This Old Tree with Doug Still
The Imperial Pine Bonsai (Transcript)
Season 1, Episode 15
Published April 27, 2023
Doug Still: [00:08]
When you make your way through the exhibition space at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum within the U.S. National Arboretum, you encounter one spectacular bonsai tree after the next. Each one is different and beautiful. Their harmonious shapes suggest a windswept landscape or an ancient story just out of reach. Its most famous resident, the Yamaki Pine, is almost 400 years old and survived the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima.
I was given a tour by Andy Bello, a Museum Specialist and new friend, who took time out of his busy schedule to show me the highlights, and there were a lot of them. So, it's saying something that the last bonsai on the circuit piqued my interest the most. It's a large, powerful Japanese red pine that's been in training since 1795. It was donated by the Japanese Imperial family and, according to Andy, is the only bonsai to ever leave the emperor's personal collection. I had to know more about how it got here.
To find out, I spoke to Kathleen Emerson-Dell, the curator of exhibitions at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. The story features the vision and persistence of a past arboretum director, Dr. John Creech, who worked behind the scenes during a key moment in American and Japanese diplomacy. I also spoke to curator, Michael James, about the challenges of preserving this historic bonsai tree, the imperial pine. I'm Doug Still, and this is This Old Tree.
[This Old Tree theme music]
The regal 228-year-old imperial pine resides in its own fenced-in display area, silhouetted in front of a white wall. It sits in a weathered ceramic container as old as the tree itself, elevated by a large black stone floating in a sea of grass and ferns. It is asymmetrical but balanced, strong but energized. Its coarse bark gives way to clouds of refined needles. It is everything you imagine a bonsai should be, classically formed in every sense. There's no one better to tell the story of the imperial pine coming to America than Kathleen Emerson-Dell, who goes by her nickname Ked. She is the curator of exhibitions at the museum, as well as the manager of the archives and digital image database for the U.S. National Arboretum - a horticulturist, art historian, and archivist, all wrapped into one. In actuality, the bonsai story includes the initial formation of the entire collection. We dove right in.
So, Ked, thanks for joining me today on This Old Tree.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [03:23]
Well, I'm glad to be here.
Doug Still: [03:25]
I was hoping you could tell me about just the origins of the collection, and how did that occur, and when did that happen.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [03:32]
Right. It's a wonderful story that goes back to a fabulous director of the National Arboretum, Dr. John Creech, who had just been named director of the U.S. National Arboretum in 1973. The call went out to all of the agencies, all of the executive branch agencies for ideas to celebrate the American Bicentennial that was coming up in 1976. So, Dr. Creech, having been a plant explorer in Japan for some time during his career, was remembering many trips to Japan where he had seen bonsai. It was just something in passing. It wasn't his main-- he was mostly out in the wilds of Japan looking for azaleas and crepe myrtle and collecting seed.
Doug Still: [04:33]
He was up in the mountains?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [04:34]
He was in the mountains a lot. But when he came back into the towns, his interpreter that he was with, who was also a botanist, sort of introduced him to bonsai. Over the years, he had gotten to know some of the people in the bonsai world, and he thought, "Boy, wouldn't this make a fabulous gift if the Japanese could donate a few bonsai to the U.S. National Arboretum so that we could promote an understanding of beauty and botany at the same time?" Because that's what it's all about.
Doug Still: [05:16]
And at that time, were bonsai as popular as they are now in the United States?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [05:22]
Not so much. There were a few bonsai clubs, and there were some associations. It was generally viewed as a hobby. A lot of retired people would be interested in it. When people came back from the war after World War II, they had been exposed to bonsai, the military, and the people who were stationed in Japan to help with the rebuilding. And so, they brought home knowledge of this, and some of them pursued it, but there were very few teachers. Yuji Yoshimura came to the States in the 60s, I think, and he came to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and began teaching classes there, as well as taking care of a small collection they had and helping to build it.
Doug Still: [06:12]
In fact, Dr. Creech also invited Mr. Yoshimura to the National Arboretum during his first year to help acquire a bonsai from a local nursery in Maryland, a boxwood. They held a bonsai pruning workshop together, which was well attended, demonstrating a burgeoning public interest in the arboretum developing its own collection. They could do this without losing sight of the primary mission within the USDA to conduct research and promote better practices in agriculture and the nursery industry.
So, Dr. Creech was looking to raise the profile of bonsai?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [06:47]
He was, he was absolutely doing that. He thought this would be a fabulous position for the U.S. National Arboretum to be promoting this.
