One week at Bonsai Mirai

Earlier this year I had the amazing opportunity to spend a week with Ryan Neil at his bonsai garden just outside Portland, OR.  The week consisted of being surrounded by some of the most awesome native material I’ve ever seen.  Each day was spent in the workshop with Ryan and his French apprentice JP, styling one ancient tree after another.  Here are just a few of the photos from my week.

Day 1: Amazing bonsai and rain, welcome to Portland.010A combination of jet lag and excitment led to this first photo taken at 4 a.m. The workshop was filled with tress with many others on-deck.

008012 A massive California Juniper (right) and Sierra Juniper (left) dominated the workshop. The Sierra Juniper became my main project tree for the week. 011The dead wood on the Ca Juniper was unreal.

Day 2. The Garden

018 019 021022 023 026 027 028 029 036

Day 3: Project tree

033Before we started working on our project tree, Ryan had JP and I  draw three different design options. Ryan’s apprentice, JP is a graphic artist by trade which showed in his sketches.

031 Once we decided on the design, JP began cleaning the dead wood.

047Once the wood had been cleaned, Ryan began setting the major branches in place.049Once the structural branches were set in place I continued wiring the smaller branches. This took the better part of several days.

099I can’t wait to see this tree in a pot.

Day 4: Snow048  This morning I awoke to the garden covered in several inches of snow. I quickly grabbed my camera and got the following pictures.

057This was one of my favorite trees in the garden.

058062060077 079 080082 083 086084I think this was my favorite tree in the garden. I kept coming back to it over and over through out the week. The dead wood curving over the lip of the pot was so cool. It reminded me of Capt. Hook.

085The back of the tree was just as impressive as the front.

Day 5: The Greenhouse

100The greenhouse contained trees that had recently repotted or wired. This tree was very special because it came from John Naka’s collection. Even though I get to work on the 6 Naka trees at the Museum, I still have goosebumps when seeing any tree from the Naka collection.

107It also contained less hardy trees like California Oaks and Redwoods.


111112113Just a few Redwoods for one gnarly forest planting.

109Ponderosa pine grafted with Japanese Black Pine


Watch Ryan’s grafting technique here.

Day 6: Here comes the sun.

119 Sunrise and Da Hood

125  135 136137



Day 7: Photoshoot

At the end of the week it was time to assess all that we got done.


sierra juniper 11_005 095  california juniper 06_004050This was another tree I wired during the week.

douglas fir 05_001I want to thank Ryan for his generosity and hospitality in inviting me to his place. I have been to numerous bonsai gardens but Bonsai Mirai is a truly magical place. If your  wanting to take you bonsai skills to the next level, plan a trip to spend a week at Bonsai Mirai.


Bob Watson’s ‘Suiseki’ – Forty Years of Viewing Stones at The Huntington

After viewing the Huntington’s Bonsai Collection and viewing stone exhibit, I made my way to the Ikebana House in search of American suiseki history. Inside was an exhibit featuring the viewing stones of Bob Watson, former head of the Huntington’s Japanese Garden and American suiseki pioneer. All following text is taken from the various labels within the exhibit which was written and curated by Jim Greaves, founder of the American Viewing Stone Resource Center.


‘Suiseki’ at the Ikebana House.

Robert Watson first exhibited ‘suiseki’, a “display of beautiful and unusual stones created solely by nature” in this Ikebana House in November of 1975. The recorded attendance for the week was an astonishing 2538 visitors with 171 recorded as attending his lecture on suiseki. There was a second show in the Ikebana House in 1976 and others through at least 1979 (recorded attendance of 600), but records of the stone exhibits are confusing and incomplete. There are enticing newspaper references to sponsorship by “the San Gabriel Valley Suiseki Club”, including a partial list of participating members. However, of these, only Cliff Johnson remembers exhibiting with Bob and he does not recall any such club. We assume the name was simply coined for one of the exhibits when other friends exhibited a few stones along with Bob.

