Owen Reich first visited the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in 2007. “What impressed me most was the quality and age of the trees,” he recalls. “None of the collections I had seen up to that point were as prestigious or as powerful.”
A resident of Nashville who teaches bonsai creation, styling, and care, Reich was first introduced to the art form by a college friend at the University of Georgia. By the end of that year, he owned 600 trees. “Learning about bonsai changed the way I see plants,” says Reich, who majored in horticulture. “I knew immediately I wanted to do bonsai for a living. It never gets old.”
In those early days, he hunted for trees anywhere and everywhere: in garden centers, on the side of the road, at the University of Georgia. His focus quickly changed from quantity to quality. To develop his skills, he interned at Iseli Nursery in Oregon. He later studied with Warren Hill, who was curator at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum from 1996 to 2001.
There was no turning back. After college, he moved to Nashville, joined his first bonsai club and advanced quickly. From 2006-2011, Reich worked fulltime as nursery manager at Nashville’s Samara Farms while attending bonsai exhibitions throughout the southeast, taking classes, visiting private collections and building a bonsai library. A self-described addict, Reich apprenticed at Kouka-en in Japan under Keiichi Fujikawa. “It was a life changing experience,” he says. “Working at a high-end bonsai garden completely changes your concept of what is good and of what is possible.”
Reich returned to the U.S., liquidated 90 percent of his personal trees (again, with a focus on quality, not quantity) and started writing and teaching. He considers himself part of a new wave of younger bonsai enthusiasts that he refers to as “combatants in the bonsai information arms race.“ Reich credits the dramatic increase in overall quality and knowledge in the bonsai community to two things. Many bonsai practitioners have been at it for multiple decades and their bonsai are maturing. The other major reason is that reliable information and in-person instruction has become more readily available from bonsai professionals. The new wave of bonsai professionals uses different avenues for information sharing. “The bonsai community has shifted to the internet,” says Reich, who blogs at bonsaiunearthed.com. “We’re on Facebook. We’re blogging. We’re on YouTube. The internet has become a huge engine for change. Nowadays, it’s not an issue of finding resources, but choosing which ones to use.”
He also credits the National Bonsai Foundation and the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum for raising the profile of the art form. “The Museum collection includes trees donated by people who have spent their entire lives creating or collecting bonsai,” he says. “These are people who have donated their best trees to the nation’s Museum for the sole purpose of promoting bonsai.”
The Museum’s role is critical, he says. “It reinforces relationships with the Japanese and Chinese through organizations such as the Nippon Bonsai Association and World Bonsai Friendship Federation. It serves as a national venue for people who may not be familiar with bonsai and as a cultural reservoir for trees with a history.”
The bonsai community should support the Museum, says Reich, who points out the fundraising effort for the Japanese Pavilion, which is currently being renovated and will open in 2017.