form expressing the human desire to love nature and peace in the world, penjing has gained increasing popularity around the globe,” Zhao says. “Penjing is used to decorate our homes and to cultivate self-expression, helping us achieve a healthier and happier life.”

Drawing from Bonsai: Photos from Class

On Saturday, professional nature illustrator, Tina Thieme Brown taught a drawing class at The Museum. About 10 students gathered to “draw from bonsai.” Here are some great photos of the class by our Social Media Intern, Dani Grace. Read more about Tina’s creative process drawing nature in a past blog here.

Interested in taking a class with Tina at the Museum? Make sure to sign up on the form below and you’ll be the first to know if we announce another date!

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The Art of Kusamono: Interview With ‘Articulturist’ Young Choe

I never thought that I would become an artist or teacher.
— Young Choe, Articulturist
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Young Choe has spent more than 20 years volunteering at The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum and working sporadically as a horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum. She loves her work, but in her spare time follows what seems to be her true calling of kusamono, the art of curating collections of wild grasses and flowers in unique pots or trays. 

Choe fuses her artistic talent with horticulture, resulting in a process she calls “articulture.” Choe says that Kusamono is the perfect tie between her Asian culture, knowledge of plants’ physiology and the talent she has developed toward creating beautiful works. Many kusamono styles exist, but according to Choe, the most developed versions of the art form come from Japan and Europe.

Kusamono can be created in various vessel-like pots or moss balls and can be put on display by itself, on a tray or on a ceramic tile, paired with bonsai as an accent plant.

“It’s a living art form,” says Choe. “Every plant is different depending on how you create it, what kind of plants you put together and which pots you use.” 

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Choe affirms that kusamono is different than ikebana or bonsai. But, like those practices, each kusamono arrangement requires a unique pruning style that builds a special form over time. 

Choe had wanted to study plants since she was young, but horticulture was not a popular subject in her home city of Seoul, South Korea. She ended up studying Asian art in South Korea, but upon moving to America she began volunteering at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, an experience that led her back to her old interest in plants. 

Soon after, Choe enrolled at the University of Maryland where she received a Bachelor of Science in horticulture. When Choe first started at The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, the little accent plants that often accompany bonsai arrangements fascinated her. Hoping to learn the art herself, she traveled to Japan three times for a week each time over the course of about five years to study under Keiko Yamane, a kusamono master.

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“At that time, I simply learned this because I loved it,” she said. “I never thought that I would become an artist or teacher.”

She now travels around the world instructing on the art of kusamono to other budding practitioners. Most recently, Choe worked on a kusamono arrangement for a reception the Museum held for the American Public Gardens Association’s annual conference.

“When I share this art form, the students are very motivated and happy,” she said. “When I see that kind of energy from people, it makes me happy.” 

Choe says that she is grateful to the staff of the U.S. National Arboretum and members of the National Bonsai Foundation for supporting her as a kusamono artist and says she tries to work on kusamono as much as she can when she isn’t working at the Arboretum. 

“Kusamono is threatening my main job right now!” Choe joked. “I just keep doing it, I can’t give it up.”

The National Bonsai Foundation Remembers Member Solita Rosade

The National Bonsai Foundation (NBF) and the worldwide bonsai community mourn the loss of Solita D. Tafur Rosade who passed away on Aug. 31st, 2019. A beloved figure who dedicated her life to promoting the art of bonsai, Soli was born in Colombia, South America, but left at an early age to be educated in the United States, Spain and Switzerland. 

Returning to Colombia after college, Soli married and raised two children. Her love of nature and her hobbies of painting and gardening gave way to the fascinating world of bonsai. In 1984 she attended her first bonsai class in Cali, Columbia. Later while in Colombia, she authored a bonsai manual in Spanish entitled "The Essential in Bonsai," and became President of the Asociación Vallecaucana de Bonsai.

Soli’s devotion to the art of bonsai took her to many places in the world, both as a bonsai artist and as a bonsai diplomat. She gave demonstrations and held workshops at international bonsai conventions and other bonsai events in Asia, Europe, India, South Africa, New Zealand, United States, Canada and several countries in Latin America.

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In 1992, Solita founded the Latin American Bonsai Federation (FELAB) and served as FELAB's President until 1998. From 1998 to 2002, she was the President of Bonsai Clubs International (BCI). In 2005, she became the third Chairman of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF), and after her term ended in 2009, she continued to serve as President of the North American Bonsai Federation (NABF) until 2018. Until her passing, she was a member of the NBF Board of Directors supporting the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this year Solita and Chase Rosade celebrated 26 years of marriage. Together they owned and operated the Rosade Bonsai Studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. From this beautiful studio, they invited both masters and novice alike to share in their love of bonsai, over the years giving countless classes and demonstrations to anyone willing to learn this wonderful art. From its inception the Rosade Bonsai Studio helped lead the way in celebrating World Bonsai Day in support of peace and friendship through bonsai.

