For the first time, you can see 400-year-old tiny pines, miniature oak groves and some of the region’s smallest redwoods all in one place.

“Each one is a treasure”: a variety of bonsai trees currently on display in Filoli’s current exhibit, including (left) a sequoia sempervirens, or coastal redwood; and (center) citrus junos, a Yuzu tree bearing fruit! (Images courtesy of Filoli)

Filoli is going small this month.

The grand estate which is known for its huge gardens, immense house and large holiday festivities is taking a scaled down approach for its latest exhibit — a collection of bonsai trees. These diminutive plants span a variety of different species, including wisteria, juniper and camellia.

At a time when many are ready to emerge from their homes after California’s stay-at-home orders, Filoli Gardens has opened up their entire collection of bonsai trees for the first time, including a 400-year-old black pine. In addition, daffodils are showering the grassy fields in shades of yellow and white, and dozens of camellia trees are in bright bloom, making a visit to Filoli’s extensive gardens a must-see this month.

A selection of trees featured in Filoli’s current bonsai exhibit, on display inside the estate’s Garden House. (Image courtesy of Filoli)

Tiny treasures

Bonsai is the Japanese art form of cultivating trees to a micro scale. When properly cared for in specific containers, a bonsai tree is essentially a miniature replica of how the same species would grow much larger when rooted in the ground. Filoli’s collection—currently on display until February 28—serves as a vivid case study in the many forms that bonsai can take and how long these trees can thrive.

“Each one is a treasure,” says Jim Salyards, Filoli’s Director of Horticulture. Salyards has worked at Filoli for 26 years and has acted as director since 2014. In articulating the care needed for these trees, Salyards compared them to a family pet that needs an abundance of watchful attention.

Most woody trees hold the potential to become bonsai trees, with the exception of those whose leaves retain their original size (instead of minimizing along with the truck and branches). Salyards stressed that aesthetics are important to the cultivation of a successful bonsai tree: “If a plant is stunted, but the leaves are too big, it doesn’t look right.” Magnolias, for example, are a tree that Salyards says prefers its root untouched, and therefore the extensive care needed to cultivate one as a bonsai would be too much of a disturbance.

The current exhibit at Filoli marks the first time that the estate has displayed their eclectic collection of bonsai trees. (Image courtesy of Filoli)

Not only has Salyards monitored the growth of many of the bonsai trees at the gardens over the years, but he has also played a part in bringing a few to life. In 2011, Salyards chose to dig up a dwarfed coast live oak that sat on the hillside at Filoli. Mindful of the emphasis on cultivating California native plants at the estate, Salyards brought in the coast live oak as a way to incorporate local species into their bonsai collection.

Other bonsai trees Salyards has grown from seed include a Bhutan cypress, California buckeye and a thin grove of beech trees. Some of the other native bonsai tree species include eight juniper specimens, which have been at Filoli for nearly 100 years.

When it comes to longevity though, the crown jewel of the exhibit is their 400-year-old black pine bonsai tree, which has resided at Filoli for more than 20 years now. Started in Japan centuries ago, the black pine bonsai was given as a gift to Lurline Roth (the owner of Filoli from 1936 until she opened it to the public in 1977) from the Hillsborough Estates, so that it could continue to live on with the same care it had received for generations. Also of considerable age are a set of 100-year-old wisteria trees. Their branches are sturdy yet bare at this time as they do not flower until spring.

On the shelves in the terrace gardens, among a mini-grove of oak, olive and cypress, the sequoia sempervirens stands tall for its bonsai stature, and is easily identifiable as the same species as those elderly 300-foot redwoods that grace the coast of California. While Filoli’s bonsai redwood is a mere 50 years old, it holds the same appearance the ancient members of the forest.

An Atlas Blue Cedar bosai tree, currently on display as part of Filoli’s exhibit. (Image courtesy of Filoli)

Micro culture

Salyards and the other horticulturists at Filoli are not the primary care givers of the bonsai trees. The extensive practice of pruning, wiring and pinching leaves is in the hands of trained bonsai volunteers from various bonsai societies in the Bay Area, including the Kusamara Bonsai Club in Palo Alto. Rita Curbow began volunteering there in 2007, and two years later had recruited seven more volunteers to make weekly visits to Filoli. “The person taking ownership must continue the bonsai techniques,” said Curbow, speaking of the care and maintenance she and the other volunteers willingly give to each little tree in the effort to keep each one healthy and thriving.

Tending to the bonsai trees involves constant hands-on support from the volunteers. Their attention to detail and knowledgeable approach have been why these small trees have flourished and kept their shape. A tree with an age of 400 years comes with a set of unwritten handling techniques and a healthy amount of caution when relocating. The horticulturists at Filoli remain vigilant when tending to the bonsai trees. “With a small volume of soil, they are more vulnerable,” said Salyards. Considering the bonsai trees live in pots, and not in the ground to receive water reserves from the soil, they must be watered daily, sometimes twice during warmer weather. The bonsais at Filoli are placed in shaded areas, and sit where staff frequently pass so that they are consistently watched.

Filoli has continued operations during the pandemic. With paths wide enough to walk freely among the natural quiet beauty, a visit to Filoli this winter is the ideal recreational activity to liven your spirits. “We have been fortunate to be able to remain open and available to our Bay Area community,” said Susan O’Sullivan, Filoli’s Chief External Relations Officer, “as a place for outdoor recreation and to have a much-needed respite in nature.”

The current regulations, O’Sullivan said, “have brought us back to the core of our mission, to connect our rich history with a vibrant future through beauty, nature and shared stories. We’ve been reminded that we have a unique role to be a place of escape and solace.”

“…A place for outdoor recreation and to have a much-needed respite in nature.” Filoli has remained open during the pandemic, though in a more limited capacity. (Image courtesy of Filoli)

Filoli’s bonsai collection is currently on display through February 28.

When planning a trip to Filoli’s gardens, it is strongly recommended to purchase tickets online in advance, as daily admittance is limited during the pandemic.

There are many bonsai clubs throughout California. A list of clubs, and information on the care and cultivation of bonsai trees, can be found at www.gsbfbonsai.org.

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Sonia Myers

Hey, hello, Sonia here. What's up?! I'm a quarter educator, quarter environmentalist, quarter writer and reader, and in between all those cracks of weathering, you'll find love. On the pro side, in 2019 I completed the Science and Environment Teacher Fellowship and was recognized as a standout leader in environmental and sustainable education through the One Planet Schools Challenge. I am a National Geographic certified educator and a 2021 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow through National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. I also write fiction novels for middle readers to promote environmental literacy and sustainability through storytelling.

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