Japanese Culture in New York - Chopsticks NY

HOMEFeatureFoodBeautyShopSchoolTravelJapanese Forum
Japanese Culture



If, like me, you have time to visit just one museum per month, make your destination a museum of bonsai. There, you’ll get a double dose of culture, for the artistry on display is a captivating combination of human creativity and natural beauty, perfected in Japan for more than a thousand years. I’ve always been curious about these miniature trees grown in shallow containers (bon is Japanese for tray, sai is plant), and was thrilled to meet Julian Velasco, curator of the C.V. Starr Bonsai Museum at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Purely aesthetic, bonsai have no practical purpose – not grown for fruit, or medicinal berries, or to decorate the landscape, these tiny trees are created for the delight of the viewer and the cultivator. In nature, a majestic pine might grow so big, you couldn’t get your arms around it. Here, it’s mind-blowing to see that same pine reduced to a size so small, you could hold the entire tree in your arms! “Shaped in an artistic way,” Velasco explains, “a great bonsai has the power to draw the viewer in, expressing the beauty of age, longevity, and the grandeur of nature.”

In Japan, bonsai is considered difficult to master, and is usually practiced by older people who have more time to spend. Here in the U.S., “there is a broader age range practicing bonsai,” Velasco says. “The Internet and social media play a huge part in this wide demographic, as does a collective hunger to bring American bonsai to the highest level. As a result, we are developing an American style of bonsai, with a feel as diverse as our great country.”

For those who would like to try bonsai, Velasco has this advice: “Purchase an inexpensive, small, pre-shaped bonsai from a reputable, conscientious retailer. Select a species that can grow healthy in the space you intend to grow it in. A tropical plant such as Ficus is a good choice for a bonsai that will stay indoors all year. For those who can grow outdoors with some winter protection for dormancy, choose Elm. Sunlight, water, and fertilizing are needed for healthy growth, no matter the species.” But the most important requirement, he emphasizes, is love.

Their containers may be shallow, but the experience of seeing these trees is so deep as to be truly profound. “The essence of bonsai,” Velasco concludes, “is nature itself. With an open mind and open heart, we appreciate how the bonsai expresses the wonders of nature.”

—– Reported by Julia Szabo


Brooklyn Botanic Garden



Bonsai curator Julian Velasco of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a fine example of bonsai, American style: although well-versed in this ancient art form, he is still a young man.
Curving downward, this Juniper (left) exemplifies the poetic “driftwood” style of bonsai. In nature, the stout trunk of this tiny tree (right) would be massive! jc0615_4Velasco demonstrates pruning with an Ilex (oak) in the “informal upright” style. The cutting of branches is important to maintain any tree’s vitality.


Visitors to the garden can enjoy seeing the bonsai details up close – and taking in this long vista, a grove of graciously groomed miniature trees.