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National Bonsai and Penjing Museum

One of the lesser-known government-affiliated museums in the DC area is hidden within the United States National Arboretum. The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, featuring Chinese, Japanese, and American specimens, is a testament to the energy of John Creech.

In his quiet, unselfish, industrious way, [John Creech] brought comfort, food and beauty under the most difficult circumstances to more than 1,500 POWs in their time of depraved imprisonment without hint of self-acclaim or public recognition.

Clarence Ferguson

To fully understand the history of the museum, it is important first to define what bonsai and penjing trees even are. Bonsai, which translates roughly from Japanese to mean “tree in pot,” specifically refers to a method used to carefully prune and care for a plant grown in a shallow container, resulting in a plant that artfully resembles a miniature version of a tree in nature.Stephen Orr, “Not All Trees Are Cut Out to Be Bonsai,” Home and Garden, February 25, 2009. However, the Japanese were not the first to cultivate the bonsai. The Chinese precursor to the bonsai is called penjing, and from these miniature trees we get the bonsai.Johann Klodzen, “Museum History,” National Bonsai Foundation. Note: All citations from the National Bonsai Foundation are from information featured on the website on January 15, 2019. On January 16, 2019, the website was changed to slightly condensed text. https://www.bonsai-nbf.org/blog/2019/1/16/welcome-to-our-new-website. Penjing translates to “scenery in pot.”According to Yiting Yang, a native speaker, in conversation with Jamie P. Ostmann. One man is responsible for bringing a large number of bonsai and penjing to the United States, and, in large part, for the existence of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum: John Creech.

Childhood

Born to English parents Edward and Bessie (Faulkner) Creech in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, on January 17, 1920, John Creech would go on to change the botanical world. He got a Bachelor of Science degree in horticulture from the University of Rhode Island, graduating in 1941, right as America was about to enter the Second World War. He graduated ROTC, and, like many college-aged men of his time, he enlisted in the army, specifically the First Infantry Division in North Africa. The Germans captured him while he was on patrol, and he was sent to Oflag 64 prisoner-of-war Camp in Szubin, Poland, a converted former boys’ school. It was an increasingly crowded place, going from 150 American officers in 1943 to 1,500 by January 1945. In this most unlikely of environments, Creech found a way to get in touch with his horticultural talents. An old greenhouse stood in the camp, and the Germans allowed Creech to use it, giving him a two-and-a-half-acre space to grow tomatoes, beets, lettuce, and other vegetables.William C. Miller III, “An Azaleaphile Salute—Dr. John Lewis Creech,” The Azalean 28, no. 1 (spring 2006): 4. One of his fellow prisoners, Clarence Ferguson, reported that, “in his quiet, unselfish, industrious way, [he] brought comfort, food and beauty under the most difficult circumstances to more than 1,500 POWs in their time of depraved imprisonment without hint of self-acclaim or public recognition.”Leah Chester-Davis, “John L. Creech: A Giant in Plant Exploration,” The Trillium (March/April 2014): 1. His work in the garden earned him the respect and admiration of the other prisoners of war, as well as the nickname “Carrots Creech.” He would go on to receive a Bronze Star for his gift of beauty and food to his fellow soldiers, in addition to the Silver Star he won for gallantry in action.Chester-Davis, “John L. Creech,” 1. The Russians liberated Oflag 64 in 1945, leaving Creech free to return home.

Adult Life

Creech attended the University of Massachusetts to earn his master of science degree in horticulture in 1947. From there, he became a horticulturist at the United States Department of Agriculture in the Office of Plant Exploration. While working in the Office of Plant Exploration, he met one of his personal heroes, the director of the United States National Arboretum. Creech once said that, upon graduating, “my first order of business was to get a key to the [Arboretum] grounds and spend all my spare time working the azalea beds and other plantings with B. Y. Morrison, the first Director.”Miller, “Azaleaphile Salute,” 4. It was his relationship with Morrison that would eventually allow him to achieve the same post.Miller, “Azaleaphile Salute,” 4. He rose through the ranks of the United States Agricultural Department and became the director of the Plant Exploration Office. During this time, he got a PhD in botany from the University of Maryland, and soon after, followed his mentor to become the director of the United States National Arboretum in 1973.Chester-Davis, “John L. Creech,” 2.

