Berkeley’s Giant Bonsai Trees

by Ben Valentine on October 26, 2012

A tree of miniature cupcakes? Yes please. All photographs by the author.

BERKELEY, California — My favorite activity is walking. I think my best while walking, I feel happier, I can focus more clearly, and I always love stumbling across surprising things. Whenever I come to a new area my favorite pastime is just to walk around and explore, trying to take new routes every time to the grocery store or school or whatever the end destination may be. Having recently moved to Berkeley, I have been walking a lot, documenting the new graffiti and the architecture of this new place, but one thing that especially caught my eye were the manicured trees and bushes of the area.

Most yards in the area are incredibly well kept, filled with exotic flowers, luscious plants, cacti, and more. I have never lived in such a beautiful neighborhood in my entire life. Yet, although the average yard here is impressive, the extremely manicured trees and shrubs are what has maintained my attention the most.

This taller and wonky version is one of my favorites.

I’ve seen well-groomed bushes and edged lawns with the sharp angles always maintained before, but this is a whole new category for me. Is this what happens when the lawn care traditions of the suburbs meets a hippie? Is this the West’s version of Bonsai — bigger, faster growing, and easier to maintain? Is this Berkeley’s version of Austin’s yard art tradition? I couldn’t say, but I am loving it.

Needing or trim or awesome spiky hairdo? I vote awesome, the choice is yours.

I doubt that the aging hippie population is the only reason for this occurrence. It probably has much to do with the near-tropical climate, making Berkeley an ideal place to grow many types of plants. Could this tradition be as readily adopted in another less plant-friendly climate? I doubt it. Most of my yard work in the Midwest was spent trying to keep plants alive, not sculpting them into giant Bonsai trees.

One of the less detail oriented examples I found.

A beautifully maintained double version, with a sad plain bush in the middle.

Maybe this is only so interesting to me. Having just moved from Brooklyn, where I was happy to have a cement stoop to share between five people, this does feel particularly foreign. Maybe I am unaware of some essential Californian Neo-Bonsai Movement, which clearly explains this phenomenon. If you know of one, please, let us know. For now, I am going to be taking many more pictures.

  • Get Hyperallergic in your Inbox!

    Subscribe to our email newsletter. (Daily or Weekly)

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • timothy buckwalter

    It’s called topiary. And has been around forever. The best place to see around here is in El Cerritto, actually there have been a couple of short films made about topiary in the East Bay. One dude cuts his bushes to look like UFOs, because he once saw one — a UFO, not a bush. Enjoy.

    • Thanks! Where is this UFO bush? I have to document that.

      • timothy buckwalter

        will look for it tomorrow and get you the address…

  • Kathleen King

    Hi Ben: love your articles. In the Bay Area, before every gardener was Mexican, every gardener was Japanese. Simple as that!

    • Why were there so many Japanese gardeners in the area?

      • timothy buckwalter

        Historically, NoCal has been home to a large Japanese American community… Farmers, shopkeepers, gardeners etc.

        • It’s awesome to see what professions some cultural groups gravitate towards, particularly in a highly multicultural societies like California.

  • Having lived my entire life in California, I can tell you this is the most boring subject you could have possibly grasped on to.

    • I don’t mean to be sooo negative, but it’s as if I went to New York City and wrote articles expounding the untold wonders of steam vents or the joy of seeing taxis. It’s just completely ubiquitous.

      • Perhaps Californians misjudge what is interesting about their state to outsiders.

Previous post:

Next post: