The Natal Banyan (Ficus natalensis) Tropical Penjing donated by Fuku-Bonsai began as a cutting rooted in 1976, the same year that the at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum was established.  Fourteen years later in 1990 the cutting had become an innovative exposed roots penjing and was requested to be the youngest tree of the initial American Collection!   Besides being the youngest, there’s a interesting way it was requested for donation and an extraordinary story of how the tree has evolved since it was donated in 1990 to 2017 with the change of curators at the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection. 

             It was featured on the cover of the American Bonsai Society Journal in the Winter 1995 issue, five years after it was donated while still in its original styling and in the donated Akiji Kataoka pot.  Note the major changes since!






By David W. Fukumoto,  Fuku-Bonsai president & founder (July 2017)

                     The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington DC began with a 1976 Bi-centennial Bonsai Gift from Japan.  The generous gift was a symbolic appreciative celebration of Japan’s economic recovery and specifically the recovery of their bonsai community following the successful long-running All-Japan Bonsai Exhibit that featured a continually changing exhibit throughout the year-long 1970 Osaka World’s Fair. It was the first major Japanese international bonsai exhibit following World War II and the Nippon Bonsai Association made many friends including many who visited the fair from Hawaii.

                    A special friendship developed between Japan’s Saburo Kato and Hawaii’s Haruo “Papa” Kaneshiro.  Both were leaders of their home bonsai communities and this began a special relationship between the Japanese and Hawaiian bonsai communities that resulted in the development of “International Bonsai.”  The special relationship enlarged to include Ted Tsukiyama, then the secretary of the Hawaii Bonsai Association and Horace Clay, its president.  As a co-founder of Hawaii Bonsai Association with Ted, Horace, and Mike Uyeno, and as the major Hawaii bonsai professional with strong international professional contacts, I was deeply involved behind-the-scenes as a rapid series of bonsai events took place: 

           1.       The 1976 Japan bonsai bi-centennial gift to the United States forms the nucleus of the national collection that has grown to include Chinese Penjing (1986) and American Bonsai (1990). A “Haruo Kaneshiro Tropical Conservatory” was added in 1993 and the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum is increasingly the national bonsai focus.  Extensive information is at:

           2.       At the World Bonsai Congress in 1979 in Osaka, Japan planted the seeds for an international bonsai organization. Hawaii played a strong planning and supporting role and followed with a landmark international convention a year later.

           3.       The 1980 International Bonsai Congress in Hawaii hosted by the Hawaii Bonsai Association with co-sponsorship by Bonsai Clubs International and American Bonsai Society and was the first international participation by Nippon Bonsai Association. The four headlining presentations included a Hawaii 3-Ring Bonsai Presentation, "Collected “Nature’s Bonsai” by John Naka of California, “Chinese Penjing” by Deborah Koreshoff of Australia, and the “Spirit and Philosophy of Bonsai” address and the creation of “Peace Forest” by Japan’s Saburo Kato. (Also see "Bonsai no Kokoro; The Spirit and Philosophy of Bonsai" and a profile of Saburo Kato at , "Honoring Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro at ,and also "A Tribute to John Yoshio Naka at )

           4.       As part of the Dorothy and Luther Young’s first China bonsai/penjing tour in 1981, I brought back the offer of penjing from Hong Kong’s Yee-Sun Wu, transferred the offer to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, and aided the importation and quarantine of the collection that first went on display in 1986.  (Also see "Yee-sun Wu; The Spirit of Man Lung Penjing" at (with additional links)

           5.       The 1989 World Bonsai Convention in Omiya, Japan hosted by Nippon Bonsai Association included the formation of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation made up of regional bonsai organizations. Hawaii’s Ted Tsukiyama was the English and legal counsel that did much of the organizational documentation. I assisted behind the scenes by leading one workshop and creating the organizational document of the Latin American Bonsai Federation.  (Also see "Honoring Ted Tsukiyama" at (with additional links).

           6.       Hawaii again followed a year later in hosting the 1990 International Bonsai Convention that included Hawaii, John Naka, Shingi Ogasawara, and Saburo Kato.  Fuku-Bonsai International Honor Roll plaques were presented to Saburo Kato, John Naka, Haruo Kaneshiro, Yee-Sun Wu, Akiji Kataoka and Ted Tsukiyama to honor the special World War II bonsai generation that led the creation of “International Bonsai” and the theme:  “Bonsai; Bridge to International Friendship and Peace!”


                     We had incorporated in 1985 as the catalyst to build the Fuku-Bonsai Center as a major visitor attraction on 17-acres at a former rock quarry in upper Keauhou-Kona in the then-developing Kona-Kohala visitor destination area. While visiting Honolulu bonsai collections, the national collection selection committee saw a Fuku-Bonsai Center promotional booklet that included an uncommon ficus natalensis trained in an “exposed root” tropical penjing styling.

