Building a unique bonsai collection

It’s been three years now since I started my curatorship of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens bonsai collection. Mostly three years of rebuilding root balls, cutting back branches, and grafting like there’s no tomorrow; but also three years of zero-to-hero, junk-to-hunk Cinderella make-overs such as have graced these pages before.

But now that the collection has been stabilized health-wise, and some of the trees are even starting to look half decent, it’s time to turn a shifty glance forward and start planning ahead.

Basically, the JBG collection is still very much a product of its amateur origins. The collection was donated by the two founding fathers of Israeli bonsai, and is still representative of its amateur (not in the derogatory sense!) and old-school-bonsai roots. Also, the original collections were kept in the hot and (ridiculously) humid climate of Israel’s southern coastal region. For example – keeping a collection comprised of 80% ficus in the almost tropical climate of the coast – cool! Keeping them in Jerusalem’s colder, 800m elevation climate – not so cool.  Especially if they don’t provide visitors to the Gardens with any wow-factor. Quite clearly, the collection needs to evolve. But how?

Botanical gardens around the world usually have their bonsai collections donated or bequeathed. Any subsequent additions are usually procured from outside the gardens. This leads to an interesting phenomenon where most botanical gardens’ bonsai collections tend to be quite similar, and reflect more the depth of each garden’s pockets and contacts list, than the gardens themselves. This isn’t to say that bonsai collections in botanical gardens aren’t absolutely, jaw-droppingly, awe-inspiringly beautiful. Quite the opposite! But still – with the JBG’s collection, I wanted to do something different. Not only because of budget considerations or the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to get bonsai trees into Israel. But also because I think it is possible to build a more interesting and unique collection. One which is singularly representative of its host garden.

Why not build the collection from within the gardens themselves? Why not tap the unique botanical diversity that a major botanical garden has to offer? Why not build a collection that, pardon the megalomania, could not be assembled in any other place in the world?

So, over the past year, I’ve been pilfering the JBG’s rich botanical larders – from unique oaks that sprout in almost maple-like reds every spring, to the wild predecessors of today’s apples and pears (hailing from obscure regions in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the likes), obscure maple varieties, and all kinds of trees that only people with a perverted fetish for botanical taxonomy can name. All have been finding their way, one way or another, into the JBG bonsai collection’s ‘In Development’ pile.

Are these your usual suspects when building a bonsai collection? Definitely not! But exactly for that reason, they can build a unique collection, with unique personality. Plus, there’s the added benefit that they are usually drop-dead gorgeous, and offer a seasonal variation that would be very difficult to find in our local Mediterranean flora.

So, as we move forward, the collection will certainly continue to respect its roots and heritage. But it will also increasingly push the boundaries of bonsai cultivation, and continue to build itself not as ‘the bonsai collection in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens’, but as ‘the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens bonsai collection’.

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