Bonsai trees are much cooler than Mr. Miyagi led me to believe

This is going to sound ignorant, but until today my knowledge of bonsai trees was based entirely on The Karate Kid.

If I had to guess, I’d have said a bonsai tree was some dwarf species or a bush that looks like a tiny tree. A little kitschy, no big whoop. But today Melanie and I went to the National Arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Museum, and my ignorance was slightly diminished at the same time my mind was officially blown.

As any non-ignorant person (or Wikipedia reader) must have already known, bonsai (the Japanese term) or penjing (the Chinese term) refers to “the art of aesthetic miniaturization of trees, or of developing woody or semi-woody plants shaped as trees, by growing them in containers” (I would have used a more authoritative source’s definition, but I can’t find one on the American Bonsai Society’s website).

I guess the “semi-woody plants shaped as trees” part could be the “bush shaped like a tiny tree” that I had in mind. But most of the specimens at the Arboretum are literally miniature trees.

Walking through the exhibit is like walking through the forest sets of A Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. Except in this case, the trees aren’t painted models with popcorn for blossoms — they’re actually trees!

The other cool thing is that a bunch of the trees are 100 or more years old. One is from the mid 1600s! The age combined with the warped perspective makes the whole exhibit pretty dizzying.

Here are two examples from the Arboretum. But you don’t get the same vertiginous sense of scale unless you’re standing in front of them — or rather, over them.

Update: Here’s a photo that gives a better sense:

Josh and a bonsai

If you’re in the D.C. area and, like us, have overlooked the Arboretum because of all the higher-profile things to see in these parts, I highly recommend a visit. (The rest of the grounds are very pretty, too.)

Sidenote: Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for playing Mr. Miyagi??? Wha?


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