With the exception of a few local newspapers clippings that feature one or two of the stones, no photographs have been found of any of these early exhibits in the Ikebana House. Various accounts note the Tiger Stone, Rain Shelter, Pinnacles, Castle on the Rhine, Glacier, Frozen Wave, and the large Butte (from Palos Verdes). We have labeled these cited stones and marked with a dot those stones for which photographs appeared in local papers. It is very likely that most of the stones you see mounted on daiza (custom fitted wooden bases) were shown in one or more of his exhibits. Bob’s original ‘poetic’ titles are printed in Bold.

All of these stones were collected by Bob Watson, however, most unmounted stones were probably never formally exhibited. Indeed, several were discovered among boxes and loose stones in his backyard when he held sales later in his life. For historical accuracy in representing his viewpoint, or rather, in not wishing to misrepresent his viewpoint, those stones that were likely never displayed by Bob are indicated with a black dot. With the exception of those stones displayed out in the bonsai court, the extent to which Bob presented loose stones in suiban is unknown. It appears that he owned very few suiban. One of the two suiban that we are certain belonged to him is the large, fine gray rectangular suiban from the Tokoname pottery used with an Indian Blanket stone.

In conversations, Bob emphasized the importance of understanding Japanese practice. He was openly disdainful and dismissive of the ‘new’ collectors. Ironically, the purism he preached was not reflected in his own practice; over time it has become apparent that a great number of his ‘natural’ suiseki were enhanced with heavy surface coatings of oil and varnish and even coloring to a degree that virtually no one would consider acceptable today. The Butte Stone from Palos Verdes is actually a white limestone that he apparently dyed yellow by soaking in a coffee or tea solution. This may not be as strange as if first sounds, because the myriad of Japanese Suiskei magazines and publications of the 60s and 70s were replete with instructions for altering stones ( and to a much greater extent than Bob ever did). Many of these stones have received a single flat cut to assist in positioning and mounting. Of the stones he found, only the ‘thread’ stone from Canada has been physically altered and polished to create a biseki (beautiful stone). The small purchased Asian stones have also been worked and polished.


“Robert Watson was the head gardener responsible for the last grand expansion of the Huntington’s Japanese Garden prior to this past year’s renovations and addition of the tea-house.”In 1968 his efforts added the original bonsai court and, most famously  the karesansui or dry landscape garden commonly known as the ‘Zen Garden’. Less known, Bob displayed suiseki in the Japanese Garden at the Huntington and introduced the Japanese art of stone appreciation to non-Japanese Americans. bigzengardenHis followers eventually combined forces with members of the Japanese community to create a vibrant suiseki-viewing stone presence in Southern California. One of Bob’s stones, a rugged mountain stone collected from Garnet Hill, has remained in continuous display for 40 years and may now be seen at the entrance to the this exhibit. Appropriately, we are also showing two bonsai that were donated by Bob to start the Bonsai Court in the Japanese Garden.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Tiger Stone- This is by far one of Bob’s best known stones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis bamboo stand was built by Bob Watson sometime in the 70s.



Toyama ,Distant Mountain Stone. One of the earliest American viewing stones published in color. (1974)


Glacier StoneHyoga-ishi, British Columbia.This distant mountain stone is the best example of Bob’s ‘suiseki’ style stones.


Indian Blanket Stones, Saddle Peak Hills, California. (Note that this area is now closed to collecting).


Tokoname Suiban, This fine Tokoname ceramic that Bob purchased in the 1970’s is one of the few that he owned. It would have been too valuable to use for display in the garden.”


Mountain Range, Garnet Hill, California. This is the first large natural (uncut) for which Bob and Cliff Johnson made a daiza.”


Garnet Hill, Palms Springs, Riverside County (Discovered as early as 1964) The first productive desert site, Garnet Hill was long known by geologists as a source for ventifacts created by the strong winds whipping down the Coachella Valley. Unlike most desert sites, this site has considerable granite and a signature composite of fossilized oyster shell and limestone.