Doug Still: [06:57]
So, he had this idea when he was in Japan then?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [07:01]
In 1973, he had the idea that maybe the Japanese-- he put the question to some Japanese friends he had and said, "Do you think that Japan would be interested in a small gift, a donation of some bonsai trees so that we could just feature them?" So, it sort of started from this small idea, a few small bonsai. So, in 1973, he had this idea. He sent it up-- He also had the idea to maybe do, like, a national herb garden. He had a whole list of ideas. And he sent it up to the Secretary of Agriculture. And basically, they said, "Nah, we're not interested." He heard nothing about it. So, he still pursued it though. He thought, "You know, "I think there's a way to do this. Even though it's not sort of official, maybe it can be more from the Japanese side rather than that it's offered, and we'll see what happens, that we won't reject it, that the department won't reject it."
So, he started working a little bit more from the Japanese side to see if they would sort of take up this idea and see what they could come up with. And so, it gradually developed over about a year, the back and forth. They wanted to know how would the trees get to America. At the time, Dr. Creech thought that they were working on an idea that may be an empty US Cargo planes could fly them back to the States because oftentimes the cargo planes are delivering things to the embassy and to Japan.
Doug Still: [08:50]
And they come back empty.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [08:51]
And they're coming back empty. So, he thought this was a great idea. Well, ultimately, at almost the last minute, it was rejected at a very high level, at the Pentagon. They said, "No, we can't do this," even though Dr. Creech pointed out that, "Well, you know the early naval ships used to do this all the time, that they would bring back botanical specimens from all over the world." But they weren't buying it. They said, "No, no, it'll look bad." It is what it is.
Doug Still: [09:23]
Just how it looks? They didn’t--?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [09:25]
I think that was it, that they felt that regulations had changed and that this was not official US Business or something. But it kind of adds to the drama of the story, this whole pressure. You could feel it. You can feel it in Dr. Creech's letters that he's writing and in his reminiscences. He published a small book afterward, long after he had retired, a little booklet called The Bonsai Saga. And he's very dramatic about everything.
Doug Still: [09:59]
Well, it sounds like he went through a lot.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [10:01]
He did go through a lot, but it meant a lot to him, you could tell. So, over the course of this year of planning and how it grew. He had assured the Japanese that we would find a way to get the trees here, and so the Japanese on their part-- and when I say the Japanese, at this point, he's dealing with the Nippon Bonsai Association, which is the Japan Bonsai Association. They are an organization of all of the Bonsai growers and nurseries and sellers.
Doug Still: [10:40]
Where are they based?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [10:41]
And they're based in Tokyo. And he's reassuring-- So, in 1974 is when the Nippon Bonsai Association felt that this was going to be taken seriously. The idea of the gift and that they would start to try to find funding on their side. So, they went to their government, the Japanese Diet, and started talking to people about this. They wanted to get funding from the government because this was going to be a diplomatic gift. Unfortunately, the funding for that year had already been decided, so it was going to have to be put off what the government was going to give them for a little bit. And so, they went to the Japan Foundation. They got funding from the Japan Foundation and from some other sources, I understand. So, it was becoming more of a reality because they needed to have money in order to put it together because it was going to be quite costly to sort of gather-- So, for transportation, gathering all these trees together, repotting them, building crates for them, getting them to the airport.
Doug Still: [11:54]
Yeah, it was much more of a serious endeavor than-- [crosstalk]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [11:58]
Doug Still: [11:58]
--Dr. Creech thought at first, wasn't it?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [12:00]
Absolutely, absolutely. He was surprised.
Doug Still: [12:03]
They have to be protected.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [12:05]
And as they grew bigger, they needed a bigger plane. They needed more space. Originally, when no-- it's interesting. In 1974, Dr. Creech got to stop off and actually meet with them in person because Dr. Creech was in the first delegation to go to the People's Republic of China. It was a delegation of biological scientists. So, he was able to-- this was after China opened to the rest of the world after Nixon went there, and he was able to do a stopover in Japan. And they were able to ask a lot of questions face-to-face with a translator. They had concerns about bare rooting, which they did not want to do.
Doug Still: [12:51]
The United States had instituted strict quarantine rules around the importation of plants since 1910 when the first batch of cherry trees gifted and planted at the Tidal Basin were infested and eventually burned. Much of the subsequent concern centered around insects or diseases within the soil, arriving with new plants.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [13:13]
But it was devastating for bonsai because to bare root a bonsai is to put an incredible amount of stress on it. And also, they had to be sanitized with all sorts of chemicals. In 1960, someone had bought a very important bonsai in Japan to bring back to the United States and donate to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to their collection. It was a very famous tree. It had a name and it was called Fudo, and it did not survive.
Doug Still: [13:51]
Yeah. When you're dealing with something possibly a couple of hundred years old, you need to let it be and not disturb it as much as possible and it's already a traumatic experience to ship it around the world.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [14:07]
So, that was something that worried people. People did not want to donate trees to a project where it might possibly die. Dr. Creech was able to work with the person who was the head of quarantine services, and they worked out a deal that the trees did not have to be bare rooted. They needed to be inspected in Japan before they came over. They had to remain in quarantine in the United States at one of the quarantine stations for over a year.
