The grand estate known for its huge gardens, immense house and large holiday festivities is taking a scaled-down approach for its latest exhibit — a collection of bonsai trees. These diminutive plants span a variety of different species, including wisteria, juniper and camellia.
Filoli has opened up its entire collection of bonsai trees for the first time, including a 400-year-old black pine.
Bonsai is the Japanese art form of cultivating trees to a micro scale. When properly cared for in specific containers, a bonsai tree is essentially a miniature replica of a species that would grow much larger when rooted in the ground. Filoli's collection, on display until Feb. 28, serves as a vivid case study in the many forms that bonsai can take and how long these trees can thrive.
"Each one is a treasure," said Jim Salyards, Filoli's director of horticulture. Salyards has worked at Filoli for 26 years and has acted as horticulture director since 2014. In articulating the care needed for these trees, Salyards compared them to a family pet that needs an abundance of watchful attention.
Most woody trees hold the potential to become bonsai trees, with the exception of those whose leaves retain their original size (instead of minimizing along with the trunk and branches). Salyards stressed that aesthetics are important to the cultivation of a successful bonsai tree: "If a plant is stunted, but the leaves are too big, it doesn't look right."
Not only has Salyards monitored the growth of many of the bonsai trees at Filoli over the years, but he has also played a part in bringing a few to life. In 2011, Salyards chose to dig up a dwarfed coast live oak that sat on the hillside at Filoli. Mindful of the emphasis on cultivating California native plants at the estate, Salyards brought in the coast live oak as a way to incorporate local species into the bonsai collection.
Other bonsai trees Salyards has grown from seed include a Bhutan cypress, California buckeye and a thin grove of beech trees. Some of the other native bonsai tree species include eight juniper specimens, which have been at Filoli for nearly 100 years.
When it comes to longevity though, the crown jewel of the exhibit is their 400-year-old black pine bonsai tree, which has resided at Filoli for more than 20 years. Started in Japan centuries ago, the black pine bonsai was given as a gift to Lurline Roth (the owner of Filoli from 1936 until she opened it to the public in 1977) from the Hillsborough Estates, so that it could continue to live on with the same care it had received for generations. Also of considerable age are a set of 100-year-old wisteria trees. Their branches are sturdy yet bare at this time, as they do not flower until spring.
On the shelves in the terrace gardens, among a mini-grove of oak, olive and cypress, the Sequoia sempervirens stands tall for its bonsai stature, and is easily identifiable as the same species as those elderly 300-foot redwoods that grace the coast of California. While Filoli's bonsai redwood is a mere 50 years old, it holds the same appearance as the ancient members of the forest.
Salyards and the other horticulturists at Filoli are not the primary caregivers of the bonsai trees. The extensive practice of pruning, wiring and pinching leaves is in the hands of trained bonsai volunteers from various bonsai societies in the Bay Area, including the Kusamura Bonsai Club in Palo Alto. Rita Curbow began volunteering there in 2007, and two years later had recruited seven more volunteers to make weekly visits to Filoli.
"The person taking ownership must continue the bonsai techniques," said Curbow, speaking of the care and maintenance she and the other volunteers willingly give to each little tree in the effort to keep them healthy and thriving.
Considering the bonsai trees live in pots and not in the ground to receive water reserves from the soil, they must be watered daily, sometimes twice during warmer weather. The bonsai trees at Filoli are placed in shaded areas and sit where staff frequently pass so that they are consistently watched.
"With a small volume of soil, they are more vulnerable," said Salyards.
Filoli has continued operations — with modifications — throughout the pandemic.
"We have been fortunate to be able to remain open and available to our Bay Area community," said Susan O'Sullivan, Filoli's chief external relations officer, "as a place for outdoor recreation and to have a much-needed respite in nature."
The current regulations, O'Sullivan said, "have brought us back to the core of our mission, to connect our rich history with a vibrant future through beauty, nature and shared stories. We've been reminded that we have a unique role to be a place of escape and solace."
When planning a trip to Filoli, it is strongly recommended to purchase tickets online in advance, as daily admittance is limited during the pandemic. More information is available at filoli.org.
There are many bonsai clubs throughout California. A list of clubs, and information on the care and cultivation of bonsai trees, can be found at gsbfbonsai.org.
A version of this article was originally published Feb. 4 on TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Weekly, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.