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Living works of art that are never finished

A desert ash tree in the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection.

A desert ash tree in the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection. Photo: Rohan Thomson

In many ways, it's a traditional art gallery, purpose-built to allow for optimum lighting and air flow, with objects arranged to their best advantage.

Only, the light comes from the open roof, the air flow is governed by the elements and the artworks are living, breathing trees - in miniature.

Visitors will soon be able to walk among these tiny versions of exotic and native tree species - some 70 specimens from the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection now on permanent display in a new pavilion high up in the National Arboretum.

The oldest trees in the collection, a pair of Dwarf Alberta Spruce trees, planted in 1950. Click for more photos

National Bonsai and Penjing collection

A look at the National Bonsai and Penjing collection newly housed at the National Arboretum. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The collection, which until recently was housed temporarily at Commonwealth Park, include some of the finest miniature trees produced by Australian artists, many of which have been donated or lent to the collection.

They range in age, with the oldest - a dwarf Alberta spruce in a twin setting - dating back to 1950, and have been maintained with varying influences.

The traditional Japanese-style bonsais are more structured, while the Chinese-influenced Penjing, a tradition dating back more than 1000 years, are more free-flowing, with the occasional house or structure incorporated in the tiny landscape.

Assistant curator Leigh Taafe said bonsais often had a curious effect on people, mainly because they were so replete with detail.

"They've been styled to appear as a miniature tree," he said, adding that most people did not realise that bonsais behaved the same way as full-sized trees.

"If it's deciduous, the leaves will change colour in autumn, you get the beautiful autumn colours, so come here in May and it will be absolutely stunning."

Some also grew fruit, and flowered in the springtime.

"These are works of art that are never finished, because they're continually growing," he said.

He said while it is possible to learn about horticulture from textbooks, the art of bonsai came from other influences. "You get a lot of satisfaction out of the nurturing side of it. Seeing the results of your work over a period of time is very satisfying," he said.

The Friends of the National Arboretum chairwoman Jocelyn Plovits said the lure of the tiny trees was complex. "They're obviously cared for, they're much loved," she said. "They have beautiful art and designs to them, and they represent the real world, so you can lose yourself in them without actually having to go to the mountains or the cliff-face, or whatever it is."

The National Arboretum will open from Saturday, February 2. www.nationalarboretum.act.gov.au

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