Museum Month: The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum In Washington, DC

Consider for a moment the events of 1625.

Dutch settlers in North America established the city of New Amsterdam, which would become, of course, New York City. Theaters throughout London closed for eight months due to an epidemic of bubonic plague. And somewhere in a studio or garden in Japan, a bonsai artist began training a Japanese White Pine, the very tree that would become the centerpiece of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington, DC.

In 1976, thanks to Japan and its Bicentennial gift to the United States, the Department of Agriculture created the first museum in the world dedicated to the display of Japanese (bonsai) and Chinese (penjing) horticultural art. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum now contains three pavilions – Chinese, Japanese and North American – with approximately 150 living sculptures interspersed with viewing stones (naturally shaped rocks that are the typical companions of bonsai) and strolling paths.

All manner of trees, from trident maples to California junipers are on view in miniature form in the museum. Highlights include a tree trained into the shape of a dragon; “Goshin,” an artistic tree arrangement in the “forest style;” a shrunken, flat-topped Bald Cypress from the swamps of the American South; and the almost 400-year-old bonsai pine that is approximately the size of a front yard shrub. But what makes this museum a treat is its tranquility, a quality that is increasingly hard to find inside the Beltway. If you’re looking for a moment of Zen, here’s where to find it.