"From Colonial Times to World War II:
America Peeks at Bonsai"

by Robert J. Baran

Originally published in the ABS Bonsai Journal, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 5-6, 32.
© 1992 American Bonsai Society, reprinted by permission


       Most of us have some familiarity with the rise of popular bonsai culture in the United States.  A two-pronged germination took place in the early 1950's.  From the east coast came the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's booklet in response to many inquiries by returning servicemen on how to care for their "rucksack bonsai."  The BBG also was the first to offer classes in bonsai taught by Japanese horticulturist Kan Yashiroda.  From the west coast, a little earlier, came the establishment of the Southern California and Fuji Bonsai Clubs by John Naka and associates.*   Interest spread as many other clubs sprang up throughout the nation.  But what about earlier American glimpses at dwarfed and potted trees as artistically trained in the Orient?  While actual trees may not have been widely seen before the last quarter of the Nineteenth century, pictures and writings provided us with indirect exposure for two centuries.
       Colonial Philadelphia was the largest American port and home for traders to China, although Great Britain, at first, prohibited them from dealing directly.  After breaking away from restrictions, taxes and the London middle-man (remember the Boston Tea Party?) our traders provided China more and more with quality Appalachian ginseng, furs and woolen cloth.  In return, we received perhaps thirty ship loads annually of tea, silk, cotton goods, spices, decorated porcelains, draperies, wallpapers, lacquer and other home furnishings.  Finding their way into a large number of colonial and early American homes, our first glimpses of the Orient were wonderfully depicted and brightly colored images of the people, flora and fauna, landscapes, architecture, historical and mythic events, silk and tea cultivation, ceremonies and processions.  And even the Fa Tee ("Flowery Land") gardens were to be seen.  These were several famous small nurseries outside the city of Canton, the busy Southeastern Chinese port where foreign trading posts were allowed to be settled.
       British naturalists, Clarke Abel and John Livingstone, briefly mentioned the Fa Tee gardens and the dwarfed trees found there around 1820.  Tiny elm, plum and other fruiting trees were described to the English public.  Many accurate details about propagation, the checking of growth and giving an aged appearance were recorded.  These writings undoubtedly found their way to the States where knowledge of the acknowledged superior and prospering Chinese agriculture and industry had been hungrily absorbed for decades.
       As Livingstone wrote, "In these gardens may be seen all the plants, for which a demand exists among the Chinese themselves, but they will be found to consist of a very small variety, comprehending only showy or odoriferous plants, shrubs, and trees, and such fruit trees as are commonly cultivated in the gardens.  To these may be added, abundance of dwarf trees, which the Chinese greatly admire, and for some of which they are content to pay a very high price."  Is it stretching too much to say that the Fa Tee gardens depicted on household goods for Western use would have included dwarfed potted trees?  Koo shoo, ancient trees, was the Chinese term then in use for these.
       Philipp Von Siebold, physician for the Dutch East India Company, was first in Japan from 1823 to 1829.  A dozen years later a translated compilation of his and other Dutch observations of the Land of the Rising Sun was published in New York.  Dwarfed plum, fir and bamboo reared in flower pots are mentioned.  (It is thought that when Commodore Perry arrived in Japan with his gunboat diplomacy in 1853, he had a well-worn copy of this book with him.)
      Plant collector Robert Fortune made four trips to China between 1843 and 1861.  The last also included a stay in Japan and a visit to Von Siebold there.  Each visit produced material for a book.  Originally published in London, copies of these quickly came over to this country.  This was a time of increasing new trade with the Orient and an influx of Chinese and Japanese plants by way of the European nurseries.  The parent stock of many new varieties had actually been first collected by Von Siebold and Fortune, the latter being extremely successful with a recent invention called the Wardian case.  This was a heavy duty closed terrarium for ocean-transport of living plants.  Fortune's books described in detail dwarfed pines, junipers, cypresses, bamboos, peach and plum, elm, gingko, etc., "without which no Chinese garden would be considered complete."
       Now, beginning at mid-century, thousands of Chinese emigrants went to California (and Australia) to serve as laborers for the gold-rush boom.  Nearly all of them came from the southern coastal area of China.  While largely unskilled, a few must have known something of Chinese horticulture, dwarfed trees, or had even visited the Fa Tee gardens.  We have no evidence yet that trees were successfully brought here by any of these emigrants, but one or two may have eventually tried creating them in their new country.
       With the opening of Japan to foreign trade, some visiting Europeans and Americans are known to have brought back dwarfed trees, mainly in the tako or octopus style.  These were pines or junipers trained to have long curving or wavy branches.  Created in the Tokyo area specifically for the gaudy and uneducated western tastes, these trees were of poorer quality than trees grown for the natives.  Initially chosen by westerners as representative of all the dwarfed trees, the tako style was obligingly mass-produced to satisfy European and American stereotyped ideas, a common marketing plan in Japan at the time.  A few more discerning westerners did return with, or at least describe, other styles of trees.
       The development of the wealthy merchant class at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries brought increased demand for bonsai both within Japan and for export purposes.  The literati of Osaka and Kyoto, by now waning in philosophical influence, nonetheless had, by this time, brought more natural non-tako style trees into the market. 
      During the six month run of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, almost ten million people, nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population, visited the displays there.  Assorted imported trees and shrubs were arranged in the space around the Japanese Bazaar so as to represent a native garden.  No specific reference has yet been found in our researches that confirm the presence of bonsai at the exhibit.  From the types of plants listed in the Official Catalogue, however, and its good description of Japanese gardens and "dwarf trees," we can reasonably conclude that bonsai were displayed there.
