Biot Bonsai Arboretum
Famous for its bubble glass, sand, La Verrerie de Biot and the National Fernand Léger Museum, Biot is possibly less well known for its somewhat unexpected Bonsai Arboretum.
Originally the grounds were purchased for a nursery business dedicated to the cultivation of rare plants and trees that could be acclimatized to the Côte d’Azur. Its success caused Jean Okonek, professional gardener with a diploma from the Versailles School of Horticulture, to delve into growing an assortment of Mediterranean bonsai (olive, fig, pomegranate) and in 1972 he began their cultivation.
During those informative years, his son Karol was following in his father’s footsteps. With a degree in Botany from the University Valrose in Nice, and later as an Agriculture Engineer, he established his own business (Planta Exotica) alongside his father’s tree nursery. Smitten by the beauty of bonsai, he decided to go one step further and began importing tropical bonsai’s in 1983.
By 1988 their bonsai collection had quietly taken over the nursery. Their passion for these living sculptures was such that they therefore decided to amass a collection of bonsai originating from all over the world and re-scape the whole parcel of land into a Japanese garden.
Two years later, their work culminated in the inauguration of their Bonsai Museum by the Consul of Japan.
Going from strength to strength, Karol decided to establish a permanent exhibition of the biggest bonsai forest in Europe (6m x 2m) and worked in conjunction with amateur clubs located throughout Provence, Alps and the Côte d’Azur region.
Karol also set up (and continues to give) group and individual practical bonsai courses where he shares his passion and expertise regarding the upkeep, treatment and care of these fascinating miniature trees.
I visited the Bonsai Arboretum on one of those amazing Mediterranean mornings when the sky is limpid blue and the sun’s rays are warm and inviting and simply loved the garden and its wonderful living works of art.
Walking slowly round the garden, I crossed over a small bridge that led to the conifer tree section that leads to an area with many fine specimens of Japanese Maples.
Strolling back to the middle of the garden I entered a covered area where you can buy a variety of olive, apple, pine, elm, ficus, and juniper (to name just a few bonsai trees) all varying in different shapes, sizes and ages.
The tropical bonsai are cared for in a special greenhouse and these are very impressive. It is difficult not to admire the workmanship and years of constant attention and love that has gone into the cultivation of such beautiful specimens. Trees started as young saplings by Jean Okonek have been lovingly cared for by his son and are now aged companions.
Although kept busy with pruning, cutting, watering and the many other demanding chores that both the bonsai and museum bestow upon him, Karol Okonek is always delighted to take time to talk about his work and share his passion.
This is a wonderful place to visit, and I think once you’ve seen these fascinating miniature trees, you might find yourself not just endeared to them but also the privileged owner of an original and authentic work of art.
Musée du BonsaÏ, 299 Chemin du Val de Pôme, 06410 Biot.
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 65 63 99
Fax: +33 (0)4 93 16 84 85
€4 adults/ €2 students & children
Wednesday to Monday 10am – noon and 2pm – 6pm