Bonsai | Penjing – The Collections of the Montreal Botanical Garden

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“A bonsai is a living being that you must not only preserve, but also strengthen, by giving it the most beautiful appearance and form possible. These goals cannot be achieved without attentive care.” – Hatsuji Kato, Bonsai | Penjing: The Collections of the Montreal Botanical Garden
Most people don’t associate the Montreal Botanical Garden with winter. They think of the vast garden’s flowers blooming in May, stately trees that cool and provide shade in the dead heat of July, and bees still on the wing pollinating its abundant flowers in late August through the fall. However, visitors to the Jardin Botanique de Montreal can take in its manifold plants in all seasons in themed gardens and exhibition greenhouses spanning seventy-five hectares. Why not shake off the snow and cold outside and take a stroll through thematic greenhouses that stay open year-round? The Montreal Botanical Garden is also home to cultural pavilions, offers educational programs, and hosts special events throughout the year.

The bonsai and penjing collections are arguably the crown jewels of the Montreal Botanical Garden. These miniature trees (bonsai) and small-scale landscapes (penjing a.k.a. penzai) variously comprise the Japanese bonsai created by leading Japanese masters and Chinese penjing inspired by 15th-century Ming dynasty gardens. These unique collections were initially displayed at the Velodrome in 1980 as part of the Floralies Internationales de Montreal horticultural exposition. After the Velodrome exhibition closed most of the miniature trees and landscapes were donated to the Montreal Botanical Garden. 

The Montreal Botanical Garden recently published a book that traces the history of the origins of the bonsai and penjing, their esthetic evolution, and spiritual significance. The Bonsai | Penjing: The Collections of the Montreal Botanical Garden (in English) is richly illustrated with elegant colorful photographs and contains extensive text, making this much more than just another coffee-table book. 

To the uninitiated, the contorted trees known as bonsai may appear to be genetically dwarfed. In fact, they are natural specimens kept small by means of various complex, finely honed techniques. The cultivation of the bonsai and penjing is a spiritual practice for those who master the art.  So says the book’s author and science historian Danielle Ouellett. A mathematician by training, Ouellett says that to come back to the image of the trees is to enter into a “gallerie de meditation” (meditation gallery/meditative state).  “La viellese de l’arbre” (the aging of the tree/an old tree) represents wisdom she says, a truism in both Eastern and Western traditions. 

The book also tells the story of the Montreal Botanical Garden’s emergence by the 1990s as a member of a distinctive group of major North American gardens housing these miniature trees and tray plants. Pierre Bourke the 40th Mayor of Montreal (1994-2001) was the Director of the Montreal Botanical Garden (1980-1994). A horticultural engineer, he was instrumental in bringing the bonsai and penjing collections to Montreal through diplomatic channels and the relationships he formed with the mayors of cities in China and Japan. Ouellett opines that there has never been “un tel beau livre” (such a beautiful book) on the bonsai and penjing, widely regarded as living, constantly evolving works of art. Bonsai | Penjing: The Collections of the Montreal Botanical Garden is by the same token, a fascinating history of the odyssey of these unique creations from one side of the globe to the other and a testament to the vision that made the journey possible. 

Montreal Botanical Garden

4101 Sherbrooke St E, Montreal, Quebec H1X 2B2 

By: Deborah Rankin – [email protected]

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