At the end of January I was extremely blessed to have traveled to Japan for a 3 week “apprentice” style learning experience with Mr. Tohru Suzuki at the historic Daiju-en bonsai nursery in Okazaki. This trip was timed to coincide with the 88th Kokufu-ten exhibition where I would have the opportunity to assist Mr. Suzuki and the Daiju-en family with getting their trees to and from Tokyo. Before I share that experience I wanted to highlight the trees of Daiju-en.

When you think of pine bonsai you think of Daijuen. As a 3rd generation bonsai nursery, Daijuen and its founder Saichi Suzuki are credited with developing the now universal technique of de-candling used for Japanese Black Pine bonsai as well as the fast growing Japanese White Pine cultivar ‘Zuisho’.


I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Suzuki about the story surrounding his grandfather’s discovery which resulted in what is now the fundamental technique for training Japanese Black Pine.IMG_2261

For those who have never head the story, it goes like this: One day while in the nursery, Saichi noticed something out of the ordinary with several of his pines. Upon closer inspection the new spring growth had been completely eaten by caterpillars, leaving the trees with out any new shoots.IMG_2436

He set them aside to see what would happen, would they live of die? Not only did the trees live but they put out another flush of growth, only the new needles were much shorter. From that point on the practice of removing spring shoots to force a second flush of growth is applied wherever JBP are growth as bonsai.IMG_2438

I asked Mr. Suzuki about those first trees his grandfather set aside.  He  said that they were in the formal upright style and at that time they belonged to a customer. I asked if they were still around and he replied that they are still alive but were at another customers home. It would have been awesome to have seen the legendary “catepillar “trees, but there were plenty of historic bonsai at the nursery.IMG_2150

Hear are just a few of the pines at Daiju-en.IMG_8627 IMG_8581 IMG_8585 IMG_8560 IMG_8518 IMG_8519 IMG_8517 IMG_8522IMG_8512 IMG_8508 IMG_8506 IMG_8505 IMG_8504 IMG_8502 IMG_8501 IMG_8500 IMG_8496IMG_8512 IMG_8558 IMG_8484 IMG_8485 IMG_8482 IMG_8478 IMG_8480 IMG_8479 IMG_8468 IMG_8469 IMG_8466 IMG_8467 IMG_8463 IMG_8462

IMG_8587 IMG_8580 IMG_2240 IMG_2152 IMG_8533 As always thanks for reading, I hoped you enjoyed seeing some of the Daiju-en pines and learning a little bonsai history. More to come from Japan.

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.

Christmas comes early to the Bonsai Museum

Earlier this week a very jolly individual with twinkling eyes and a white beard arrived at the Museum. He had traveled a long distant in a short period of time in order to deliver some very special presents to the Bonsai Museum.


Gary Wood, (seen here) a bonsai teacher from Muscle Shoals, Alabama had driven from Southern California to D.C. in 3 days with two very famous bonsai recently donated by bonsai artist Ernie Kuo.

For many these trees will be recognized immediately, as both have won international accolades . The tree on the right won the 1994 BCI Ben Oki International Design Award and the 1994 Kindai Bonsai Magazine’s reader’s Sakafuten Award. The tree on the left won the Sakafuten Award in 1995. Ernie also wrote an article describing the creation of these two masterpieces in detail.  The article, which last appeared in Bonsai Today’s Masters’ Series on Junipers, is re-posted here with the consent of Stone Lantern Publishing. Two Studies by Ernie Kuo

Ernie Kuo with 284

For more examples of Ernie’s tree see Bonsai Bark’s Gallery.

Sincerer thanks to Ernie for his amazing gift, to Gary Wood for driving them out here, the National Bonsai Foundation for funding the transportation, and Wayne Schoech, Bonsai Bark/Stone Lantern, for permission to re-post Ernie’s article.

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American Bonsai History 101

Dr. John Creech (1920-2009), former Director of the National Arboretum, was perhaps the most instrumental person in the creation of The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. The process of orchestrating the transfer of 53 bonsai between two governments half a world apart was now small feat.

The Bonsai Saga: How the Bicentennial Collection Came to America was written by Dr. Creech in 2001 and published by the National Bonsai Foundation. In it  Dr. Creech outlines his part in the process and the various events that transpired from the gifts conception in 1973 to its final realization on July 9th 1976. A pdf. of the Bonsai Saga is available on the NBF’s website or can be freely download here.

National Bonsai Collection Blog Begins

For the inaugural post of the this blog I think it would be fitting to feature the very first bonsai within the National Arboretum’s collection. Most people don’t realize that the Japanese Collection of bonsai were not the first bonsai at the Arboretum. In fact this tree, a boxwood Buxus microphylla ‘compacta’ , didn’t even come from Japan. It came from the Kingsville Nursery, 60 miles Northeast of DC. The proprietor of this nursery was the notable Henry J. Hohman who is credited with popularizing this cultivar of boxwood.

The following black and white photos first appeared in the article “National Bonsai Collection Begins” by Col. John Hinds,The Bonsai Bulletin Vol. 11, No. 4 Winter (1973).

Dr. John Creech, Director of the Arboretum (left), and Yuji Yoshimura (right) discuss a potential candidate while at the Kingsville Nursery, MD in 1973. Both Dr. Creech and Mr. Yoshimura had early aspirations for a bonsai collection in our nation’s capital.

This boxwood had been propagated in 1921 and would have been over 50 years old when collected in 1973.

This demonstration was held on September 28, 1973 at the U.S. National Arboretum.

Over the course of two hours Mr. Yoshimura styled and potted the tree before an audience of 70 members of the Potomac Bonsai Association.

The styled tree was put in an Italian made pot from the Gotelli Conifer Collection.

While the picture is of low quality you can still make out the silhouette of the tree. This photo shows the boxwood as it looked in the early 1980’s.

In 1999  the upper portion of the tree was removed. This helped to make the tree more compact while also creating more movement in the trunk. The tree was allowed to grow freely until 2007 when I had the privilege of bringing it back into shape.

The tree after pruning, wiring, and repotting. Since boxwood grow very slowly, the pruning scare on the trunk had not healed over. In order to hide this, a branch was lowered and over time the foliage pad would fill in and conceal the wound.

Today the tree is thriving and the foliage pads on the left have filled in. After more than 35 years of cultivation at the Arboretum this tree is reaching maturity as a bonsai. During his demonstration in 1973 Mr. Yoshimura said “We must look to the future design of the specimen.” Mr. Yoshimura not only could see the future of this bonsai but the future of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. He envisioned “…a place to which American bonsaiists could give or will their treasures knowing the trees would be cared for and viewed by visitors for years and decades to come.”  I would like to think that he would be pleased to see how his boxwood and the Museum have grown.