      Groups of dwarfed trees were definitely present in 1893 at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.  Japan's "Phoenix" garden house had been built on what many considered to be the choicest location on the fairgrounds, and it was visited by many of the twenty-seven and a half million who attended.  The trees came along with an official gardener sent by the Japanese government.  While there, Henry Izawa would also give a talk before the nurseryman's section of the Horticultural Congress on the dwarfing of pines, bamboos, thuja, and maples.
       Individual Japanese had been either bringing dwarfed trees into the U.S. or creating them here since at least the early 1890's, first in Hawaii (around strict plant quarantine laws of that republic/territory) and the west coast.
       By the turn of the century, dwarfed Japanese trees had become the rage in New York and Brooklyn.  A few enterprising Japanese imported a number of the trees, some being very fine specimens. One exceptional tree with an authenticated age of 350 years sold for $350.  A spring 1900 exhibit in New York coincided with the boom.  The collection was said to be the most perfect ever brought together and included pine and maple forests, rock-grown trees and even tray landscapes (bonkei).  Newspaper descriptions of the collection contain the earliest known uses of both "bonkei" and "bonsai" in print in English.  Steam heat, indoor locations and lack of care instructions probably killed the majority of the trees purchased as exotic ornaments by wealthy New Yorkers.  As great numbers of dwarfed trees were exported annually to Europe and the United States from Japan during these decades, bonsai in other U.S. communities must have suffered similar fates.
       Other articles of the era about bonsai are to be found in plant collectors' and travellers' journals, horticulture magazines, "Scientific American," and the "Atlantic Monthly." "Harper's Bazar" contained a story which included twelve photos of trees owned by a Philadelphia gentleman.  Over half of the trees are in the neagari or exposed-root style (which was the most popular style in published photographs during the next two decades in this country).  The accuracy of the information in the articles definitely varied.  For every expert nurseryman or garden director who gave details about the dwarfing process and had hands-on experience, you could find nonsense about "very young trees tortured into looking old (and thus more expensive) by a still secret Japanese process."  Of course, if one person does not know something that others do, to that one person it still is a secret...  Reports from Europe also crossed the Atlantic providing descriptions of dwarfed trees shown at the various London and Paris expositions.
       Groups of bonsai were sent by the Japanese government to be in the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition.  During nine and a half months, nineteen million visitors were able to see a 300 year old black pine, a pair of 200 year old trident maples, and other bonsai.
       Some of the Japanese displays with gardens at other expositions from Atlanta (1895) and Buffalo (1901) to St. Louis (1904) and Portland (1905) probably also included bonsai.  While Chinese displays were present at most of the same expos, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act severely limited official participation.  Many of the Chinese villages shown ended up being crude stereotypes built to maintain an international atmosphere.  Playing on fears, anti-Chinese agitators from the western states built up a perception of the Chinese as lazy opium-using inferiors whose natural resources were best handled by the better judgement of American commercial ventures.  The slightly less threatening Japanese were seen as an exotic, but artistic, people whose aesthetic fantasies fit with the eclectic tastes of Victorian America.  The Japanese showed promise of becoming willing trading partners, modernizing without declining morally.  At least, until the 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act ended Japanese immigration to this nation until after World War II.
       In 1919, the Plant Quarantine Law effectively stopped entry of bonsai into America.  To preserve agricultural crops and ornamentals from the ravages of foreign pests, the law excluded all nursery stock with soil or sphagnum moss around the roots.  Certain other plants which might also carry spores and insects on their above-ground parts were likewise prohibited.  Permits and rigid inspection allowed the importation of a very limited number of trees and bushes.
       The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, established in 1911, was given thirty-two previously imported Japanese bonsai from the collection of nurseryman Ernest Coe in 1925.  However, the trees would not be put on display for over two decades.
       The Arnold Arboretum (established 1872) was gifted its first bonsai in 1937.  These were among the trees that U.S. Ambassador Larz Anderson had brought back with him in 1913, along with Japanese gardeners to care for them.
       Before the Second World War, perhaps a few dozen native-born Americans of European or Oriental ancestry had learned the care and training techniques, some from masters while visiting in Japan, others from their fathers.  And private collections were assembled -- one in California even reached a total of about a thousand trees.  An occasional display, such as at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, or lectures at garden clubs, let the public know a little more of what bonsai were.
       Persons of Japanese ancestry along the west coast, but not Hawaii, were evacuated to ten inland War Relocation Centers between 1942 and 1946.  Able to bring few personal goods, the bonsai growers among the 110,000 evacuees were forced to leave their trees behind.  Most of these plants perished unattended.  A handful of bonkei makers taught large informal classes in the camps, and even held an exhibition of their wonderful landscapes.  A few dwarfed trees were even transformed into bonsai by restless growers seeking to reveal the beauty of their desert world.
       While popular interest in bonsai did not begin to develop until after the war, earlier generations of Americans had opportunities to briefly see dwarfed trees or read about them.  As we know so well, many more people are aware of bonsai than will ever attempt their hand at it.  These early glimpses helped determine the road we have been increasingly travelling and exploring for the past half-century.
 