There are few whose service to bonsai was greater than Soli’s. Much like WBFF’s founding fathers, Saburo Kato, John Naka and Ted Tsukiyama, Soli possessed “the spirit of bonsai” and worked tirelessly to spread the good word of bonsai both at home and abroad. 

Soli leaves behind a loving family and many friends and admirers throughout the world whom she inspired with her boundless enthusiasm for bonsai. At the end of her life, she found great joy seeing how the art of bonsai is flourishing in every corner of the globe – and knowing that she had played a part in making this happen. Her contributions will long be remembered and her friendship will always be missed.

National Bonsai & Penjing Museum Enters into Historic “Sister Museum” Relationship with Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Japan

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss

The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum officially became a Sister Museum to The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama, Japan on Monday, Aug. 5th! 

Our Museum was formed in 1976 as the result of Japan’s Bicentennial Gift of 53 masterpiece bonsai. The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, created in 2010, is located in the famous “Bonsai Village” that has been at the center of bonsai in Japan for almost 100 years.

Many board members and leaders from both museums attended the ceremony, which was held at our Museum in Washington, D.C. Dr. Richard Olsen – Director of the U.S. National Arboretum, which houses our Museum – and The Honorable Hayato Shimizu, Mayor of Saitama, signed the “Sister Museums Declaration.”

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss

Attendees heard remarks from Dr. Olsen, Mayor Shimizu, Felix Laughlin – National Bonsai Foundation Co-President – and Takahiro Shimada, Minister for Communications and Cultural Affairs at the Japanese Embassy. A luncheon in the Exhibits Gallery followed the ceremony, and Dr. Fumiya Taguchi – Manager of The Omiya museum – gave a presentation called “The History of Bonsai in Japan.”

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss

In the advent of their new partnership, the two museums plan to share information about their upcoming educational bonsai exhibits and programs. 

“Both museums hope to help increase awareness and appreciation for the other as premier destinations to experience the art of bonsai at its highest level of creativity and development,” Laughlin said.

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss

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.

FIRST CURATOR'S BLOG: Stories of Struggle and Survival

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When viewing old and ancient trees – whether they grow in a city, forest, desert or alpine slopes – one comes across stories of struggle and resilience. These stories are depicted in many ways depending on the species of tree, the characteristics of its wood and the environmental event that caused damage to the tree. 

Deadwood on bonsai is generally spoken about using the Japanese words “Jin,” meaning dead branch, and “Shari,” meaning deadwood on the trunk.

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Damage that results in the contortion of a tree can occur in bouts of extreme weather, like heavy snow, droughts, wind, lightning and more. Biological damage – events like animals grazing, insect infestations and human activities – also affect the contortion of a tree. 

All these impacts occur throughout the life of trees, sometimes over the course of thousands of years, like the ancient bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California which have been dated to about 6,000 years old.

After the damage occurs, deadwood features can take on many different appearances, depending on the species and environmental conditions that the tree resides in. 

In wet climates, many deciduous species with softer wood may form large hollows due to rotting and decay. But the deadwood on many junipers in dry climates will be sun bleached white by the sun, resulting in a look that is naturally preserved for longer periods of time. 

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In bonsai design, deadwood adds interest and a “survival story.” Sometimes an artist might collect a tree that already has naturally occurring deadwood. But artists can also create deadwood by breaking branches, stripping away bark and carving wood using hand or power tools. 

Artists generally treat deadwood on bonsai with a solution of lime sulphur. This solution protects it from rotting and bleaches the deadwood, giving it a white appearance that contrasts well with the rest of the tree. Penetrating wood hardeners can also be used on the deadwood if a bleaching effect is not desired.

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Each bonsai artist can decide whether to create deadwood on all trees or leave the variation to certain species. The real beauty of bonsai is not whether the tree has deadwood features, but is demonstrated in each person's ability to create and share their view of nature from their own life experiences. Bonsai is an art, and with any art there is no right or wrong.

Andy Bello (Stephen Voss)

Andy Bello (Stephen Voss)

Andy Bello has been selected as the Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum's First Curator's Apprenticeship for 2019 is funded by generous grants to the National Bonsai Foundation from Toyota North America and The Hill Foundation. More on Andy here.

