Bonsai is a challenging and rewarding horticultural activity, in which ordinary plants are grown in an extraordinary way. Through rigorously applied cultivation techniques, trees, shrubs, vines and even herbaceous plants are kept in a miniaturized state, developed into artistic shapes and then displayed in special containers.
Bonsai has a long and colorful history and enjoys a worldwide following of dedicated enthusiasts who hold a variety of ideas about the subject. What makes the Arboretum’s bonsai endeavor unique among all other public collections in the United States is the conscious development of a regional interpretation. Visitors to The North Carolina Arboretum will find the art of bonsai expressed with a Southern Appalachian accent. The quality of the collection and its presentation has attracted national attention, while the promotion of bonsai as being an expression of an individual’s experience of nature, without attaching to it the trappings of any particular foreign culture, is a distinguishing innovation.
Initially, a bonsai collection was not part of the Arboretum's vision. In 1992 the institution serendipitously received a donation of a large number of plants and containers from Mr. and Mrs. George Staples of Butner, NC. Upon acceptance of this initial donation, staff member Arthur Joura was assigned responsibility for the care and development of the bonsai collection and an attendant program to support it. Other donations followed as longtime bonsai enthusiasts in the region recognized the value of the Arboretum’s involvement, and contributed prized specimens from their personal collections. Sustained public support has been a key ingredient in the success of bonsai at The North Carolina Arboretum.
There are more than 100 display-quality specimens in the bonsai collection at The North Carolina Arboretum, and more plants than that in various stages of bonsai development. All of the plants in this extensive collection have been either donated by private individuals or created at the Arboretum from seedlings, cuttings, nursery culls or plants collected from the landscape.
The Arboretum’s bonsai collection is botanically diverse. Represented are traditional Asian bonsai subjects such as Japanese maple and Chinese elm; tropical plants such as willow-leaf fig and powderpuff; and American species such as baldcypress and limber pine. Of particular importance are the plants native to the Blue Ridge region, such as American hornbeam and eastern white pine, which enable the Arboretum to bring the thousand-year tradition of bonsai home to the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Although the common conception of bonsai places great emphasis on the supposed age of the tree, the Arboretum readily acknowledges that its collection contains few genuinely old specimens. With the exception of those that have been started here, the ages of the plants in the collection are generally unknown. No attempt is made to ascribe to them any numerical age. Instead, the emphasis is placed on artistic design, along with the health and botanical interest of each specimen.
The bonsai collection of The North Carolina Arboretum is, like the art of bonsai itself, a dynamic entity. New additions are made periodically by the acceptance of suitable specimens from supportive donors. There is an ongoing effort to introduce new and different plant species to bonsai culture, with particular emphasis placed on native flora. Even the established pieces in the collection are subject to change, as refinements are made to their design and new ideas considered for their presentation.
The Bonsai Exhibition Garden
The Arboretum’s bonsai are displayed in a uniquely designed garden setting. Opened to the public in October of 2005, the Bonsai Exhibition Garden was the culmination of a three-year design process. It took two years to construct and was funded entirely by private donations generated by the Arboretum’s first-ever Capital Campaign. The garden is an expression of the same philosophy that underlies the collection, designed to present bonsai in an original and regionally identified format. It draws inspiration from the traditional roots of bonsai, but takes the form of a contemporary, Southern Appalachian influenced American garden. Plantings in the landscape include species and cultivars of American, European and Asian origin.
Interpretive signage throughout the garden conveys information about the art and history of bonsai, and the Arboretum’s own creative approach to it. The Bonsai Exhibition Garden was designed to display up to fifty bonsai specimens at a time. Plants are periodically rotated in and out of the garden to keep the presentation varied, and to allow for the display of bonsai with particular seasonal interest. From the end of November until the middle of April there is only a minimal number of trees on display, on account of hazards posed by weather conditions. During these months, visitors may enjoy seeing the tropical portion of the bonsai collection at the Production Facility Greenhouse, which is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM until 2:00 PM.
The Bonsai Program
Simultaneous with the development of the bonsai collection has been the creation of an educational program to cultivate a more sophisticated audience for the plants. As a result, the Arboretum is now a center for bonsai activity in the Southeast. Numerous bonsai educational offerings, including lectures, demonstrations and workshops, occur every year. Among the many American bonsai notables who have visited and provided educational support are: Yuji Yoshimura, Chase and Solita Rosade, Ben Oki, David DeGroot, Jim Doyle, Randy Clark, Rodney Clemons, E. Felton Jones, William Valavanis, Jim Barret, Brussel Martin, Dan Robinson, Kathy Shaner and Peter Adams. International authorities hosted by the Arboretum include: Susumu Nakamura (Japan), Qingquan Zhao (China), Walter Pall (Austria), Harry Tomlinson (United Kingdom) and David Easterbrook (Canada). The work of a number of these artists is included in the collection.
Carolina Bonsai Expo
The North Carolina Arboretum has hosted the Carolina Bonsai Expo on the second weekend of October every year since 1996. In that time the Expo has become the premier annual bonsai event in the Southeast, earning a reputation for quality and creative innovation in bonsai display. This free show features the juried work of bonsai enthusiasts from bonsai clubs in a six-state region of the United States. Every year the Expo includes free educational programming, workshops, a bonsai marketplace featuring plants, pots, tools and books for sale, ikebana displays and a live auction of bonsai and bonsai-related items.