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A mighty museum of miniatures

Alcobendas is home to one of the finest European bonsai collections, with donations from former PM Felipe González among the exhibits

Luis Vallejo happily explains the details of the bonsais on display in the Alcobendas Bonsai Museum. Maples, pines, junipers, olive trees, oaks... He knows the history of each and every one of the 150 trees displayed there - where they came from and the cities in which they resided throughout their long lives.

Vallejo is one of the patriarchs of the bonsai in Spain and he has put his personal stamp on a museum that stands out for the quality and originality of the pieces on show, and for Vallejo's efforts to unite native trees with works of art by Japanese artists known to be among the best cultivators - legendary figures in the bonsai world.

"Our collection is one of a kind, probably the best in Europe, and maybe in the western world," says Vallejo, standing in front of a juniper designed by Masahiko Kimura, a reputed 20th century master.

The museum's creator is also a landscape artist. His company is called Arceval, which in Spanish is a combination of his favorite tree, the arce (or maple) and the first syllable of his last name. Since he was a small boy he has been drawn to these miniature trees planted in trays, which is what the word bonsai means.

"Thanks to my garden design business, I can afford to buy trees that cost the same as a luxury car," he says, as he stops to examine a very old wild olive tree from the Balearics. When he received it, it was a diamond in the rough.

Careful and patient grooming, carried out according to the norms of beauty and proportion dictated by Japanese tradition, along with the passage of time have converted a mere tree into a work of art.

"These are living beings that we must observe and reflect on before we begin to work on them, using the energy they give off to direct it as it best suits us."

An uncommon Balearic boxwood tree, a pomegranate with a twisted trunk, a Chinese juniper shaped like a Rubenesque woman, an ancient yew with a hollowed trunk ready to shelter an imaginary bird - the collection does not fail to delight.

Among all of the trees, Vallejo has a special regard for the more than 20 donated by politician Felipe González. The "master gardener" and his "disciple prime minister" worked on many of them together in the prime minister's residence in Moncloa.

"One day I came home and my wife said, you'll never guess who's been here to see you." It was González, who had left a message asking Vallejo to stop by the palace in Moncloa the following day. Word of Luis Vallejo's fame had reached even the prime minister's ears.

The tour of the Alcobendas museum ends in a private area reserved for the 300 trees that are waiting for their moment to shine. They will not be put on display in the museum until they are at their most beautiful. For some of these trees, this means a wait of years. The hobby of bonsai is one for people with a lot of patience. Time is an essential ally. But while waiting, its owner can secretly delight in the beauty of the maturing trees.

An elm tree that writer Gabriel García Márquez gave to the museum's creator, Luis Vallejo.
An elm tree that writer Gabriel García Márquez gave to the museum's creator, Luis Vallejo.MIGUEL KRAUSE
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