Posted tagged ‘National Arboretum’

Beautiful Bonsai at the National Arboretum

February 6, 2015

In early January of this new year, I was feeling a little stir-crazy at home. So I decided to visit the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, at the National Arboretum. I had drifted through the collections before, on other visits, but this time I went specifically to see these miniature treasures.

As many of you probably already know, bonsai is the Japanese art form of growing minature trees in containers (bonsai literally means “planting in tray,” according to Wikipedia). It is over one thousand years old. A similar practice grew up in ancient China, where it is called “penjing” and includes creating miniature landscapes as well as trees.


National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, National Bonsai Foundation,  US National Arboretum

Part of the collection at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum.

Because it was winter, some of the bonsai specimens were leafless – but not all of them. A conifer is a conifer, after all, regardless of size. So the Chinese and California junipers, as well as the camellias, still sported their leaves – and one camellia was even in bloom. It was a quiet afternoon, well-suited to enjoying the charms of these beautiful specimens. Here are some of my favorites. If you’re ever fortunate enough to visit the Arboretum, don’t overlook this hidden gem. The museum’s hours are more limited, however, so plan your visit between 10 am and 4 pm most days.


The Gotelli Collection – Hidden Treasures at the National Arboretum

January 15, 2011

Years ago, while enrolled in a landscape design program, the first set of courses I was required to take involved learning about 300 trees and shrubs that are well-suited to planting in the mid-Atlantic area. The courses were called (innovatively enough), Fall I, Fall II, Spring I, Spring II, and Summer.  They were taught primarily at the National Arboretum on weekday mornings, rain or shine. When “Spring I” rolled around, it was January. What in the world, I wondered, would we be shown that could possibly be interesting? How many hollies could the world hold? Would winter’s cold be the only thing keeping me awake for three hours each Friday morning?

Then I visited the Gotelli Collection of Dwarf and Slow-Growing Conifers at the Arboretum, and my ideas about evergreen plants changed forever. The variety of colors (greens, blue-greens, variegated-tipped species, and every shade in between the basics) and textures was overwhelming. Many trees and shrubs were unusually shaped – spreading,  stubby, rounded. Planted with grasses, crape myrtles, Japanese maples, star magnolias and other deciduous plants, they created gorgeous contrasts for the eye. In snow, they were even more arresting.

National Arboretum, Gotelli Collection

View of part of the Gotelli Collection from the gazebo, at the National Arboretum

Since then, I have returned many times – for design inspiration, to take photographs, and to see the collection in every season. I’ve also learned a little bit about how the Collection came into being. In 1962, a New Jersey businessman, William T. Gotelli, donated his personal collection of conifers to the Arboretum so that it would not be dispersed. It consisted of over 800 varieties of conifers, 600 varieties of rhododendrons and many Japanese maples. At the time, Mr. Gotelli estimated the collection’s worth at over half a million dollars. The USNA’s acquisition of the collection led to its staff developing a deeper interest in the area of dwarf and slow-growing conifers.

The Collection is now recognized as one of the finest of its kind in the world. According to the Arboretum’s website, the climate there allows it to grow conifers from widely varying climates, including some that are native to areas near the Arctic Circle and others that are almost subtropical. In my program, we tended to study the less exotic species, but even those can be breathtaking when grown to full size (a cautionary lesson for a garden designer).

Cedrus atlantica glauca 'Pendula,' weeping atlas cedar

A mature weeping blue atlas cedar in the Gotelli Collection. Not for the typical suburban front yard - give these babies room to grow!

If you visit the Gotelli Collection on your own, allow for plenty of time if you want to see it all, as it is spread out over a large area on the New York Avenue side of the Arboretum. There are grass paths between the beds that allow for easy wandering, and at the far end of the collection is a small pond with one of the highlights of the Collection – a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) with knobby “knees” peeking out of the water’s surface. (Like the dawn redwood, or Metasequoia glyptostroboides, shown below, bald cypress is one of the very few conifers that sheds its needles during the winter.)

Metasequoia glyptostroboides, dawn redwood, National Arboretum

Near the Gotelli Collection, one can find a grove of dawn redwood trees grown from seedlings discovered in China in 1942, at a time when the species had been assumed extinct for many years. Note the color of the needles, about to drop as fall advances.

National Arboretum, Gotelli Collection

Another part of the Gotelli Garden, in late summer.

For additional information about the Gotelli Collection, visit the Arboretum’s website ( or see Dwarf & Unusual Conifers Coming of Age: A Guide to Mature Garden Conifers, by Sandra Cutler (Barton-Bradley Crossroads Publishing Co., 1997)

Inspiration at the Arboretum

January 28, 2010

Years ago, when I started studying landscape design, I spent three hours every Friday morning for a year traipsing around the National Arboretum (and other places) learning about trees and shrubs. One chilly winter morning, my class was following our teacher down a winding road headed to a destination that now escapes me when we rounded a corner and there, in front of us, was a plant that stopped me in my tracks.  It was Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena,’ a hybrid witchhazel that sports fantastic orange, strap-like flowers in winter.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena', National Arboretum

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena' at the National Arboretum stopped me in my tracks.

When I took this photo, I was still shooting film and using a point-and-shoot camera. It’s not a great photo (too dark, even though I’ve worked on it in Photoshop), but when I got it back from Moto Photo, it entranced me and took me back to that overcast Friday morning. Later, when I scanned it, it became one of the very first images in the plant photo database that I now use in my design work, showing clients the plants I propose to include in their gardens. Since then, I’ve photographed witchhazels (‘Arnold’s Promise’ is another favorite) in other gardens, but ‘Jelena’ remains first in my heart and the photographer it helped to inspire is very grateful.

Hamamelis x 'Jelena', Brookside Gardens

Witchhazel's strap-like blossoms appear in the winter when there is otherwise little color in the landscape.

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