PRINCIPAL BIBLIOGRAPHY
     Bedford, Cornelia E.  "Elfin Trees" in "Harper's Bazar;" Aug. 11, 1900.  Pp. 915-917.
     Blight, Robert (ed.) "Among the Plants; Garden, Field and Forest," in Current Literature, Vol. 28, No. 3.  Pp. 258-260.
                             "Dwarfing Plants in Japan," in Garden and Forest, Sept. 6, 1893, pg. 373.
     Eaton, Allen H. Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1952.
     Fortune, Robert  A Residence Among the Chinese, London: John Murray, 1857.
     Goldstein, Jonathan, Philadelphia and the China Trade, 1682-1846, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.
     Iriye, Akira (ed.) Mutual Images, Essays in American-Japanese Relations, Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1975.
     Livingstone, John  "Observations on the Difficulties which have existed in the Transportation of Plants from China to England," in Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, Vol. III, pg. 423.
     Official Catalogue of the Japanese Section, International Exposition 1876, Philadelphia: W.P. Kildare, 1876.
     Rydell, Robert W. All the World's a Fair, Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1984.
     Von Siebold, Dr. Philipp Franz, Manners and Customs of the Japanese, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company; 1973. Second printing, 1977.

 
    * Note for this Internet reprint:  the Fuji Bonsai Club was founded by Ken Sugimoto, who was a "spiritual associate" of John Naka.  Naka-san did not have actual involvement with that San Francisco area club's establishment.  This author only meant to compress the events, not rewrite history.  My apologies if anyone, especially reading the original ink-on-paper article, came away with the wrong impression.


Home  >  Bonsai History  >  America Peeks