Garnet Hill, Palm Springs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Watson purchased Japanese artwork,tea articles, and several suiseki, but only these few have been located:1. Sun Flower Stone, Korea. 2. Biseki (beautiful stone), China. 3. Biseki, Japan. 4. Furuya-ishi, Japan. 5. Chrysanthemum Stone, Japan.”


Tea Cady, Object Stone, Keisho-seki, British Columbia.


A Watson Prophecy

“Over a period of twenty-five years the American public has come to know and enjoy the beauty and pleasures found in bonsai. In the future, I feel certain that an equal enjoyment will be found in suiseki, as people see and learn more about these creations of nature. It is my hope that a sponsor may be found who would be willing to finance the formation of collection of suseki, biseki, meiseki and top quality mineral specimens to be house in a suitable building for public viewing…”

Robert T. Watson

International Bonsai Digets presents Bonsai Gems, 1974

Biographical Information and Abbreviated ‘Suiseki’ Timeline

Robert Truesdell Watson, born 2/6/1912

Served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was stationed in Japan after the War.

Became interested in bonsai as early as 1944

1964- Became a full-time gardener at the Huntington Library. Reportedly began exploring his local deserts in search of stones suitable for suiseki. Discovered the Garnet Hill site outside  of Palm Springs.

1968-Opening of the Huntington Zen Garden and Bonsai Court designed by Bob.

1969 or 70- Trip to Japan where he purchased suiseki for his personal collection. Unfortunately  these stones have been dispersed.

1971- Met Cliff Johnson at the Santa Anita Bonsai Club and invited him home to see stones. First collecting trip with Cliff Johnson to Garnett Hill near Palm Springs. Round Lake Hill site with direction from Bob Sharp, geologist at Cal Tech.

1972-In an article , Bonsai Had Interesting Beginning, he noted suiseki are on display in the Huntington bonsai court.-Star News.

1973- Los Angeles Meiseki Exhibition, Los Angeles Museum of Natural History: the first significant suiseki exhibition in the United States.

1974- Pacific Asia Museum exhibition of suiseki shown with 17th and 18th century Japanese prints during the Mishima-Pasadena Sister City Celebration. National Bonsai Convention, Pasadena : Watson was featured lecturer on suiseki. International Bonsai Digest-Bonsai Gems (1974); Suiseki, a short introduction including photographs of two stones from the Dumont Dunes area. Bob expresses the hope that a public suiseki collection will be created. Year of the first collecting trip to British Columbia (possibly early 1975)

1975-First Suiseki show in the Ikebana House, Huntington Library [Attendance:2538]; Nov 7 & No 8 lectures: “Suiseki, the Oriental art of appreciating beautiful and unusual stones created solely by nature. [Attendance: 171]

1976- International Bonsai Digest -Bicentennial Edition: Thoughts on Suiseki with photos of the Tiger Stripe Stone, Glacier Stone and Garnet Hill Mountain. [The Bicentennial gift of 5 suiseki to the U.S. National Arboretum stimulates the formation of the National Viewing Stone collection of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum, Washington D.C. Melba Tucker donated an Indian Blanket Stone from Death Valley that was collected by Bob, Subsequently published in  Awakening the Soul.]

1977- Bonsai- Magazine of Bonsai, Japanese Gardens, Saikei & Suiseki: photo of Glacier Stone (Bonsai Vol. xvi, No. 7, p217)

1978- Bonsai- Magazine of Bonsai, Japanese Gardens, Saikei & Suiseki: photo of Tiger Stone mislabeled as from California. (Bonsai Vol. xvii, No. 5).

1977-80- Los Angeles County Arbretum Suiseki Exhibit. Display done with Cliff Johnson and included Japanese antiques and furniture. Lecture “Suiseki” Robert Watson, Head Gardener, Japanese Garden (March 18, 1980).

1983-84- Attended first formative meeting of California Aiseki Kai, but did not continue participation with the club.