Doug Still: [14:42]
So, if they're looking forward to the Bicentennial, he's getting this done just in time?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [14:48] Y
es, absolutely. It's amazing that he just kept pushing. He kept going forward. I think he did not realize how much was involved, or he wouldn't have even started.
Doug Still: [15:01]
Dr. Creech worked out all the agreements between the US Government and the Nippon Bonsai Association, the repotting, crating, shipping, quarantine, and future cultural practices which allowed the funding to fall into place. But then, they had to find and select the bonsai trees with the Bicentennial deadline looming. When we come back from a quick break, Ked tells us about how the trees were chosen and the surprise involvement of the Japanese Imperial Family. I'm Doug Still, and you're listening to this old tree.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [15:55]
If they had to select and collect from everywhere they went all over Japan. They talked to everyone.
Doug Still: [16:03]
How many did they find?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [16:04]
So, what they wanted to do was they wanted to get 50 trees to represent the 50 states of the United States of America.
Doug Still: [16:12]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [16:15] T
hey weren't matching a tree to a state. It was just the symbolic number of 50. That had a lot of importance. So, they were looking for 50 trees to pull together, and they wanted a range of species. They wanted from north to south. They wanted from all over Japan. They wanted to represent the variety of trees that are used in bonsai in Japan because not every tree is good at becoming a bonsai. [laughs]
Doug Still: [16:43]
So, the Nippon Bonsai Association put the word out, and they were mainly collecting from private collections? Looking for donations?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [16:51]
Yes, they were looking for donations, but then they needed some money because they needed to pay some businesses. When you have a bonsai nursery, you are in the business, you care for bonsai, and you also create and sell bonsai. In order to compensate some of these businesses, they wanted to raise money to do that. So, if they picked out a tree, they would be able to give some compensation.
Doug Still: [17:20]
So, there were some from businesses as well?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [17:22]
There were some. But the business, I mean, these were some of the best bonsai growers in the country as well. Some people donated their trees. Some people got some compensation. Then, on the other hand, in order to get funding from the government, they wanted to include a number of high-ranking politicians as the donors of the trees so that the name of the donor would be the name of this important person.
Now, we never got a breakdown on exactly what category each tree fell into, which ones were outright donations from the person who owned it versus-- because some people were owners. It's very interesting. In Japan, the bonsai world is a little bit like the horse racing world in this country. You can have an owner of a famous horse, who has nothing to do with the training of that horse.
Doug Still: [18:30]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [18:30]
Pays for the training.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [18:31]
So, a lot of the famous bonsai owned by wealthy businessmen in Japan are actually stabled at bonsai nurseries and are cared for by very important bonsai masters. And then, these trees are entered into competitions for awards. [laughs]
Doug Still: [18:50]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [18:51]
So, it's very different from the bonsai world in America.
Doug Still: [18:55]
And that's still happening?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [18:56]
Yes, it is still happening. It's the model of how things are done there. But a lot of these owners appreciate good bonsai, but they don't actually work on their own bonsai.
Doug Still: [19:10]
I imagine there was a well-kept provenance for each bonsai that came over. Can you trace the owners for each one?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [19:18]
Right, as I just said, we don't know specifically beyond the names that were given to us that were attached to each bonsai. We cannot be absolutely sure which ones came from whom unless it is a bonsai name that we know. So, other than that, we got a list of the trees, where they were from, what province they had come from, and the age in training, because that's how bonsai are measured.
Some bonsai come from the wild. They're collected in the wild. They might be a scraggly old tree growing on the top of a mountain that could be a couple of hundred years old. And so, one tradition is to go out and collect interesting specimens that have already been "deformed" by nature. They have been stressed, they are survivors. And oftentimes, these old craggy trees show the results of their survival. It's like the bristlecone pines in the west, where you have a lot of dead wood and then you have this live trunk.
Doug Still: [20:36]
That's interesting. So, they're already old.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [20:39]
They're already old, but we don't know how old they are. In bonsai, we count the years as years in training. So, that's what we count. So, you could have a tree that you start as a seedling. That is actually going to reflect the true age of that tree, its years in training. So, we got a little bit of that information, just a little bit but not much, because I think at the time, they didn't realize how important that information would be. In Japan, it was just known. In the long history of these trees, they move around a bit. It might have been created by one bonsai master, and then it goes to another one and another one. I mean, they sort of move around.
