Bonsai down under

Tony Tickle visits the National Bonsai & Penjing Collection in Canberra, Australia and hopes it will inspire other countries to consider their own collections.

Sticky-Wattle

If you visit the website Trip Advisor and search ‘Things to do in Canberra’ high on the list is the National Bonsai & Penjing Collection and it comes with a five-star rating, and with good reason, here is just one of the recent reviews:

“I’m not much of a bonsai type, OK well I wasn’t but I am now, I came home and had my own mini tree going in just days. To me they were a bit mesmerizing, and even a little romantic, I bet my wife hugged me ten times as we walked among the little trees. They brought out our creative/imagination sides for just a little while we were like kids wondering the small forests, yes it was that good/fascinating to me. Doesn’t take long to see whole collection, they allow photographing, and bring a friend holding hands will make it event more special.”

This review sums up perfectly the effect the collection has on the thousands who visit this national treasure every year.

The National Bonsai & Penjing Collection is housed at National Arboretum and is a 250-hectare (618 acre) arboretum in Canberra, the national capital of Australia, created after the area was burned out as a result of the 2001 and 2003 Canberra bushfires, this permitted the arboretum to be created. And the Bonsai & Penjing Collection was envisaged from the the beginning and not as an afterthought, it is at the heart of the main public building and fully included into the visitor experience.

I visited the collection in 2017 as an invited artist, my fees and flights were paid for by donations to the collection by those visitors. Every year visiting artists from across the globe help develop the skills of volunteers and visitors alike. Ably curated by Leigh Taafe and supported by assistant curator Sam Thompson, both with many years’ experience in bonsai in Australia the collection is is superb condition, they are supported by a small army of volunteers known as ‘Friends of the national arboretum’ and this collaborative teamwork is key to the success of the collection.

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About 80 bonsai and penjing trees and forests are usually on display, in a variety of traditional and modern styles, with both Australian native and exotic trees, all donated or loaned by the artists, their families or friends and it is considered a great honour to have a tree in the national collection.

Apart from displaying beautifully maintained bonsai the collection is a reflection of native trees in miniature with the full size examples displayed around the wider arboretum. I found many of the species fascinating with some examples created over many decades started by the early pioneers of bonsai down under.

Cape-Cotton-Bush

The National Arboretum Canberra is worth a visit not just for the bonsai, the site has been planted since 2005, and includes ceremonial trees planted by visiting heads of government and ambassadors. It was officially opened in February 2013. The arboretum has some outstanding views and an open-air stage and amphitheatre. The buildings include the Village Centre, an innovative timber structure housing a cafe, restaurant, gift shop and interpretive exhibition, and the best part is, entrance is free!

The National Bonsai & Penjing Collection Canberra is a benchmark by which other countries can measure themselves. It is a credit to those that worked hard to have this amazing collection under one roof, have a superb team in place to maintain the trees and encourage enthusiasts and beginners through a year round program of workshops and events. And I refer back to our friend that posted the review on the Trip Advisor website: “I’m not much of a bonsai type, OK well I wasn’t but I am now”

australia entrance

Text & Photos: Tony Tickle