San Francisco is known for having some undeniably unique gardens throughout the city, from the Academy of Science’s Living Roof to the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden in Golden Gate Park. But if you’re looking to expand your Bay Area garden repertoire, Oakland’s Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt is an absolute must. Not only is it the only major all-volunteer-run bonsai garden in the country, but it’s also completely free to visit.
The garden’s collection comprises nearly 200 meticulously-maintained bonsai, of which about half are on display to the public at any given time. All of the trees in the garden are donated. Bonsai is the art of growing miniature live trees in pots by controlling nutrients, photosynthesis, and other factors, requiring constant attention.
In the garden you’ll find the historic Daimyo oak tree (#115) which was a gift to Anson Burlingame, U.S. Ambassador to China during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and namesake for the city of Burlingame, California. The newly-opened Japanese government gifted it to him in 1860 before his return to the United States, and it’s considered one of the most important and longest-cultivated bonsai in the country.
Another historical specimen is “Pacific King,” a Japanese black pine (#262) estimated to be over 400 years old. It’s famous for its inclusion in a bonsai exhibition at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, the 1915 event that brought us the Palace of Fine Arts.
The oldest bonsai in the garden is a California juniper from the Mojave Desert, estimated to be up to 1,600 years old.
About the garden
Oakland’s captivating bonsai garden was first conceptualized in the mid-to-late seventies by horticulturalists Toichi Domoto and Bill Hashimoto. In 1999 the garden officially opened thanks to donated time and money alongside the work of a single paid contractor. The Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden has a sister garden in Southern California at The Huntington, and both gardens are part of the Golden State Bonsai Federation.
Curator and artistic director Kathy Shaner oversees maintenance of the collection, which is performed entirely by volunteers. In 1994, Shaner became the first non-Japanese and first woman bonsai master certified by Japan’s Nippon Bonsai Association.
In addition to the bonsai you’ll find the Mas Imazumi Gate, named for a beloved bonsai teacher in the Bay Area and built by Occidental architect-carpenter (daiku) Hiroshi Sakaguchi. It’s built in the classic Japanese style of kanawatsugi, a carpentry method that joins wooden pieces together without any nails or screws.
The garden also showcases a display of suseiki or “viewing stones,” which are carved by wind and water and meant to be appreciated in their natural form.
Visiting the garden
The garden hosts a free two-hour bonsai class on the fourth Sunday of every month (except for February and December), hosted by the East Bay Bonsai Association. Throughout the year you can also catch bonsai auctions, the Autumn Lights Festival, and more seasonal events.
Find the Bonsai Garden at 650 Bellevue Ave in Oakland on the shores of Lake Merritt. It is open from 11am-2:30pm Tuesday-Friday, 10am-3:30pm on Saturdays, and 12pm-3:30pm on Sundays. The garden is free to visit, but be sure to make a donation to support the hard-working volunteers who maintain the trees and space.
The Bonsai Garden is part of The Gardens at Lake Merritt, which include a Sensory Garden, a Toddler Garden, an Urban Edible Garden, a Succulent Garden, and more covering 7 acres.