Doug Still: [21:28]
So, there were these 50 trees that they found, but then there were three more added?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [21:34]
Doug Still: [21:35]
Could you talk about those three?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [21:36]
This is where the story gets interesting. Dr. Creech arrives in Japan in 1975. In March, he is there to sort of oversee the final processes. We knew at that point, 50 trees were coming. He did not know the sizes of the trees. When I looked back through the old records, there had been several lists that had been sent to Dr. Creech for approval. They did not include sizes. They were only species. So evidently, when Dr. Creech arrived in, like, halfway through March-- by the end of March, he has to leave with the trees. So, halfway through March, they drive him from the airport to the Nippon Bonsai headquarters where they've gathered the trees. And he said, "I was so jet lagged, but I got out of the car and my eyes were just-- I couldn't believe what I was seeing. These were significant trees. These were not small trees."
Doug Still: [22:43]
He was probably like, "Oh, boy," as well.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [22:47]
No, what he was really thinking was, "How much was it?" $2,300 had been allocated for space in a Pan Am cargo plane to bring home these 50 small trees. And he immediately thought $2,300 is not going to do it. So, he's on the phone with Pan Am this whole time and he says, "I think they're bigger. I think you need to come look at this."
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [23:16]
So, the Pan Am representative comes and looks and goes, "Okay," and so then it goes up to $9000. Dr. Creech is telegraphing back to the States and going, "Look, this is going on." And then, it went up again. And then when they actually started building the crates that went around them, then Dr. Creech said, "It doesn't matter what they say, they got to come."
Doug Still: [23:44]
Ship first, bill later.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [23:47]
So, fortunately, Pan Am only charged for the cost of the flight. So, they were not even charging what they would charge retailer or someone to move goods.
Doug Still: [24:00]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [24:01]
It ended up being $19,000. When Dr. Creech arrived back in the country, he said, "I didn't know if I even had a job, if I was going to be fired because of this," because he said, "I had to go ahead with it." And fortunately, he didn't lose his job. It had become a big PR thing. This excitement generated about it, so they couldn't fire him. [laughs] I don't know if he was exaggerating that or not.
But when he arrived, he found out that the imperial collections, there were three imperial bonsai collections. So, there was the emperor's collection, which was held at the imperial palace in Tokyo, and then there were collections in his two brothers' families, there were collections. So, one was the Chichibu Family and the other was the Takamatsu Family. Sometime in the fall of 1974, the imperial family was planning for the emperor to make his first and only trip to the United States.
Doug Still: [25:16]
What they were planning was a big deal, a watershed moment in the history of US and Japanese relations. This would not only be the first visit by Emperor Hirohito three decades after the devastation of World War II, it would be the first visit to America by a Japanese emperor, ever. It would be a moment of healing.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [25:37]
Because of the confluence of his trip to America, which was planned for October of 1975, in the run-up to that is when the Imperial family thought it would be a good idea to include gifts from the emperor to the United States through this vehicle, that he could just piggyback onto this. Because whenever there are state visits, there's always gifts exchanged, significant gifts. And so, this was thought to be something really special that the emperor could do.
So, there was one tree chosen from each of the Imperial collections, and the tree from the emperor's collection was the Japanese red pine, Pinus densiflora. It was in training since 1795--
Doug Still: [26:34]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [26:34]
--is the information that we got. So, it's over 200 years now. It's like 228 years old now or in training for 228 years. Of course, it was probably older than that, but we don't know. So, Dr. Creech didn't really know about this until-- I don't have any records that he knew about it before he arrived in Japan. The trees from the Imperial collections were not included in the exhibit that was held. There was a big dedication ceremony that was held at the Otani Hotel. Thousands of people were invited from the Western diplomatic community that was in Japan at the time, plus the whole Nippon Bonsai Association, everyone who had donated a tree, everyone whose name was associated with this, people from the Japanese government, the conservatives and liberals. According to Dr. Creech, he said it's the first time the conservatives and the liberals were in one room for a big event where they weren't arguing with each other. [laughs]
Doug Still: [27:42]
Right. Well, trees bring people together.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [27:45]
So, exactly. So, it was a big deal. The Empress trees were not included in that ceremony. They arrived. We have some film of them arriving at the Nippon Bonsai Association right during the time that Dr. Creech was there for them to get repotted back into their same pots and crated along with the other 50 trees.
Doug Still: [28:13]
So, he found out when he got to Japan?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [28:17]
That's what the records tell us, that he did not know of this. Now, I don't know if he had heard something, but nothing was made official until he was there. I think they were trying to keep it on the down low.
Doug Still: [28:30]
What a score.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [28:32]
Yeah, it would be interesting. I don't think the Japanese people knew until it happened.
Doug Still: [28:38]
I wonder if there's security reasons.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [28:40]
Well, that may be, that some people may have been very upset to hear that this was happening. It was still a time-- I went to Japan in the 1980s, and there were still diehard nationalists who were pro emperor, still considered the emperor a god, that they were a thorn in the side of democracy and could possibly make trouble.