1984- Publication of The Jpanese Art of Stone Appreciation, the first and still the most important book on suiseki in English: photos of Bob’s stones including the Glacier Stone, Tiger-stripe Stone, Garnet Hill Mountain and large Butte.

1986- Bob Watson retired from Huntington Library. Pacific Asia Museum Exhibition with Cliff Johnson (date uncertain).

January,1991- First Annual California Aiseki Kai Suiseki and Viewing Stone Exhibition at the Huntington Library-A special selection of 7 Watson desert stones honored Bob.

1991- Robert T. Watson died.

GSBF Collection at the Huntington

Any trip to the Huntington Library should include a visit their renowned bonsai collection. On my recent visit to the Huntington Gardens to see the annual Aiseki Kai exhibit, I made sure to stop by the Golden State Bonsai Federation’s (GSBF) bonsai collection despite a rare cold and rainy day in Southern California.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABonsai Courtyard entrance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper donated by Mas Moriguchi.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACork Oak donated by Tom Chan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAProstrate Juniper donated Harry Hirao in memory of Alyce Hirao.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJapanese Black Pine donated by Ed Murakami.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJapanese Black Pine from the Toshinori Matsuanga collection donated by Mayumi Shiira.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACork Bark Japanese Black Pine donated by Ayako Tanita.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper donated by Ray Blasingame.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper donated by Ben Oki in memory of John Naka.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper donated by Harry Hirao in memory of Andy Vu.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShimpaku grafted onto California Juniper donated by Tsuruo Takata.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShimpaku Juniper donated by Ayako Tanita.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShinpaku Juniper donated by Dr. Howard Waldman.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOlive donated by Jack Miller

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShimpaku grafted onto California Juniper donated by Mike Shintaku.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABonsai on pedestals in the main courtyard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASilverberry from the Toshinori Matsuanga collection donated by Mayumi Shiira.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper donated by Chuichi Kawahira.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper donated by Bob Kinoshita in memory of Bill Southworth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAItalian Cypress donated by Phil Tacktill.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMontezuma Cypress donated by Brian Jackson.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGinkgo donated by Marty Mann.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShimpaku Juniper donated by Mr. and Mrs. Kageo Ohara.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACitrus donated by Dr. Howard Waldman.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPfitzer Juniper donated by Barbara Ajello.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKorean Hornbeam donated by Howard Waldman.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAViewing stones donated by Harry Hiaro.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANewer expansion of the Bonsai Courtyard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOlive donated by Joseph Cohn.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHollywood Juniper donated Howard Waldman.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPyracanth donated by John Naka.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPomegranate donated by Kathy Boomsma.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornai Juniper donated by Bob Kinoshita.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper donated by Shig Mia.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornai Juniper donated by Frank Goya.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper donated by Bob Kinoshita.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJapanese Black Pine donated by Junichi Sebata.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACoast Live Oak donated by John Naka.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABald Cypress donated by Dung Cao in memory of Thu Cao.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper designed by Masahiko Kimura.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Juniper donated Grigsby Catcus Gardens.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJapanese Black Pine donate by Kiyoko Yoneda in memory of Kaz Yoneda.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFoemina Juniper donated by Ben Oki in memory of Robert Moor.

Summer shades of purple

The other day I was walking toward the upper courtyard when my view was filled with shades of purple. As I walked around the Museum I began noticing there were a lot of plants with purple flowers.

I thought it was interesting to see so many different types of plants with purple flowers on them during the summer.  I asked several of the staff at the Arboretum about this and the most common response I got was that it had to do with attracting pollinators.

Different colored flowers reflect different levels of UV light which attract insects to them to be pollinated. Some insects are only attracted to certain colors and it would seem that these summer insects like the color purple. I know I was attracted to these purple flowers and I hope you enjoy them too.

Verbana bonariensis.

Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica ‘Pohwatan’.

