From left: Ernie Witham, Mark Britton, Jeff Sczechowski, Terri Clay | Credit: Anika Duncan

Ernie Witham first planted the seed for a bonsai section in the Lotusland Japanese Garden more than six years ago, when he began volunteering with Terri Clay, the lead gardener. “Whenever we were out there pruning, I would talk about how great it would be if there was bonsai.” After major renovations to the garden finished in 2019, the perfect space appeared: an unoccupied corner nestled behind the pavilion, a wooden, temple-like structure that sits at the highest point in the garden. The time was finally right to bring bonsai to Lotusland.

Celtis Korean Hornbeam | Credit: Anika Duncan

As a longtime member of the Santa Barbara Bonsai Club, Witham had a vested interest in promoting the bonsai cause. The club hosts meetings and workshops at Bethany Congregational Church and has about 40 people, who range from age 14 to an “active” 86. During the pandemic, the club struggled to hold its bonsai workshops and lessons over Zoom, a mode unconducive to such a precise and technical art. At the same time, interest in bonsai skyrocketed as people picked up niche arts and skills to fill their newfound time. 

Jeff Sczechowski, the club president, hopes to build on this momentum and expose a wider range of people to the Japanese art form. “We’re focused on growing and diversifying the club — anyone can do bonsai.”

The new exhibit at Lotusland is certainly helping to make that happen; it’s become one of the most popular attractions in the Japanese Garden. Clay, who facilitated the project, remarked, “Now the tours go by the bonsai and you have to make people keep moving.” The gift shop even requested that club members create potted trees for inspired visitors to purchase. Witham is pleased with the response, saying, “Usually, these amazing trees just sit in our backyard. Lotusland allows us to show them to the public.”

Amy Kakimoto’s Olive | Credit: Anika Duncan

When the idea to bring club members’ bonsai to Lotusland was pitched, there was hesitation on both sides. The small gardening staff worried that the time-intensive trees would be too much for them to take on, while the bonsai club members worried about the health and watering of their trees.

A large donation was the first step to assuage doubts, ensuring the creation of an independent watering system that constantly and delicately waters the tiny trees. A tour of Lotusland was the real turning point for club members: “We brought them [to Lotusland] and they saw all the care that’s put in; it’s a beautiful space to display things,” said Clay. So too are the stands that the bonsai rest on, made by gardener Mike Furner out of a 150-year-old Monterey cypress cut from the front lawn. The oldest bonsai on display is just a bit younger — a 100-year-old clump-style olive that belonged to Amy Kakimoto. During World War II, Kakimoto and her husband were forced into internment camps, and the tree was given to a Caucasian family for safekeeping until they were able to take it back.

Moyogi Shinpaku | Credit: Anika Duncan

The horticultural collaboration has proved beneficial for both parties, and there are even plans to extend the bonsai exhibit. “Now we have these amazing [club] volunteers to help us with the garden, and we tell visitors and other volunteers to join the bonsai club.” Clay’s team and the bonsai club complement each other stylistically as well, both using highly specialized pruning techniques to sculpt what they call “living art.” Throughout the garden are niwaki, short, sculpted trees that are meticulously crafted according to Japanese principles. Clay remarked, “This was a coming together of two similar art forms that use the same principles. Niwaki means ‘plant in a garden’; bonsai means ‘tree in a pot.’ The bonsai club members do the same thing we do in the Japanese garden, on a smaller scale.”

Lotusland is open to the public by reservation only, In addition, the Santa Barbara Bonsai Club is having its annual show May 13-14 at Trinity Lutheran Church (909 N. La Cumbre Rd.).

Correction: The bonsai display can be found behind the pavilion in the Japanese Garden at Lotusland. An earlier version of this story referred to a potted juniper giveaway, which is not for this event. 


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