Doug Still: [29:12]
Right, and just to offer up something of such cultural value--
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [29:16]
Doug Still: [29:18]
--for some people it might have been difficult.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [29:20]
So, that may have been one of the reasons why it was kept kind of quiet.
Doug Still: [29:25]
Now, did the emperor have a hand in choosing this bonsai?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [29:29]
We have no idea. We have absolutely no idea. It's very interesting. The emperor, his interest in life was marine biology. It's often said if he were not emperor, he would have been a marine biologist. [laughs] So, that was his very serious-- he devoted time every day almost to sort of keep up with the field, to read papers. He had his own laboratory at the palace. He loved nature. He walked every day on the palace grounds. Loved the forested area of the palace grounds. So, we don't know the extent of his interest in bonsai. Bonsai were used ceremonially in the palace. There are hundreds of trees in the collection. A lot of them are larger trees because of their sort of state importance, that they need to hold a position--
Doug Still: [30:38]
In a large hall, maybe?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [30:40]
In a large hall, on either side of an entrance, along pathways they're leading to the palace.
Doug Still: [30:49]
So, the size of this bonsai is not unusual in the imperial collection?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [30:55]
Right. There are more of this size in the Imperial collection than in any other collection in Japan. They also have a lot of more regular size two-footers, three-footers, they have the whole range. But they have a lot of these sort of that had been in the imperial collection for possibly hundreds of years because they were used ceremonially, and everything is pomp and circumstance when it comes to the emperor. The might of the empire is shown through these impressive trees.
And what's interesting is this red pine, not only is it large, it is in a style that is called an informal upright, which means the trunk has S curves in it. A big, gentle curve and then another curve at the top, which is a very relaxed kind of informal rather than a formal upright would be totally rigid, straight up and down, which is how these would grow in nature if there were no prevailing winds constantly or if it wasn't being buffeted or beaten down with snow.
It had been trained into this shape and what's interesting, because I'm an art historian of Japanese art, this type of tree is used on the stage of Noh performances. A painting of this tree, a large red pine with a curving trunk behind it and a big, massive trunk. And this was sort of standard for a Noh performance which is performed outside, usually on temple grounds.
Doug Still: [32:50]
So, they might have had that in mind?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [32:52]
They might have had that in mind. But also, when you look at pictures from the Daimyo era, the feudal era in Japan, when shoguns were in control of the country. They often in their reception halls, big halls with tatami mat, and a little raised area at the front where the Daimyo would sit with his top retainers on either side. Behind him, usually painted on sliding screens, would be a giant tree just like this, a giant curved trunk. It was supposed to communicate the power of this shogun.
Doug Still: [33:39]
So, I can only imagine in the spring of '75, when they are selecting these three trees from the three imperial collections, that they ask the bonsai masters to choose one.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [33:54]
Doug Still: [33:55]
I can see that going down, and I can imagine how that must have felt to them after spending their career caring for a tree.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [34:05]
Yeah, they were either greatly honored that this tree was going to go to America and would represent perhaps the emperor in America, that were honoring them. That would be the best possible way they thought of it. Or perhaps they were a little worried, like what do these Americans know about taking care of these bonsai? And that was a worry of a lot of the Japanese, the Bonsai people, that they had said they agreed that they would come over and check on the trees to make sure everything was going well, that they would sort of help the curator in America.
We got other Japanese-- John Naka came to help out. Yuji Yoshimura. It was with those assurances that people felt better, that there were going to be people there who really understood while the curator was learning. And just he threw himself into it, Bob Drechsler, who had known nothing about bonsai up to that point. He had been working with one of the tree breeders at the Arboretum, and he expressed an interest when Dr. Creech said, "We're going to have to find a curator to be in charge of this whole collection." So, he absolutely loved that and stayed with the collection for, golly, a long time. I think he was in the late 90s, he retired, so he was with the collection for quite a number of years.
Doug Still: [35:46]
Affectionately known as “Bonsai Bob,” Bob Drechsler was the first curator of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. But I had a chance to chat with the current curator, Michael James, about the legacy of caring for the Imperial Pine and the 52 other historic Bonsai donated by Japan. And then, we'll hear more from Ked about their reception in Washington. Coming up after the break.
Doug Still: [36:31]
I spoke to Ked a lot about the history of the imperial pine, but I was wondering, I wanted to ask you, in caring for it, what are its special needs?
Michael James: [36:40]
Well, the red pine in general, it needs water, but relatively speaking, it can be on the drier side.
Doug Still: [36:50]
This is Michael James, who's been a curator at the museum since 2018 and who started as a volunteer back in 2001 in order to study the art of bonsai.
Michael James: [37:01]
But our imperial pine is four and a half feet tall, so it's a big bonsai. Still a small tree, but it's a big bonsai in a container that is only about 2ft deep. So, there's not a lot of soil in that container for all the foliage that it has.