Development and Donation of the Collection

In 1972, China gave a gift of penjing trees to the president of the United States, Richard Nixon. When Creech took over as director, he immediately began looking for ways to expand or build upon the budding collection. He reached out to fellow horticulturists in Japan to try and find a way to bring bonsai trees to the United States.Klodzen, “Museum History,” National Bonsai Foundation. Endorsed by the American Bonsai Society and Bonsai Clubs International, he would not have to wait long.“About Us,” National Bonsai Foundation, https://www.bonsai-nbf.org/about-us/. In July 1976, the ongoing events of the United States Bicentennial prompted many countries to give gifts of significance to the American people. Japan made a gift of 53 bonsai and six viewing stones,John L. Creech and Robert F. Dreschler, The National Bonsai Collection Guidebook, edited by John Y. Yaka and Yuji Yoshima (Atlanta: Symmes System, 1977). assembled by the Nippon Bonsai Association from private homes and collections. This gift, combined with the Nixon penjing trees, became the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.Klodzen, “Museum History,” National Bonsai Foundation. These trees carried immense personal significance to each of the families who donated them, and it was not a gesture to be taken lightly.

One such bonsai was donated by the bonsai master Masaru Yamaki. Approximately 375 years old, the white pine had been cared for by generations of the Yamaki family. Though cross-generational devotion to the trees is not uncommon in the bonsai museum, this particular tree is unique. The Yamaki bonsai came from Hiroshima, Japan, and survived the atomic bomb attack that ended the Second Word War. However, John Creech did not know the history of this bonsai, as it was not revealed until Yamaki’s grandsons visited the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in 2001.“Hiroshima Survivor,” National Bonsai Foundation, https://www.bonsai-nbf.org/hiroshima-survivor/.

After convincing the United States government to accept the gift and expand the National Arboretum to include a place to house them, Creech called on American bonsai enthusiasts to ensure the plants could be well maintained. One of these volunteers, Janet Lanman, worked with Creech to acquire American bonsai trees, the last piece missing from the grouping of Chinese and Japanese trees the Arboretum already had. Creech worked with Marion Gyllenswan, a bonsai teacher, to create a group of bonsai authorities who would be able to review private collections to select the best American bonsai for display, called the National Bonsai Committee.Klodzen, “Museum History,” National Bonsai Foundation. In addition to establishing the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum as an important addition to the National Arboretum, Creech also fought to ensure it would be built with accessibility in mind. He believed the beauty of the plant life in the arboretum could serve as a substitute for wheelchair-inaccessible places in nature, especially as a way for people to access the brilliance of the leaves changing in the fall in an urban setting.Miller, “Azaleaphile Salute,” 6. It was incredibly important to him that the plants be available to absolutely anyone.

In 1980, after 33 years of federal service, Creech retired to North Carolina, where he continued to work part-time at the North Carolina Arboretum, helping them to develop a bonsai collection as well. After retiring, he continued to work closely with Japanese horticulturists, leading a group of 19 Americans on a visit to Japan’s First International Azalea Festival and Symposium.Miller, “Azaleaphile Salute,” 6–7. Bonsai were not Creech’s only horticultural focus; much of his scholarly work was on azaleas. In fact, one of the few places where information on Creech can be found is in the Azalean, a magazine for azalea enthusiasts. He passed away at age 89 in 2009.“In Memory,” The Azalean 31, no. 3 (fall 2009): 65.

Institutional Mission and Programming

After Creech’s retirement, the National Bonsai Committee incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization now known as the National Bonsai Foundation. The foundation’s goal is to support the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. In the 1980s, the museum saw a new and large donation of penjing trees from Yee-sun Wu of Hong Kong, increasing the size of the Chinese collection. It was up to the foundation to carry out the third part of Creech’s vision for the bonsai pavilions: an American pavilion to house the growing North American collection. In 1986, the ten-year anniversary of Japan’s gift, the foundation announced their plan to do just that,“About Us,” National Bonsai Foundation. and 1990 saw the addition of the American Bonsai Pavilion.

The museum continues to rely heavily on volunteers. Janet Lanman, who was so instrumental in the creation of the museum, volunteered from 1945 until her death in 2018, and she serves as a model to all volunteers who continue her passion for the small trees. They are responsible for the everyday cultivation of each individual tree.“About Us,” National Bonsai Foundation. Many of the volunteers are part of the Potomac Bonsai Association, to which Lanman belonged.

In addition to the volunteers, the institution is still run by the National Bonsai Foundation, and they continue to carry out the mission John Creech so strongly believed in: sharing the trees with everyone. Interactive programming like yoga and tai chi in the gardens engage the public to interact with the trees in a less “museum-like” way.“Exhibits & Events,” National Bonsai Foundation, https://www.bonsai-nbf.org/events/. Field trips and drawing classes engage children to get excited about nature. Guest bonsai masters offer lectures and demonstrations open to the public. The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum is open every day, and is still very popular in the fall months, where, just as John Creech predicted, diverse visitors flock to see the bonsai transform.

Profile by Jamie P. Ostmann, 2019 Wintersession student.