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A special edition of Arnoldia detailing the history and cultural notes of the Larz Anderson Collection, and the 'Chabo-hiba' in particular, together with full photographic records, was published by The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in 2006.

To purchase a copy, click here.

 

 


The Larz Anderson Collection at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston is the oldest collection of bonsai in the United States. Many of the trees have a documented history going back two centuries or more.

The collection was originally owned by Larz Anderson, a former Ambassador to Japan under the Taft administration. When he returned home in 1913, he brought the bulk of his collection with him and it was, for many years, sited at "The Weld", his stately home in Brookline, now a suburb of Boston. After his death, the collection was donated to the Arnold Arboretum by his widow, Isabel, in October 1937. The expert staff at the Arboretum were able to give the trees excellent horticultural care, but little aesthetic attention until 1969, when Connie Derderian was appointed Honorary Curator. For ten years she diligently worked to restore the now jaded trees, and to train the current Curator, Dr Peter Del Tredici, Chief Research Scientist at the Arboretum. Following Connie Derderian's resignation in 1979, the trees continued to receive expert care but, again, little aesthetic attention.

The surviving specimens in the collection consist primarily of eight Hinoki Cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Chabo-hiba' (a variety that has now become rare and almost absent in bonsai culture), several Acer palmatum and a large Pinus parviflora.

THE ORIGINAL STYLES
Most of the Hinoki were originall styed as "Nakasu" or "Jikka" - two similar styles popular in the nineteenth century. The former being a conical shape where the branches overhang the pot, forming an image resembling Mount Fuji. The latter depicts a lakeside tree with branches sweeping out over the water, less formally conical. Neither of these styles are seen or referred to in modern bonsai circles.

Illustrations from Japanese nursery catalogs of the late nineteenth century offering 'Chabo Hiba' specimens. On the left, the Nakasu or Mount Fuji style. On the right, Jikka.
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MY WORK WITH THE COLLECTION
I began working with these venerable old specimens in 1998, with the brief to restore them to their original designs where possible. In some cases this was clearly not an option, but others offered the opportunity to at least attempt such a task. One does not simply begin manipulating such old trees without forst assessing their vigor and responses, so for three years I did nothing apart from change the soil recipe and increase the feeding regime. Once I was satisfied that the trees could tolerate the work, I began to make some moves. I am both amazed and delighted at the strength and response of thse ancient trees: they produce an abundance of new growth after judicious pruning and the branches (some over a hundred years old) can set in position after only one year's training with wire.

 

FORTY YEARS ON...
One of the Chabo-hiba photographed in 1965. Here, with the deep pot and open form, it seems pore like a patio tree than a bonsai.


The same tree in 1987. Something happened to the top.... Branches grew out of control and the whole thing is much looser.

 

 

BELOW
Photographed in 2006, after five years of training and improved soil and feeding.

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Part of the Larz Anderson collection in the Gold Medal winning display at the New England Flower Show in 2006.

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Known as "Mother and daughter", these two trees were originally one, until a lower branch, with its own set of roots, became separated from the main trunk in 1969.


MISSION IMPOSSIBLE
One of the original 'Chabo-hiba', and enormous beast, measuring at least five feet wide and affectionately known as "Big Bertha", is still growing in its original concrete container. This particular tree has grown far more than any other, largely because of the greater volume of soil. It has now become so large and overgrown that it is impossible to restore it to its original style. In fact, it's original style is hard to determine: it has undergone several re-shapings during the past century - at one point being trained to a form more reminiscent of of the Chinese school, with wide, flat horizontal pads of foliage.
Since the precedent of re-shaping this tree to a new style has already been set twice: in 1933 and again in 1952, I see no moral or sentimental reason for not bringing it to a more contemporary image in the 21st century.

Bonsai is a slow process at the best of times, and with old trees like this it is even slower. When dealing with valuable museum pieces owned by a large institution, the process can be further extended. But I hope that in time we will proceed. Then this mighty monument to the history of bonsai will be reborn with greater beauty and dignity than ever before.