Tour The Stunning Bonsai Display at Smith-Gilbert Gardens

Attention all bonsai lovers: this carefully-curated garden is a must-see.

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

Photo By: Debbie Wolfe

A Bit of History

Smith-Gilbert Gardens, a 16-acre botanical garden located in Kennesaw, GA, is home to over 3,000 species of plants, uniques sculptures and the largest bonsai collection in the state of Georgia. The original collection was started by Dr. Robert Gilbert, one of the original founders of the botanical garden, and has grown to over 70 species since the garden open its doors to the public in 2009. In addition to Dr. Gilbert's private collection, many of the trees on display were donated by bonsai enthusiasts and vary in age from 20 years old to several hundred, covering a variety of species and style. Fun fact: The word bonsai literally translates to “planted in a container."

Trick of the Eye

Contrary to popular belief, bonsai trees are not dwarf varieties — they're full-sized trees trained to grow in small containers and artistically manipulated to appear old. Their selected growing styles are representations of their natural environment and they are known to live for centuries if given proper care.

Crown Jewel

This pond cypress, grown in the flat top style, is the bonsai display's primary focal point. Collected in the Everglades and added to the display over 40 years ago, the tree is estimated to be about 300 years old.

Living Story

With bonsai, you are telling a story about where the tree comes from in nature and its struggles. This specimen, a false cypress grown in the formal upright style, is approximately 45 years old.

Small but Strong

Bonsai is a combination of horticulture and art — the health of the tree is just as important as its appearance. From left to right: shimpaku juniper in slant style, about 50 years old, styrax (fragrant snowbell) in informal upright style, 35-40 years old, and cork bark Chinese elm in broom style, aged 40 years.

Planted With Purpose

The container the tree is planted in is also an important element of bonsai as it establishes a scene illustrating why the tree grew the way it did. This 35-year-old Japanese hornbeam is in a forest style and displayed on a locally-handcrafted concrete slab.

Gilbert's Forest

Dr. Bob Gilbert, the botanical garden's co-founder, grew these trident maple trees onsight then arranged them into a forest style. This display is around 40-45 years old.

Age is Just a Number

There are many methods used in bonsai to "age" a tree. Among the most popular is a technique known as Shari, the process of damaging the bark without harming the tree. In Shari, tools are used to strip bark from the trunk, then create the look of bleached deadwood like on the trunk of this slant style shimpaku juniper. Deadwood is only practiced on evergreen trees, as the look doesn't occur in nature on deciduous varieties.

Old Meets New

"The goal in bonsai is to keep the tree very healthy but have it look old and like it’s just about to die," says Rodney Clemons, bonsai expert and curator of the Smith-Gilbert Bonsai display. This specimen, a crepe myrtle with new growth emerging from the root, is grown in the clump style and estimated to be somewhere between 60-150 years old.

Pretty in Lace

The bark of this Chinese elm is a stunning example of the lacebark technique. The broom-style tree is about 100 years old.

Mix + Match

This 50-year-old foemina juniper is a mixed formal upright and natural style with Shari.

According to Clemons, a bonsai display is best viewed from afar, about 12 feet back and almost at eye-level. From left to right: podocarpus in slant style, aged 40 years and kousa dogwood in informal upright style, aged 45 years.

Small Tree, Full-Size Fruit

Since bonsai trees are not dwarf varieties, but full-size specimens, they will bear full-size fruit and flowers regardless of current size. This Japanese hop hornbeam displays full-size buds (that resemble hops) in the spring. The tree is in broom style and about 65 years old.

Windswept

Grown in a windswept forest style, this 50-year-old hinoki cypress mimics the look of a tree that must struggle to survive. Windswept bonsai are manipulated to seem as if the wind has been constantly blowing them in one direction.

If you want to give bonsai a try, Rodney Clemons suggests that you seek out a local bonsai study group. Also, pick a tree that you know and learn how it grows, what it likes and what diseases and pests it's susceptible to. Or start with a picturesque tree like this Japanese white pine and study its natural growing habitat.

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