Museum Hosts “Irreverent Bonsai Monk” Michael Hagedorn for World Bonsai Day

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Michael Hagedorn, a potter turned bonsai artist, will hold demonstrations at the Museum on World Bonsai Day, May 11th, 2019.

Hagedorn hails from Oregon, where he works on bonsai, teaches about his craft and keeps a bonsai blog. He said his interest in bonsai remained on the back burner for many years while he explored other disciplines, like drawing, ceramics and sculpture, that prepared him for a future in bonsai.

When he graduated from The New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University with a Master of Fine Arts, Hagedorn wanted to craft something – so he made bonsai containers for ten years. Hagedorn had taken care of bonsai since he was 15, but only late in his potter years did the trees start to become more compelling than the vessels they lived in.

“A full day could go by in the ceramics studio, and I was thinking about trees the whole time. I wasn’t concentrating on the pots,” he said. “There are only so many years that you can do that and know you need a change.”

A Background In Bonsai

Hagedorn said he jump-started his bonsai career under the tutelage of Boon Manakitivipart, an internationally recognized bonsai master.

“He was strict and I was a challenging student, willful and opinionated, but he survived me and also prepared me well for study in Japan,” Hagedorn said.

Another one of Hagedorn’s mentors was Japanese bonsai master Shinji Suzuki, the owner of the Taikan Bonsai Museum in Japan and an artist who Hagedorn said created “bonsai of haunting beauty.”

Hagedorn said his three-year apprenticeship at Suzuki’s large nursery was filled with challenging work from the beginning: he wired trees, watered half of Suzuki’s bonsai collection, welcomed clients, prepared the nursery for typhoons in the summer and shoveled snow in the winter.

His book, “Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk,” details his journey through the bonsai world, which was filled with obstacles, learning moments and failures that all led to eventual triumph.

“It’s all in there,” he said. “But what was intended as ironic is the ‘monk’ part. My sempai and I were the opposite of monks – we were survivalists.”

Bonsai As Emblems Of Peace

Suzuki used to tell Hagedorn he should embrace that one of the central themes of bonsai is “peace.” Hagedorn said he watched people connect with bonsai as therapy or use the tree to forge friendships across national boundaries, and understands now why Japan has sought to equate peace and bonsai after two catastrophic world wars.

“In many ways, bonsai both offers peace and is created by it, and perishes in its absence,” he said.

These sentiments are the roots of World Bonsai Day, an internationally celebrated day of appreciation for the ancient art of bonsai as a path to peace.

Hagedorn said he used to sell pots at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum as a potter long ago, and he is looking forward to visiting the Museum again for his demonstration for World Bonsai Day next month.

Hagedorn added that he has enjoyed studying the Museum’s vast array of bonsai, as its collection is one of the most significant in the United States.

“The entire idea of a museum for small trees is a truly important thing for Westerners,” he said. “There’s an otherworldly quality about bonsai that can be riveting to people.”

Advice To Bonsai Hobbyists

Hagedorn said those looking to delve into the world of bonsai can use books for inspiration, clarification and memorization. But they should also branch out – no pun intended – and take advantage of the hundreds of easily-accessible blogs and videos that comment on recent and specific bonsai techniques.

A hobbyist’s next step is to find a trustworthy teacher who can guide them through their bonsai journey with examples, contrasts and comparisons, as the art is complex and transcends any rulebook one might try to follow.  

“Being a student is a brave act, for one will fail if you’re being at all serious about it,” he said. “Being a physical art, one needs the full quiver of experience, which is only offered in person.”

Hagedorn suggests the budding enthusiast be wary of the amount of plants they own when developing their hobby. For example, caring for five plants tends to draw too much attention to each one, but keeping too many trees will ensure that they will each remain “mediocre.” The ideal number for most hobbyists falls in the range of 20 to 30 trained bonsai, he said.

He added that hobbyists shouldn’t let maintaining bonsai become a burden – keep it fun.

“Bonsai should be a release from the pressures of life, not another cog in that wheel,” Hagedorn said. “Find people to share bonsai with that you enjoy and respect, and that will bring the same energy to the bonsai you work on.”

Learn more from Michael when he speaks at the Museum on World Bonsai Day! Learn more about the day of events here.

Museum Appoints Andy Bello as Curation Intern

Andy Bello, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice. (Stephen Voss)

Andy Bello, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice. (Stephen Voss)

Andy Bello has been selected as the Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice.  The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum's First Curator's Apprenticeship  for 2019 is funded by generous grants to the National Bonsai Foundation from Toyota North America and The Hill Foundation.