Bougainvillea glabra, In training since 1985, Donated by Harold Harvey.

Close up of Bougainvillea flower and colorful bract.

Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica ‘Zuni’.

Balloon flower, Platycodon grandiflorus.

Balloon flower detail.

Barnardia japonica in front of the Chinese Pavilion.

Barnardia japonica.

Garden Phlox, Phlox paniculata ‘Franz Schubert’ in the Yamaguchi Garden.

Garden Phlox close up.

Hosta sp. planted in the Maple Walk outside the Bonsai Museum.

Hosta sp.

Japanese lily, Lilium speciosum ‘Uchida’ near the Museum’s entrance gate.

Thanks to the Museum’s Gardner, Amy Forsberg, for helping me with plant identification.

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New shohin display

A new display featuring the majority of the Museum’s shohin collection was recently setup under the Melba Tucker Arbor.

This Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, was created from an air-layer in 2010.

Shohin group display.

Trident Maple, Acer buergerianum, In training since 1976, Donated by Doris Froning.

Chinese Elm, Ulmus parvifolia, Age Unknown, Donated by the All Japan Shohin-Bonsai Association.

Osteomeles, Osteomeles boninensis, Age Unknown, Donated by the All Japan Shohin-Bonsai Association.

Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum, In training since 1984, Donated by Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

Sargent Juniper, Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii, In training since 1984, Donated by Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

Pasture Juniper, Juniperus communis subsp. depressa, In training since 1980, Donated by Jack Douthitt.

Japanese Premna, Premna japonica, In training since 1988, Donated by William and Joan Clark.

Second group display.

Chinese Juniper, Juniperus chinensis, Age Unknown, Donated by the All Japan Shohin-Bonsai Association.

Gardenia, Gardenia jasminoides, Age Unknown, Donated by the All Japan Shohin-Bonsai Association.

Japanese Grey Bark Elm, Zelkova serrata, In training since 1972, Donated by Doris Froning.

Japanese White Pine, Pinus parviflora var. pentaphylla, In training since 1984, Donated by Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

Japanese Privet, Ligustrum obtusifolium, In training since 1968, Donated by Seiko Koizumi.

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Pruning a large Japanese Black Pine

As you approach the entrance to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum you are welcomed by a large Japanese Black Pine.

This pine was one of six sent from Kyushu University in Japan, the other 5 can be found in the Kato Stroll Garden outside the Japanese Pavilion.

This pine was planted in 1984 as part of the garden in front of the Museum named in honor of Ellen Gordon Allen, founder of Ikebana International.

This photo shows the pine sometime in the early 90’s.  The pine has developed denser foliage pads as a result of yearly decandling and proper pruning techniques.

Winter is the best time to prune pine bonsai and the same is true for pines growing in the ground. Typically this is very cold work but on an unseasonably warm 60 degree day Curator Jack Sustic, Museum Gardener Amy Forsberg, Volunteer Bridget Singletary-Goodwin, and myself spent the afternoon pruning this prominent pine.

Over the last 30 years the tree has developed very nice flaky bark with deep fissures.

Your goal when pruning ornamental trees is the same regardless of the size of the tree.  You want to eliminate branches that are detrimental to the design and health of the tree. Pruning helps you keep strong branches in check so that weaker branches don’t die off. Since pines are the most vigorous at the top, Jack had plenty to prune.

Pruning also allows sunlight and air to get to the interior parts of the tree which is essential for encouraging adventitious buds.  Without back budding you cannot keep a tree compact which is important in both Japanese gardening and bonsai. As you can see, very little sunlight can penetrate through the pine needles.

Once pruned, sunlight and air can now reach the inner parts of the same branch.

With the pruning done, you can see how the branches pads have become more defined. You can also see that the second pad from the top needs to fill in more on the left.

This summer, the tree will be candled except for the upper left branch which will be allowed to grow and fill in the silhouette.  Be sure to stop and appreciate this specimen the next time your at the Museum.