Find your own ‘Zen moment’ with bountiful bonsai in Fresno’s Shinzen Friendship Garden

Visitors tour the Clark Bonsai Collection, on display at Woodward Park’s Shinzen Garden.
Visitors tour the Clark Bonsai Collection, on display at Woodward Park’s Shinzen Garden.

Bonsai, an ancient Japanese art form of miniaturizing trees, is about slowing down for Bob Hilvers, curator and chairman of a new collection at Fresno’s Shinzen Friendship Garden in Woodward Park.

The trees are made into tiny versions of themselves through years of careful pruning of branches and roots. One on display in the garden is estimated to be up to 500 years old.

“Once your internal clock gets reset on a plant level, you begin to look at other aspects of life in a different perspective, in that everything is rushing by … and bonsai care not for that,” Hilvers says. “Their life cycle is a much slower-paced existence, so it provides a really nice contrast.”

The first exhibition of these slow-growing beings is on display in the garden through April 10.

The Golden State Bonsai Federation Clark Bonsai Collection came from the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture that closed in Hanford last year. More than 100 bonsai now call the garden home, although only around 25 are on display at any given time.

The current exhibition, “Winter Silhouette,” displays deciduous trees that have lost their foliage for the winter – although many are now budding with fresh leaves and flowers.

“Without the foliage on them, the branch structure is revealed,” Hilvers says. “Some bonsai are designed specifically only to be displayed that way. With their foliage on, they are much less interesting to look at.”

The next exhibition opens mid-April and features trees collected from the wild. It will be on display for the April 16-17 Bonsai in the Park Festival and remain into the summer.

Hilvers says in ancient Japan, having a stunted tree from some mountain crag where it contended with rock slides and the battering of winds was “kind of like having a Lexus parked in the driveway.”

It was a symbol of both status and spirituality, because “nature was sacred.”

Hilvers says it’s not clear when the art of bonsai began and why, but there are paintings of small potted plants in China more than 2,000 years ago. Hilvers says the origins of the small trees could come from potted medicinal plants that healers commonly traveled with. Bonsai has been in Japan for more than 1,000 years.

In the United States, Hilvers says there are few bonsai from before World War II because many of the trees died when Japanese Americans were rounded into internment camps. One of these trees is on display at Shinzen. It belonged to a fourth-generation American, Toichi Domoto, from Hayward who owned a nursery. Neighbors cared for the tree while he and his family were interned.

The Clark collection also includes trees from renowned bonsai artists Harry Hirao and John Naka.

Homer Greene Jr., documentarian for the collection, says looking at the winter exhibition inspires him to “drop all illusions” like the trees drop their leaves.

He says the trees “connote a Zen sense of stillness, peace and calmness.”

“Hopefully, visitors to the winter bonsai exhibit will experience their own Zen moment.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

View the bonsai collection

Basic information: The Golden State Bonsai Federation Clark Bonsai Collection is located in the Shinzen Friendship Garden at Woodward Park, 7775 N. Friant Road, Fresno. The garden is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends only, through March 31. Starting April 1, the garden is open 5 p.m. to dusk weekdays, and from 10 a.m. to dusk Saturdays and Sundays. General admission is $5. Admission for children up to age 14, senior citizens and veterans is $1.

Bonsai in the Park Festival: A Bonsai in the Park Festival, “Koen-nai No Bonsai,” will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16, and from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 17. Admission is free. The festival will include vendors, plants sales, demonstrations by Kenji Miyata and David Nguy, and a live auction of bonsai. A bonsai display competition will coincide with the festival.