There’s a world-class bonsai collection at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul. But until this week, most visitors never got a look at it, and those who did saw only a few specimens.
That’s because the conservatory hasn’t had a good place to display its 100-plus bonsai, some created by recognized bonsai masters.
The Japanese art form, which translates to “tree in a container,” involves pruning trees into miniature form — and keeping them that way. But the room in the Visitors’ Service Center where the bonsai collection has been displayed didn’t get enough sunlight during the fall and winter months to keep the bonsai happy and compact.
“You don’t want bonsai stretching because of low light levels,” said Tina Dombrowski, horticulture manager for the conservatory, explaining why the bonsai were kept out of sight seven months a year.
That all changes Friday when the conservatory officially opens its new Ordway Gardens, a $2.8 million addition that will allow year-round bonsai viewing. During late spring, summer and early fall, when bonsai can thrive outdoors as well as indoors, there will be 25 to 30 bonsai on display, some indoors and some on the new terrace, Dombrowski said.
During the winter, when outdoor display isn’t feasible, 17 to 20 bonsai will be displayed indoors. The bonsai chosen for display will be rotated for the best seasonal interest, so that blooming bonsai, such as azaleas, will be shown in full flower.
The Ordway Gardens wing also allows year-round viewing and better access to the conservatory’s Japanese garden. The new walk into the garden is lined with pines and is more inviting than the previous entry path. And while the garden will remain closed in winter because of safety issues related to snow and ice on paths, it can now be viewed and appreciated year-round through a panoramic window, allowing visitors to contemplate the four-season beauty, which is an integral part of Japanese garden design.
With its new higher profile, the Japanese garden also has gotten a modest makeover, overseen by John Powell, one of North America’s leading experts on Japanese garden design. The Texas-based Powell reviewed the garden’s original design by Masami Matsuda, assessed its current condition, then prepared a proposal for restoring it to Matsuda’s original vision, by pruning overgrown trees and removing large arborvitae near the Tea Center and replacing them with yews.
“It was time,” said Dombrowski. “Some of the trees had worn out their welcome.”
Also in the new Ordway Gardens will be informational displays on bonsai, and even an interactive “Build a Bonsai” on computer kiosks, where visitors can “prune” a virtual tree, then select a container for it.
Having a new home for its bonsai collection will help the conservatory take the collection to the next level, Dombrowski said. “Como has only been seriously collecting bonsai since the late ’80s. Before that, it was here and there, with bonsai on loan. It’s going to grow even more, now that we have a facility to showcase it.”