Doug Still: [37:21]
Right. So, water management, very important?
Michael James: [37:24]
It's the most important thing that you can do for any bonsai, after you find that place, that setting, or that microclimate where the tree is receiving enough sun and shelter from wind and things like that. Yeah, bonsai is just so connected to the environment that the trees are growing.
Doug Still: [37:49]
I asked him how he balances the horticultural versus the artistic aspects of caring for a bonsai.
Michael James: [37:56]
When it comes to bonsai or general landscaping and gardening, the horticulture has to come first. It's more important to have a healthy tree than to have a dead tree that looks really cool. So, really, just health alone makes the plants beautiful. But then with bonsai, they're more than just healthy. It's the negative space between the branching. It's where the branching is, it's how dense the foliage is, and where it's dense and where it's light. And all those things are just right. So, after the tree is healthy, those artistic principles can be then applied. And those artistic principles are also often related to the growth habit, the natural growth habit of that tree. Bonsai is really mimicking the way trees look in their natural landscape.
Doug Still: [38:55]
Right. So, you sort of adjust to how the tree is growing and work from there.
Michael James: [39:01]
Yeah, it's like a collaboration. There's a collaboration between plants and humans, as well as multi generations of humans because if you do it right, bonsai trees outlive the average human, any human that I know. The imperial pine, for instance, is 228 years old now. So, I've just been caring for it a fraction of that time.
Doug Still: [39:29]
Right. You pass it from one generation to the next. What sort of historical guidance do you have for caring for it? Do you use photos? Is there anything written or any research you've done?
Michael James: [39:40]
Yeah, absolutely. Here at the museum, we are trying to maintain many of these trees historically. This Japanese red pine is a classical bonsai. It has this form that is an S curve. It's about two and a half full curves. And then, the foliage has a lot of negative space in between. So, the branches, they're kind of alternating in and out. So, we have branches at the bottom that are really being shaded a lot from the branches above. And pines being apically dominant, they're putting a lot of their energy to their canopy because that's the area that's getting the most sun, and they love sun. That area has to be pruned really carefully so that enough sun does pass through the canopy that the bottom branches don't weaken and die.
Doug Still: [40:42]
Has its shape or look changed much over time?
Michael James: [40:46]
Inevitably, the trees change in shape, but in general, the style is trying to be maintained. And this is a classical bonsai, where many of the branches are coming from the outside of curves. And this tree actually has a sister tree in the imperial garden. It's still there and cared for by the Japanese imperial household. And their way, from what I've researched, is a very natural way of pruning, where really trying to add very little human intervention. You're trying to let the plant do its own thing. The branches are not necessarily growing young and youthfully, upward and straight. We're trying to make those branches have an aged look to them and meandering and tapering and all the things that make a small tree look old. But we're not adding too much wire, which is something that we will do to a lot of Japanese bonsai in the imperial household, their way of pruning is just very--[crosstalk]
Doug Still: [42:00]
Michael James: [42:02]
Directional, and it's a very old style. And the more modern way is adding a lot of wire and carving and doing a lot of different things to manipulate the tree. So, we're not doing all of that on this tree because historically, that's not how its sister is being cared for in the imperial household.
Doug Still: [42:23]
Interesting. So, you've got your eye on its partner as well, and how it's being trained. And so, there's some artistic communication between the two, so to speak.
Michael James: [42:36]
Is it meant to be seen in the round or is it meant to be viewed from one side or three sides?
Michael James: [42:44]
Large trees like this are often flanking entrances in gardens. Now, the way it's displayed here at the museum is with a garden backdrop, a Japanese garden growing behind it. So, the viewer doesn't have the option of walking the full way around it, although it does look good from all sides. And it's in a round container, which often lends themselves to being viewed from all sides. But in our case, we just turn it twice a week, so that it receives balanced sunlight on all sides and it doesn't get too strong on one side rather than the other.
But it is designed to have a front. On the weekends, the front is showing out for the viewers and the guests here at the Bonsai & Penjing Museum. That is what we feel is the most ideal side to view it. And that's because you can have a good view of the beautiful, graceful curve of the trunk line and the taper of it and the negative space in between the branches is just right.
Doug Still: [43:57]
Ked mentioned that sometimes there's a resting period for some trees, for health reasons or for other reasons. Could you talk about that? And then, how much of a resting period does the imperial pine receive?
Michael James: [44:11]
Well, the resting period is kind of almost more for the caretaker because it's a time where you stop working on the tree. Sometimes in a museum setting, you want to prune everything to perfection all the time because they're being viewed by so many people. You have to sometimes just say the best thing to do is nothing at all. And the rest time for a plant is a time of growing and strong growth.
