Keep Oakland Beautiful Point Of Interest: GSBF Bonsai Garden At Lake Merritt.

Keep Oakland Beautiful Points of Interest remind us of how interesting and beautiful Oakland is and why we should care about protecting it. Please click on the photos to enlarge and clarify them.

Did you know that Oakland is home to the only major, all-volunteer bonsai garden in the United States?

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Japanese Flowering Apricot (foreground, left) and Atlas Cedar (foreground, right).

The Golden State Bonsai Federation (GSBF) Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt has within its collection some of the most important bonsai trees in the country, including the historic Daimyo oak tree presented in 1863 by the Japanese government to the US ambassador to China. That’s not a typo – this bonsai was presented in 1863, while the American Civil War was in full swing. The Garden also has a tree in their collection that is more than 1,600 years old.

‘Bonsai’ (pronounced ‘bone-sigh’) is a thousand-year-old, horticultural art form involving miniature trees that are grown in containers of simple shapes and muted colors. Often grown from seeds or cuttings, the trees are artistically pruned, trimmed, and trained to be visually appealing.

Bonsai is based on an older, Chinese art form called penjing, which used wilder-looking miniature trees and more colorful, stylized pots, and sometimes incorporated small objects and structures into a miniature landscape. Introduced to Japan around the beginning of the 13th century, the art of bonsai (Japanese for ‘tray-planting’) was refined and enhanced over time, so the colors, textures, shapes, and character of the tree and container combined to create a unified harmony.

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Creeping Juniper.

Different bonsai styles have evolved, such as the formal upright style, slant style, cascade style, and forest style. These styles are based on the attributes of the tree trunks and the sweep of the branches and foliage. When Japan ended centuries of isolation in the 19th century, knowledge of and interest in bonsai began to spread around the world (hence, one significance of the aforementioned Daimyo oak tree).

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Left to right: Trident Maple, Port Orford Cedar, San Jose Juniper (partly obscured), and Redwood.

This aesthetic art form continues to thrive around the world today, providing reflective contemplation for the viewer and artistic creativity for the caretaker. Traditional Japanese tend to work with native trees (e.g., pine, azalea, maple) when creating their bonsai art, while other people seem open to using a wider variety of trees.

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Ponderosa Pine.

The GSBF Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt is a museum, whose vision is ‘creating a masterpiece bonsai garden for the public.’ Approximately 100 trees are offered for viewing at any given time. The Garden has about 200 trees in its entire collection – these are rotated in and out of the setting available for public viewing, based on changes of season.

You can take as little or as long as you like to walk around the garden. Potted trees are set on benches and tables for ease of viewing, mixed around larger trees, rocks, and Oriental garden ornaments. Several tall buildings loom over the garden walls, providing juxtaposition to the quiet and peace within. Volunteer docents are on hand to answer any questions and, at times, provide guided tours.

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Weeping Atlas Cedar (background, left), Japanese rock garden (center), & cascade-styled Creeping Juniper on wooden stand (right).

Located at 666 Bellevue Avenue, the GSBF Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt is open on Tuesday to Friday (11am – 3pm), Saturday (10am – 4pm), and Sunday (12pm – 4pm). Further details can be found on their website:

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