National Bonsai and Pénjǐng Collection

The Bonsai and Pénjīng collection at the National Arboretum in Canberra is well worth a visit on your way past the second checkpoint on the 24km Bush Capital walk. 

Mar 14, 2024

The art of bonsai believed to have originated from the Chinese practice of pénjǐng (盆景), which dates back over a millennium. The Japanese adopted it, where it developed into the bonsai we are more familiar with today. 

Pénjǐng involves creating tiny landscapes with rocks and water to imitate a natural and untamed appearance. It showcases plant life in a controlled landscape form.

Pénjǐng specimens allow a wider range of tree shapes and are often planted in bright-coloured and creatively shaped pots. Some take the form of dragons or may represent a family tree or story.

Bonsai (盆栽 pénzā in China) is a more refined and controlled style, inspired by the Chinese practice of pénjǐng but focused on individual trees and shrubs, pruned to create an aesthetic miniaturised version of the tree in nature.

Bonsai trees are more simplified in shape, with larger trunks, and are typically planted in unobtrusive, low-sided containers with simple lines and muted colours.

Both Bonsai and Pénjǐng share the goal of creating miniature natural scenes, they differ in their cultural origins, stylistic approaches, and the overall aesthetic they aim to achieve. 

Whether you’re drawn to the rugged beauty of Pénjǐng or the refined elegance of Bonsai, both art forms require immense patience, skill, and a deep connection to nature.

We encourage you to stop and see the exhibits at the National Bonsai and Pénjǐng Collection near the Vulnerable Youth Checkpoint at the National Arboretum. (Near 10km mark on the 24km route.)

The importance of bonsai lies in its ability to represent nature on a small scale, reflecting the beauty and tranquility of the natural world. It’s a form of expression that connects us to the environment and teaches patience, discipline, and respect for life.

Bonsai Banksia bottle brush

Above: A Bonsai Banksia

Bonsai Morton Bay Fig Tree

Above: A Bonsai Morton Bay Fig

Top and background photo courtesy of Australian Tourism. All other images by the author.

The Collection

The Bonsai collection at the National Arboretum in Canberra is a collaboration between the ACT Government and bonsai enthusiasts from across the nation.

This collection is not just an exhibit; it’s a vibrant ecosystem of miniature trees that encapsulates the essence of Australian flora.

Australia offers a unique perspective on Bonsai, with its diverse flora and passionate bonsai community. These examples of Australian plants can be found in the National Bonsai Collection.

Inset: A Bonsai Nepal Juniper

Bonsai Nepal Juniper
Working at the National Bonsai Collection
People engage in bonsai for various reasons

Why create Bonsai trees?

People engage in Bonsai for various reasons: as a hobby, for artistic expression, or even for therapeutic benefits. It’s a rewarding practice that offers a sense of accomplishment as you watch your tree develop and mature over time.

Ideally, starting with Bonsai requires some basic knowledge about tree species, soil composition, potting, pruning, and shaping techniques. But if you are a complete novice, perhaps taking up Bonsai is a great way to learn.

For inspiration, one can visit the National Arboretum or Botanical Gardens, join Bonsai clubs, or browse online communities dedicated to Bonsai enthusiasts.

“With dedication and passion, anyone can embark on the bonsai journey!”

For enthusiasts, there are specialist Bonsai nurseries that not only showcase a variety of Bonsai trees but also provide insights into the care and cultivation of these living artworks.

165 million year old petrified tree stump

A 165 million year old petrified tree stump is now on display in the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection, kindly donated by the National Dinosaur Museum in Canberra.

Photo: Texture of the petrified tree stump.

How Long Do Bonsai Trees Live?

The oldest living bonsai tree, a Ficus Bonsai, is over a thousand years old and resides in the Crespi Bonsai Museum in Parabiago, Italy.

This ancient tree symbolises the timeless connection between nature and human care.

The 120 exhibits are meticulously curated, with a rotating display of approximately 75 trees that offer a glimpse into the diverse world of bonsai artistry. From the gnarled roots of Banksia Serrata to the slender elegance of Eucalyptus Camaldulensis, each tree tells a story of resilience and beauty.

But what sets this collection apart is its communal spirit. Trees are generously loaned by artists and their families, weaving a tapestry of personal narratives and shared heritage. This ensures that every visit is unique, as the Collection evolves with fresh additions and stories.

Visitors can explore the careful care practices that help these trees thrive, including watering schedules and shaping techniques.

The Collection also serves as an educational hub, offering workshops and tours that deepen the appreciation for this ancient art form.

Whether you’re a seasoned bonsai practitioner or a curious onlooker, the collection at the National Arboretum Canberra is a must-visit destination that promises an ever-changing panorama of living sculptures.

National Bonsai and Penjing Collection sign

You’ll find the entrance on your right just before you walk into the Arboretum building. The Arboretum building is a common spot for 24km walkers to stop for a coffee and a snack before continuing on their way through the Cork Forest, around Black Mountain to the back entrance of the National Botanic Gardens.

Visit the page on the National Arboretum website about the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia.

Bonsai Penjing Book

How to Win This Fabulous Bonsai Book

The good news is that if you have entered the 24km walk, you’re already in the draw for this fascinating book about the National Arboretum Bonsai and Pénjīng Collection.

All entrants are in the draw for this lovely momento of your visit. The winner will be drawn at the closing ceremony in Albert Hall on Sunday 24 March. Don’t forget to hang around for the draw.

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