The potted junipers on the steps of Suzzallo Library are undergoing a transformation. Flanking the entrance to one of the University of Washington’s most beloved buildings, they are viewed by hundreds of people walking through Red Square each week.
These 4-foot-tall bright green shrubs caught Le Zhen’s attention.
“They were just bushes, but they are junipers, and very good-sized ones. And juniper is probably one of the most desirable materials for bonsai,” Zhen said.
Watch Le Zhen’s bonsai creation timelapse:
A postdoctoral researcher in the UW Department of Bioengineering, Zhen has a passion for cultivating bonsai — miniature trees that are pruned, nurtured and trained with wire to look like their much older, full-sized counterparts living in nature. In the Suzzallo junipers, Zhen saw great potential.
He shared his idea and some sketches with UW Facilities staff, and his offer to makeover the trees was accepted.
But Zhen had another reason for wanting to create bonsai.
“The recent incidence of anti-Asian hate crimes surging in this whole country — that hate is a negative association,” he said. “I wanted to bring something positive from Asian culture.”
Thousands of Asians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders attend classes and work at the UW, and walk through the Seattle campus each week. He hopes this prominent display of bonsai will signal to members of the broader AAPI community that UW is safe and welcoming. In fact, Zhen says, we could all use a moment of reassurance.
“Universally, everybody has been through a very tough time during the pandemic year. I hope that people see this and gain a sense of calm,” he said.
With the biggest changes already accomplished — pruning limbs to expose the “trunk” of the tree and training branches with wire and string — the Suzzallo bonsai will come to fruition over the course of many years as the bonsai grow into the shape designed for them.
The bonsai at the left, when facing Suzallo’s steps, Zhen has named “Resilience.” It is being reshaped in a windswept style, evoking a tree that has weathered storms and even has some dead wood features. The tree at the right is named “Peace” and will eventually feature a larger trunk arching over smaller trunks in what Zhen calls a “parent-child” style.
The junipers will no longer need their tallest sections; if you see a small plastic pot that circles a section of the trunk, it is to help prepare that section of the tree for gentle removal.
“Resilience” juniper bonsai transformation.Le Zhen
“Peace” juniper bonsai transformation.Le Zhen