                     When the selection committee first requested it, I resisted as it was so young and there were many older superior trees at Fuku-Bonsai.  Although the committee never came to the Big Island to actually see it, on the strength of the photo and unique story, they insisted that they wanted it to illustrate the evolution of bonsai in the United States. So I sent it and assisted in packing the selected Honolulu bonsai. 

                     When the American Pavilion opened in 1990, the penjing was featured in the opening program pamphlet citing it was an uncommon African ficus, that the styling utilized Chinese penjing concepts, that it was in a unique pot by an innovative Japanese master potter, was the youngest tree in the collection that it was trained in tropical Hawaii, the newest state and the bridge between East and West.  It was featured on the cover of the American Bonsai Society Journal in their Winter 1995 issue, 5 years after donation, while yet in the original styling in the original pot.


                     Shortly after, there emerged a burst of American bonsai enthusiasm and a strange shift toward traditional Japanese “single apex – tier branched styling” in all things bonsai! Japanese bonsai tends to systematically codify various bonsai factors into an orderly manner. The earliest Japanese bonsai developed spontaneously in many forms. As part of a post-war surge to teach bonsai, great emphasis was placed on bonsai styles and the popularization and development of “rules” that placed greatest value on “pine-tree” styling.  It did not matter that the most distinctive “nature’s bonsai” did not conform. In Japanese books and many American classes elms, maples, azaleas, and even banyans were trained into “pine tree” shapes.

          The Fuku-Bonsai Natal Banyan fell victim to America’s then dominant “Japanese single apex – tier branched pine-tree” mentality.  Collection curators tried to fix and improve the tree and excess nutrients thickened roots. The tree moved through a succession of ugly inappropriate pots. I objected but was never successful in influencing the initial collection curators.

           The discussion intensified as the increasing flow of photos showed re-training in progress and a sequence of replacement pots. I tried to teach that “multiple apex – arched branched structures” were more appropriate for tropical trees.  It was impossible to teach more complex penjing design principles. 

           In 2013, it was a pleasant surprise when ficus bonsai authority Jerry Meislik reported efforts by the then collections curator Jack Sustic to restore and restyle the tree by air-layering to remove the “pine-tree” crown. The tree had also been moved into a better but still inappropriate pot.

        More recent reports increasingly showed that Jack Sustic was executing his gameplan and it was great when Ted Tsukiyama visited the collection in 2016 and a photo showed him with the Fuku-Bonsai Natal Banyan penjing that was moving back toward the original styling,  but still with some single apex – tier branch crown.  Most notable was a new pot that seems to have been inspired by the original Kataoka pot, but as an Americanized version of what is currently deemed to be acceptable and appropriate for exotic styling. There was a lot of movement in the right direction and it shows that while the American bonsai and penjing philosophy is broadening, it still retains vestiges of Japanese bonsai principles even when applied to tropical penjing.



        Another set of photos received from nephew Duane Fukumoto in November 2016 shows the crown of the tree enlarging and filling out. A rock has been added.   National Bonsai and Penjing Museum curator Jack Sustic has done a commendable task to restore and restyle the tree toward the original donation before he retired and I send him congratulations and appreciation for his many accomplishments and contributions. 

   In 1990 when it was donated, the penjing was just 14 years since it was propagated from a rooted cutting.  It currently is 27 years old and so almost half of its life has been at the National Collection. Soon a new curator will be selected and given the responsibility and authority to maintain the trees and make changes.  I look forward to following the continuing development of this tree.


          Duane's friend visited the National Collection and I received this photo in August 2017 showing a defoliated tree with apical growth reverting toward temperate climate single apex - tier branched styling.  If this continues, in the crown will become taller and one day another restoration will be needed.

          I wrote a brief informal set of recommendations, received no feedback, but later received another photo.



           Photo received from Jonas Sidrys on May 12, 2018 shows my unacknowledged informal recommendations were either not received,  not considered,  ignored or outright rejected.  It's very hard knowing what needs to be done, not being acknowledged or ignored, and to see the latest curator again styling the tree in a manner that will again require a major restyling in the future. 

          Shouldn't there be a willingness to improve and understand tropical bonsai and that the curator be taught to know this?  How can this be resolved?



                 I recommended that a comprehensive new training strategy be adopted to incorporate a tropical penjing "modified umbrella crown" along with a complete restyling strategy concept that will include a major new direction in tropical root management and complete change to a new potting and design concept that will differential Tropical Bonsai from Traditional Japanese Temperate Climate Bonsai concepts that are unsuitable.  

