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.

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Ben Valentine

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...

10 replies on “Berkeley’s Giant Bonsai Trees”

  1. 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.

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

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

    1. 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.

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