Doug Still: [44:42]
It's not really rest. It's rest from cultural practices.
Michael James: [44:48]
Right. Yeah, cutting and tipping and pinching and all those things that are done to a bonsai to keep it in that shape.
Doug Still: [44:55]
Could you talk about soil replacement and just what the process is?
Michael James: [45:00]
This tree, being over 200 years old, has probably been repotted 40 times at least over those 200 some years. So, it has to be done. This tree stays outside year-round, and the sun breaks down the surface of the soil, watering breaks down the surface of the soil, and freezing and thawing breaks it down, too. So, we try to have very coarse, airy soil that water can just fall right down through, and the water comes right out the drainage hole in the bottom. But over time, that soil breaks down and it has to be replaced. And sometimes, just looking at the tree's leaves, they give clues and communicate whether the roots are healthy or not. There was a time when this tree was yellowing, and we really didn't know why for sure.
And, well, oftentimes when everything else is being done right, it's the roots. So, we repotted, and everything looked good on the outside where the soil had been removed most frequently over past repotting's. But there was a time when we got to a point underneath the trunk, this particular repotting day, and we knew were an area that had never, or at least not for a very long time, been removed. But it was getting very close to under the trunk of the trees. That's a dangerous spot to remove for the health of it. And we took out the soil and we found an area that had been totally compacted and broken down. It was clay. That was just anaerobic. There were no roots in it.
Doug Still: [46:57]
Was that some of the original soil or, I don't know, pre-76 soil?
Michael James: [47:02]
I think it was because as were removing it, we even found shards of ceramics, old ceramics. They could have been the remnants of one of the earlier containers for this tree.
Doug Still: [47:18]
Wow, and when it wasn't as much smaller?
Michael James: [47:20]
Yes. Now, it's in an antique Chinese container that's very old, as old as the tree.
Doug Still: [47:28]
You've got an archaeological project, right in your bonsai collection.
Michael James: [47:34]
Yeah. Well, repotting is a little bit like archaeology.
Doug Still: [47:38]
Do you sometimes feel the weight of historical importance in your work? I mean, you have the eyes of two countries on these bonsai, in a way.
Michael James: [47:47]
Yeah. Well, I get two comments frequently, especially when I'm working in front of a very old tree, like the imperial pine. One is, "This must be the best job in the world."
Michael James: [48:01]
And then the other is, "Wow, this must be really stressful taking care of trees that are this old."
Doug Still: [48:09]
Yeah, my mind went there.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [48:11]
Doug Still: [48:12]
Well, thanks so much for joining me today. I learned a lot, and I love the pine. I love all of the bonsai at the museum. You are doing great work.
Michael James: [48:22]
Yeah, thanks. I hope anyone listening can come out and visit in person. There's no way to describe these trees. They're jaw-dropping to so many visitors.
Doug Still: [48:34]
Now back to Ked's story.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [48:38]
Oh, the most important story. So, they got on the plane, Dr. Creech and his assistant, Chip March, who had been with him. They were in the back of the cargo plane and they just laid down amongst the bonsai and slept all the way to San Francisco where Pan Am could bring it that far. Pan Am could not do domestic flights, so they arranged for two United cargo planes. So, it was broken up into two cargo planes and they flew them across the country to Baltimore. Then, they went into quarantine in Glendale, Maryland, which is one of the quarantine stations close to the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington. And so, Bob Drechsler, the curator, moved up there to take care of them for that year, for more than a year.
Doug Still: [49:30]
Wow. He moved to take care of these trees for a year.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [49:33] Y
es, he did. So, then the emperor is coming to America for his trip in October. Well, the trees are still in quarantine. The emperor put through a request, or his people did, that he would like to visit his tree in America in quarantine. Well, the emperor was traveling with about 50 courtiers in his pack in addition to his wife and hers and 450 Japanese journalists and TV people.
Doug Still: [50:04]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [50:05]
TV operators. And they were following his every move. Absolutely every move. So, it was decided by the State Department that the facility was too small to allow this entourage in to visit. So, it was decided they would give permission-- The Agriculture Department gave permission the tree could be brought to the White House for a reception.
Doug Still: [50:31]
I think for this, they could make an allowance.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [50:34]
Yes. So, the tree was moved. Four men had to carry the tree in a sling because the pot is really deep. The pot is about a foot and a half deep and about a foot and maybe no, it's 2ft wide, maybe 2ft deep. The tree is huge. It was heavy. The way these are moved in Japan is you have a sling that cradles it and then you have two bamboo poles that go through the sling. You have four men. Each man takes one end of one pole. When they got to the White House, they found out that they had to take it upstairs to the second floor because the reception for the emperor before the big state dinner was going to be held in the Yellow Oval Room, which was part of Ford's private area in the White House.
