A tree (dynasty) grows in Gorst

Shanna Neims is a member of the Elandan Family Robinson, which runs a world-class bonsai garden — and various other enterprises — in Gorst. - Charlie Bermant/Staff Photo
Shanna Neims is a member of the Elandan Family Robinson, which runs a world-class bonsai garden — and various other enterprises — in Gorst.
— image credit: Charlie Bermant/Staff Photo

Kitsap County is home to one of the most unusual botanical displays in the region — six acres of landscaped art and creative plants — and none of the locals pay attention.

“The garden has become internationally known,” said Shanna Neims, whose family has run Elandan Gardens since its 1994 opening.

“We are always getting contacted by people in Europe and around the world,” she said. “We have been featured in international magazines without our knowledge. But the people in Port Orchard don’t even know we’re here.”

“Here” is just south of Gorst, between Sinclair Inlet and State Route 16, with Elandan’s low visibility is partially attributable to this location. You round a curve at top speed and the driveway is a sharp right turn on a dirt road. It’s only accessible from the northbound lanes, which means that anyone coming from the north has to either make a designated U-turn off of route 160 or go two miles out of their way to the Tremont Street exit and turn around.

Either way, in order to visit Elandan you need to know it’s there and exactly where to turn.

Neims said the access could be improved with the construction of a deceleration lane, which the business cannot afford.

So for the time being, Elandan is someplace people pass regularly but never stop to investigate.

“Elandan is a beautiful place,” said Port Orchard Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Coreen Haydock Johnson. “I’d like to see it get more attention, and more of a marketing effort.”

Even those who drive by every day might not know what to expect. There is the feeling that Gorst, with its adult entertainment options and traffic congestion, is an artistic wasteland.

Elandan looks like it could be a nursery — just another place to buy plants.

But Elandan has three components. There is a shop, with an undefinable blend of crafts, clothing and curios. There are open spaces, dotted with sculptures by (Neims’ brother) Will Robinson, whose stonework is also visible in downtown Bremerton and in front of the Kitsap County Administration Building in Port Orchard. And there is an ornate, landscaped garden full of bonsai trees and other aged, exotic plants maintained by her father, Dan Robinson, who has been working with bonsai for 52 years.

Neims runs an interior design business from Elandan, with clients ranging from Harrison Hospital to Cosmo’s Deli in Port Orchard.

While this is a family business, her work — like her brother’s sculptures — represents separate business units.

Diane Robinson, Neims’ mother, manages the business itself. A former Port of Bremerton commissioner and Bremerton Chamber of Commerce president, she flirted with running for South Kitsap commissioner this year but opted to concentrate on the new Elandan retail outlet.

The new store is scheduled to open its doors in Gig Harbor on Oct. 1. Neims said it will complement the garden and give them a new exposure.

“It will be exciting to be in a place that has a little more foot traffic,” she said.

Elandan, according to Neims, is a made-up name. Diane Robinson was walking the land right after its purchase and was reminded of the French word elan, meaning style and flare, and added her husband’s name as a suffix.

Later, coincidentally, they heard that elan translated to Hebrew meant “sacred tree.”

While it doesn’t cost to shop at Elandan Gardens — other than what you purchase — there is an $8 admission fee to the garden.

Neims said these fees are used for taxes and some maintenance, but do not support the venture to any great degree.

Still, the thought of paying an entry fee in park-rich Kitsap hasn’t caught on — and in some cases has backfired.

“There are all kinds of rumors, like we charge for people to get into the shop,” Neims said. “When we started, there was a charge that we attracted eagles that were preying on local wiener dogs. We just have to try to dispel these rumors the best we can.”

The garden is always getting calls from developers and landscapers who have found interesting trees that need to be taken down or moved.

Whether or not a tree is accepted for donation depends on its unique qualities. This is also another way the family plays together, since the crane that Will Robinson used to haul large pieces of stone is sometime used for tree extraction.

Many of these donation calls come from Seattle or Olympia, and it takes considerable effort to move large trees in that distance.

“That kind of awareness, that people call us from all over the region, is a great tribute,” Neims said.

“The first thing I look for is a strong trunk,” Dan Robinson said. “I can then shape it to my vision. If you have a strong trunk you can cut it back to do what you want. If you try to grow a strong trunk, you won’t see it in your lifetime.”

While bonsai evokes a certain stylized tree species, Robinson said that it is by definition “a tree in a pot.”

Any tree, he said, can aspire to become a bonsai.

Elandan may also be the right choice for special events — weddings, bar mitzvahs and political events.

Depending on the crowd, visitors can hold their party amidst the bonsai or in the large open field of the “celebration garden.”

If Elandan is fighting to be noticed, once visitors find their way inside they learn about another common misconception.

Robinson continually corrects the common characterization of what has enhanced his reputation and consumed his life.

“The proper pronunciation of this art form is ‘bone-sigh,’” he said. “‘Bahn-zye’ is ‘Hail the Emperor, I am ready to die for you.’ Bone-sigh is a tree in a pot. So one of the small missions in my life is to clean up the English language, to not make Japanese visitors bring their shoulders sup and quiver when we mispronounce some of their language.”

Dan Robinson talks about the art of bonsai:

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