Bello, a 24-year-old Illinois native, earned a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources Conservation and Management from the University of Arizona in 2016. He then moved to Eugene, Oregon where he designed and built ornamental ponds, propagated pond plants and bred koi and goldfish at a local store.

His fascination with bonsai catalyzed after he stumbled across Peter Chan’s “Bonsai: The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees” in 2016.

“I took this book home, and the second I opened it I could not put it down,” Bello said. “Everything from the history of the art, the horticulture aspects, and the design techniques amazed and intrigued me deeply.”

His readings prompted him to join the Eugene Bonsai Society, a group of Oregon bonsai enthusiasts. Bello said he felt welcome in the society, but after spending a year in the group he wanted to delve deeper into the bonsai realm and craved hands-on experience.

His big break occurred on a trip to the Oregon Coast, when he inadvertently stopped at Driftwood Nursery in Bandon, Oregon. Bello befriended nursery owner Tom Roberts and soon began a monthly apprenticeship at Driftwood, where he learned basic bonsai skills and developed his passion for the trees.

Bello said he and his girlfriend soon began to discuss moving east to solidify their careers and settle down close to family. In preparation, he explored available permaculture and organic farming jobs on the East Coast – eventually discovering the Museum’s curator apprenticeship – and immediately sent in his application.

In his newly-appointed position, Bello aims to deepen his understanding of different species’ needs in all seasons, and looks forward to improving his horticulture skills and bonsai designs.

His year-long internship will consist of performing various bonsai care-taking duties, from repotting and wiring to pruning, and spreading the joy and wonder of bonsai to Museum visitors.

“I am extremely excited to be part of a new community of fellow bonsai artists and create new connections from all different parts of the world,” he said. “I hope to learn and grow as much as possible in the world of bonsai.”

The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum's First Curator's Apprenticeship for 2019 is funded by generous grants to the National Bonsai Foundation from Toyota North America and The Hill Foundation. If you’d like to help fund these types of programs, please consider becoming a member of the National Bonsai Foundation. More information here.


My summer apprenticeship has certainly been keeping me busy, leaving very little time for these blog posts! As the waning heat of the summer transitions into the coolness of the upcoming autumn season, watering requirements begin to lessen there is a bit more time for pruning, wiring and other tree work. Here are some of my favorite trees from my recent work:

Eurya (Eurya emarginata) Continuous Tightening

This eurya from the Japanese Collection is one of my favorite bonsai on display in the museum. It has a very stout trunk that almost resembles the “sumo” style that seems to be currently in vogue within the bonsai community. I have to admit that I, too, enjoy this style and the power that it presents within the confines of these tiny trees. E. emarginata have small, glossy leaves when reduced, but they can grow to be quite large if the trees are allowed to run and gain vigor. Therefore, consistent pruning is required to maintain the tight shape and tiny leaves that we enjoy about this bonsai. I’ve now pruned and wired this tree a few times over the summer and have been typically following up a pruning with a pinching shortly after to prevent the energy from redirecting fully into the remaining buds and blowing the new shoots out of proportion. I’ve found that this gives quite dense and even growth throughout the developed pads.

Eurya before pruning work to tighten pads

Ezo Spruce (Picea glehnni) Post-Growth Season Pruning


After growing and extending all season, spruces can be cut back to shape. With these, we must be very careful to cut back to new buds to allow the cut tips to continue to grow in next years’ extension. I could locate good buds to cut back to across the entire canopy for the tree, so all the tips should continue to remain healthy while maintaining the crisp presentation intended in this tree between now and the next growth season.

I’m now in the final week of my apprenticeship. It’s been an incredibly busy summer full of new experiences, fun travels, and a ton of new learning. I’m very grateful to National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the US National Arboretum for the opportunity to work on and develop my skills using some of the best and most prominent bonsai in the country, and I’m very appreciative of the support that Toyota has offered to the National Bonsai Foundation in supporting with funding for this wonderful apprenticeship.

Following the completion of my apprenticeship, I’ll be moving to a new home in San Antonio, TX, where I’ll begin delving into my own personal bonsai garden space while continuing my journey with bonsai. The climate in Texas will be entirely new to me and will present many new challenges to manage watering and sun exposure in the extreme heat of the summer, but compensates for those with a longer growing season to develop and refine material and a far milder winter season. I intend to continue sharing my work on social media and various online platforms, so please do not hesitate to send me requests if you’re interested in seeing how I progress and where I travel throughout my journey.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me up to this point.