Selections from the Bonsai Collection
This particular Japanese Maple is quite exceptional in the fact that we know its exact age. With the vast majority of bonsai we simply have to estimate age as records of when they propagated. The age of a bonsai is naturally of great interest and it somehow has become common believe that all bonsai are of extreme age, but in reality most are not. There are, of course, truly ancient bonsai and we have in our collection trees in excess of 500 years. However, this is the age of the plant, not how long it has been a bonsai. The apparent age of a bonsai—how old it looks—is the operative factor. In the case of this Japanese Maple we know that it was planted from seed in 1973 by the original owner.
There is an intriguing story to tell about this Catlin Elm. It came to us as a ‘blind donation,’ meaning it was selected by an agent of the estate of a deceased bonsai artist from among many in his collection to be donated to the Clark Center. The other trees of the collection were alternately donated to other collections or liquidated at auction. Upon receiving the tree it appeared to have some age and it was estimated to be around 50 years; not very old for a bonsai, but remarkable enough to give the tree character. However, when transplanted from its original, somewhat older and valuable stoneware container a metal nursery tag was discovered reading “Naka 3/83.” This tag suggests that it once belonged to John Naka (1914–2004), the renown pioneer of bonsai in the West, which would render this tree seemingly priceless.
Only a handful of John’s trees have endured in public collections hence every attempt was made to conclusively establish its original ownership. It can be assumed that this tree was once owned by John and then gifted to one of his students; a common practice and a likely theory given that the donor was a member of John’s private study group, the Nampu Kai, and it was common practice for John and his students to memorialize on a tag when a bonsai was transplanted. However, John could have simply assisted the donor with transplanting this tree and thus inscribed the metal tag. When speaking with Harry Hirao, the oldest surviving member of the Nampu Kai, about this tree he recalled that John did have a Catlin elm that was very similar to this tree in his private collection at one time.