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Did You Know? Fresno Is Home to One of the Nation's Top Bonsai Exhibits
GV-Wire-1
By gvwire
Published 1 month ago on
April 11, 2024

Visiting bonsai master Julian Tsai begins a lesson on styling a tree for future display at the Clark Bonsai Collection inside the Shinzen Friendship Garden at Woodward Park. (Clark Bonsai Collection)

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A bonsai (miniature tree) exhibit is fast becoming one of Fresno’s don’t-miss destinations.

Visitors come from all over: local families on an afternoon outing, travelers who’d discovered the Clark Bonsai Collection on smartphone apps like Tripadvisor or Yelp, enthusiasts of Japanese arts, would-be bonsai hobbyists, and folks just curious to see what the fuss is all about.

David Brown

More than 170,000 visitors – over 35,000 in 2023 alone — have been counted since the bonsai exhibit opened its gates late in 2015 in northeast Fresno.

The core of the collection at Shinzen came from a nonprofit museum opened by Hanford ranchers Bill and Libby Clark a quarter-century ago. In quest of a permanent home for their bonsai, the Clarks agreed to gift the miniature trees to the Golden State Bonsai Federation, specifically for exhibit in Fresno’s Shinzen Friendship Garden (the Japanese-style garden that’s been a Woodward Park highlight since 1981).

What’s on display at the Clark Collection changes as the seasons pass. It’s an ever-evolving exhibit. From February into early April flowering fruit trees put on a show. In the autumn, trees with bright autumn leaves are the stars. And so on; at any time, only 28 bonsai are on display.

Magda Gilewicz of Fresno admires a Korean Hornbeam’s autumn display. (Clark Bonsai Collection)

Desert Junipers 1,000 Years Old

Typically just two to three feet tall, the Clark Collection bonsai are uncannily similar to their full-size cousins, or, sometimes, very much one of a kind.

A few of the collection’s best-loved specimens were once stumps in an abandoned orchard.

Among the trees in the collection are deliberately odd-looking examples of the “literati” style. Some groups of trees have been styled to resemble a miniature forest; this is a distinctive American type of bonsai. Some trees in the collection are ancient — the desert junipers are upwards of a thousand years old. Some are mimics; a coast juniper, for example, can be styled to resemble a giant sequoia. A few of the collection’s best-loved specimens were once stumps in an abandoned orchard.

Behind a decorative “noren” curtain, volunteer curators tend to over 130 trees, all shaped to realize their creators’ visions. Bonsai is a living art form; the trees must be regularly fertilized, irrigated, root pruned and trained to thrive in a small, shallow pot. The volunteers gather in the collection’s curatorial area every Wednesday and Friday morning to tend the trees under the direction of Chief Curator Bob Hilvers.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity here to build a world-class bonsai collection,” Hilvers says, “and in doing so, we’re carrying on a living art form with deep roots in the Central Valley. Bonsai skills were brought here by immigrant farmers from Japan and Okinawa more than a hundred years ago.”

Clark Collection Ranks No. 8 in the US

Hilvers noted that on a recent list of the Top 25 bonsai collections in the U.S., the Clark exhibit ranked No. 8.

“That’s rather extraordinary,” he said, “and I think a big reason is that our volunteers really engage with the visitors.”

Hilvers was referring in particular to the 20-odd volunteer docents who, led by the tireless Linda Jacobsen, introduce first-time visitors to the collection, sell “starter bonsai,” and cheerfully answer questions.

“We’ve seen terrific growth in the number of visitors,” Jacobsen noted, “and I’m always on the lookout for more volunteers. On Saturdays and Sundays when the weather’s nice, we’re really busy. Weekday mornings are perhaps ideal for a visit. We (docents) have plenty of time then to share what we know about bonsai.”

Clark Bonsai Collection Days and Hours

The Clark Bonsai Collection welcomes visitors year-around from 10 a.m. to 1 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Staff at the gatehouse of the Shinzen Japanese Garden can point visitors toward the CBC compound, which is on the far side of the garden’s ‘”double moon bridge.”

About the Author

David Brown is a resident of Fresno and a volunteer guide at the Clark Bonsai Collection. The collection is housed inside the Shinzen Friendship Garden at Woodward Park.

The entrance to the bonsai collection at Fresno’s Shinzen Garden. (Clark Bonsai Collection)

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