Doug Still: [51:31]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [51:31]
So, Bob Drechsler and his three companions are carrying this bonsai up marble steps to the second floor. He said all he could think about was if he slipped and this tree went tumbling down these steps and the emperor is here, and that's all he was thinking about, was just putting his feet right.
Doug Still: [51:54]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [51:55]
So, they got it there, and we actually have a picture of the Emperor and his wife, the Empress, and Mr. & Mrs. Ford gazing at the tree. The White House photographer is taking the pictures. Of course, he didn't take a picture of the tree. We just get like a little-- we get some needles in the side of the shot to show what they're looking at, and they're just very solemnly looking at it. In future trips to the White House with our trees, the photographers did much better in terms of arranging people on either side of the tree to take a picture of it.
But this was the first trip to the White House of any of our trees in the collection. Many trees from the Japanese collection have gone to the White House since then for various receptions for the prime ministers mostly. So, it did go there and then it came back the next day. He said the Emperor was very pleased to see that it was very happy in its new environment, he thought.
Doug Still: [52:55]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [52:56]
And to underscore that, his sister-in-law, who took great interest in the collection that her husband had inherited, this was Princess Chichibu, she visited the United States and came to visit the collection and to see the tree what she considered her collection because she had more interest in the bonsai than her husband did. So, that was 1978, and while she was visiting, the museum had already opened. The pavilion had opened. There's no roof on the pavilion, so the trees get a lot of sun and rain, and they thrive.
While she was visiting and the State Department was with her and taking her around and they were walking out to leave, and they passed the emperor's pine, and there was a bird's nest in it. A robin had built a nest in it that spring and the babies had hatched, and they were all-- how babies are with their hungry mouths. They were all peeping and had these hungry mouths, and she just-- Oh, my God. She got so excited.
Doug Still: [54:06]
She was moved.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [54:07]
She was so moved. And so, then there was oohing and ahhing. She was there with the ambassador's wife, and I believe her son was with her. And they've just had to stop and talk about this and take pictures of it. And at that point, Dr. Creech says the State Department official just threw up his hands. It's like they were totally off-schedule. [laughter]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [54:31]
But she said this was a sign that the collection was thriving in America and had been accepted, and they were happy, and nature was happy that they were there.
Doug Still: [54:42]
What a relief.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [54:44]
It was a sign. So that has been the story of the Imperial Pine in America.
Doug Still: [54:51]
Amazing. Have you met any dignitaries next to the pine?
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [54:55]
Oh, who is the latest? The last important trip was when Melania Trump brought the Prime Minister's wife on a visit several years ago. So, we're just pleased that were still in the hearts and minds of the people in the White House, that we're always available. Hillary Clinton asked for a tree that had been given to her husband during his presidency when she was Secretary of State. She asked if that tree could be brought to the reception she was holding for her counterpart from Japan.
So, they continue to perform a very important function in the Washington DC area. We do not really let them travel much further than that because everyone comes to see them and they want to see the Imperial Pine or the pine that survived Hiroshima. So, they kind of switch positions within the pavilion. The entrance, the first thing you see when you enter the Japanese Pavilion used to be the Imperial Pine, and the Yamaki Pine was the last one that you would see.
It had its own stage, as you will, nothing else was near it. So then with the prominence and the rise to fame of the Yamaki Pine, they switched positions. But I think that the Emperor's Pine is happy being in a sort of a more humble position in the back. It's a quieter place, and it seems perfectly content to be there and is thriving and really holds up. It's the curtain call.
Doug Still: [56:44]
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [56:46]
When you visit. You have the opening act, and then you have all these other wonderful trees from Japan, and then you have the Emperor's Tree in all of its majesty.
Doug Still: [56:57]
Well, Ked, thanks for telling the story of the imperial pine. You've been a delight, and I really appreciate your time.
Kathleen Emerson-Dell: [57:04]
Well, thank you. It's wonderful to be able to talk about this tree. You really feel like you are following in footsteps because taking care of bonsai is you are privileged to only be part of its life for a short time. And you think of all the people who have taken care of this tree in particular over the years, and you become part of that collective family.
Doug Still: [57:34]
That was so well said. And how special to have Ked and Michael on the show to welcome us into their world. Thank you both, and I hope everyone makes a point of visiting the U.S. National Arboretum the next time you're in DC. To see the Imperial Pine in all its peace-promoting symbolism, as well as the entire collection at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.
And thank you, tree lovers, for listening once again, if you like the show and feel so moved, please leave a review on whatever podcast app you listen to, that would really help us out. Follow on Facebook or Instagram to see photos of the imperial pine and past featured trees. And the show website is www.thisoldtree.show. Thanks to Anne and Tony for being the very first Patreon subscribers. Your support is appreciated. See you next time. I'm Doug Still and this is This Old Tree.
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