                 In the tropics,  it is common to see trees with a relatively thin canopy in which the root-trunk is like the handle of an umbrella and the crown is made up of several branches coming out from the trunk with all branches forming a shallow dome with all leafy secondary branches that hold foliage only on the outer edge of that shallow dome like an umbrella.  In a "modified umbrella crown,"  one or more branches come off the trunk lower down and these are longer with upper mid-branches shorter but the foliage is part of an overall thin foliage dome.  This is capped with 3 of more branches about the same height that face in all directions.

                    In this tropical penjing the highest apical point should be the top of the top left branch.  Lower the top right branch to the same or lower height and shorten outer branches about 30%.  Then wire and lower the current highest single apex point to the same level and treat it like a branch.  Over time, keep shaping and blending the right branches but lengthen and thicken the top left branches so they become as heavier and longer as that middle right branch. This will create a vertically balanced crown and the penjing will no longer increase in height.  Then develop a more appropriate root training strategy and a new pot and new appropriate display concept.  Without adoption of new directions,  the tree will increasingly become in need for another "revised short-term modification."  

                    Unfortunately, the succession of curators could not control the thickening of the root-trunk mass and the tree outgrew the special pot created by master potter Akiji Kataoka whose Yamaaki kiln was the lead Tokoname kiln that made that pottery town famous for production of the finest Japanese bonsai pottery.  Akiji Kataoka is one of six in Fuku-Bonsai's International Honor Roll with the others being Haruo Kaneshiro and Ted Tsukiyama of Hawaii,  Saburo Kato of Japan, John Naka of California, and Yee-sun Wu of Hong Kong.

                     The original donated gift to the National Collection had a lot of symbolism and featured in the opening of the American Collection because:  1)  At just 14 years old then, it was the youngest bonsai at time of acceptance.   2) It was trained in a penjing strategy at a time that most trees (including azaleas, elms, and even ficus)  were trained in the Japanese temperate climate single apex / tier branched styling. 3) It was of an uncommon African Natal Banyan plant trained in a Hawaiian penjing manner.  4) It was in a special Akiji Kataoka "end-of-career drum pot" design that he originated.

                     The "taiko" (round drum) design is symbolic of happy occasions and in donating the tree in that historically important pot,  I was congratulating the National Collection on moving beyond the original Japanese bonsai gift to now have a second collection of American Bonsai.  In the Fuku-Bonsai pot collection, I have two pots by Akiji Kataoka that he made about 1925.  I believe one is of his very early days when he was still trying to duplicate antique Yixing pots.  The second is younger but may be the very first taiko drum design.  Over the years, I have seen his as well as others make changes or improvements to that pot design.  So that end of career pot has very special significance and I'd like to see it exhibited with an appropriate bonsai.  Unlike the Natal Banyan,  it should be slow growing and I think an exposed root penjing of a Chinese Box Orange (Severinia buxifolia) may be ideal.  I'm working on one that would expand the range of trees in the American Pavillion and/or the Kaneshiro Greenhouse. 

                     The donated Ficus natalensis began as a cutting rooted in 1976, the year the Japanese donated the Bi-Centenial Collection. The tree is now 42 years old and would now be a spectacular specimen if it was properly trained and did not need the restoration work by Jack Sustic to correct the questionable and unfortunate training by previous curators. But as much as it may seem to be an improvement,  the changes are not consistent with the highest standards of Tropical Bonsai.  I proposed to make recommendations to raise the Tropical Bonsai standards at the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection.



                     It is a romantic fantasy that Japanese bonsai are handed down through family generations and some are.  But as Japanese increasingly move to the cities for career opportunities, the finest bonsai in Japan are moving from personal collections to regional public bonsai collections.  Americans have taken the lead in creating public bonsai collections and old public collections like those at Arnold Arboretum and Brooklyn Botanic Gardens include some of the original Japanese bonsai first imported into the United States.

                     The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington D.C. has a larger national focus and is becoming an increasingly role model for public bonsai collections being formed throughout the country and internationally. Most American public bonsai collections include a non-profit supporting organization.  In some cases the trees are donated to the non-profit organization for tax purposes, but also to keep the trees in the public domain.

                     Private collections that are part of bonsai businesses are also open to the public. Both public and private collections are becoming more than just repositories. They are increasingly becoming regional bonsai centers with gift shops that feature bonsai classes and sell bonsai books, tools, pots and even bonsai starter stock. This is becoming a part of the evolution of American and International Bonsai!

                      The Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center & Hawaii State Bonsai Repository is a partnership of Fuku-Bonsai Inc. and the 501(3)(c) Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation first established in 1986 as one of the early private/public bonsai collections. 

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