Peter Lik's Tree Of Life? No, It's Not.

The World Famous Japanese Maple Tree

In the city of Portland, Oregon there is a world-famous Japanese Maple tree, located just inside the gates of the Portland Japanese Garden just waiting to capture your spirit and imagination. When you visit the garden and see this tree in person, or view beautiful photographs like the ones I share with you below, you may fantasize about the magic of this tree and the story of where it came from.

In 2011, an image of this tree titled The Tree of Life by photographer Peter Lik, was awarded 1st place in a photography contest called Windland Smith Rice International Awards and was on exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C from April - September of 2012. The popularity of this tree, located in the Portland Japanese Garden, grew directly because of this exhibit.

This popularity and the lack of common knowledge of where this tree is located, has led to people suggesting other photographers are copying his image. I have had strangers online call me out on my images of this tree saying as much. This could not be farther from the truth as many photographers, including myself all photographed this tree in the exact same way for many years prior to Lik's work. A surprise to many, this tree only stands 5 ft tall and the main way to photograph its branches are from underneath the canopy.

Is This The Peter Lik Tree?

Photographer Peter Lik has photographed this world famous Japanese Maple tree numerous times since 2010. Some of his more successful images of the tree include "Tree Of Life", "Tree of Beauty", "Autumn Spirit" and "Enchanted Heart".

I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon and spent the majority of my life there. In 2008, when I picked up my first camera, I began looking for places inside the city that I could photograph and stumbled across an out of focus, dreamy interpretation of this tree by a fellow photographer named Zeb Andrews. Those of us who lived in Portland at the time regularly visited The Portland Japanese Garden and have collectively been photographing this tree for over 15 years now.

I have returned many times since then, capturing the tree in all four seasons. While this tree used to be a secret known mostly to Portland residents only, today the tree draws visitors from around the world and in autumn there are actually lines that form just to photograph it. I have almost seen fights break out more than once. Everyone is crazy about this little Japanese Maple Tree.

A Japanese maple tree displaying beautiful fall color stretches its branches inside the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon.

A legendary Japanese maple at the height of its autumn spendor sits on a hillside inside the Japanese garden in Portland, Oregon. Fine Art Limited Edition of 100.

History of the Portland Japanese Garden

Inspired in the late 1950s by growing cultural ties between Oregon and Japan, Mayor Terry Schrunk and members of the Portland community conceived the idea of building a Japanese garden on the site of the old zoo in Washington Park. Their reasons for building a Japanese garden were twofold: providing the citizens of Portland with a garden of great beauty and serenity, while forging a healing connection to Japan on the heels of World War II. At this time in U.S. history, Japanese gardens were founded across the country as a way to build cultural understanding. Needing no translation, an American could experience firsthand Japanese ideals and values, communicated simply through nature.

In 1958, Portland became a sister city to Sapporo, Japan, helping to create a broad interest in Japanese culture. Soon after, several business leaders and the Mayor of Portland decided it would be wonderful for Portland to have a traditional Japanese Garden. On June 4th, 1962, the City Council created a commission to establish the garden on the site of the former Washington Park Zoo. The Japanese Garden Society of Oregon was formed in 1963 by Portland citizens interested in promoting a more intimate relationship between the Peoples of Japan and our city and state.

Takuma Tono, a Tokyo Agricultural University professor and internationally recognized authority on Japanese landscape design, was commissioned to design and supervise the development of the garden and he began landscaping the garden that year. In the summer of 1967, the Portland Japanese Garden formally opened to the public. The 5.5-acre Japanese garden is composed of five separate gardens: Strolling Pond Garden, Tea Garden, Natural Garden, Flat Garden, and Sand and Stone Garden.

It is difficult not to envision a small world of fairies or other mythical creatures creating homes here, built from the small ferns that surround it, scavenging the “forest” for mushrooms and other edibles. In reality, this glorious Japanese Maple that helps draw over a quarter million visitors each year to the garden, may have much more humble beginnings than you may think.


Nebulas of scarlet stars erupt from the twisted branches of an old Japanese maple in a garden in Portland, Oregon. A brilliant flash of fire, the autumn boughs make the surrounding beds of moss seem almost to glow. Fine Art Limited Edition of 200.

The Famous Portland Japanese Maple Tree

This beautiful Japanese Maple tree that so many have grown to love, was not an original planting in the garden. No one is 100% sure of exactly when it was planted, or where it came from. Speaking to Adam Hart, Senior Gardener of the garden, after looking through historical photographs, I was told that this lace-leaf maple was most likely planted sometime around 1971 and is between 65-70 years old. According to Mr. Hart, the tree was not very impressive when it was first planted, so there aren’t many photographs of it from those early days and the photographs he could find showed a fairly small and unspectacular specimen. The origin of the tree is also a mystery, but many of the lace-leaf maples were donated from people in the community and while we are not sure that this was the case, you can see other spectacular lace-leaf maples in the yards of beautiful homes along the road leading to the garden.

A photograph of a green Japanese maple tree backlit by the sun with golden light shining through.

While fall is the season of choice to photograph this popular Japanese Maple tree, the end of summer provides fresh green growth and a distinctly difference yet equally beautiful image inside the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon State. Fine Art Limited Edition of 100.

The Best Time To Visit The Portland Japanese Garden

The garden is beautiful all year round but it's most glorious in autumn. Aside from the unassuming maple, the entire garden bursts fourth with beautiful colors every year in October. While the height of Spring is also a great time to visit, there is simply nothing like autumn in the garden. The average peak color is typically found in the third week of October when the entire garden puts on a show.

A photograph of a wooden bridge over a pond with trees surrounding it in the fall.

A moon bridge transports visitors over the strolling pond in Portland's Japanese Garden. Fine Art Limited Edition of 100.

Open Shutter Photograph of Fish in a Pond | Electric Slide | Aaron Reed
Fine Art Limited Edition of 50 -

Is This The Aaron Reed Tree?

In early 2013 I began offering a portion of my work as limited edition pieces, including the majority of my photographs of this beautiful tree. Since then I have sold over 1000 pieces from this collection, with the majority of them being large format TruLife Acrylic Face Mounted prints. Living Lightning, released in February 2013 as an edition of 200, completely SOLD OUT as of December 2016. Dragon’s Breath, also a limited edition of 200 was released in November 2013 and sold the first 40 pieces in the first 6 months. It went on to sell out as well.

Despite what others may think or how they choose to reference it, this majestic tree is not Peter Lik’s, nor is it mine, nor anyone else. The greatest value of this tree lies in the fact that it is there for everyone to see, to wonder, to experience and to share in a weird little city called Portland. For those who may have never been and would like to see the garden during the peak of fall color, the 3rd week in October is a pretty good bet for a time to choose to visit. Don’t hesitate, because this tree can change from green to orange to red and finally drop its leaves all in the course of a week. If you do visit, I hope you enjoy the tree and the rest of the garden as much as I have and will continue to, year after year.

If you are interested in purchasing pieces from my Limited Edition collection, including all of my captures of this tree including “Dragon’s Breath” (Sold Out), “Living Lightning” (Sold Out), “Static”, “SuperNova” and my newest addition “Heavens Gate”, please visit my online galleries or choose one of the collections below and thank you for your support of the Portland Japanese Garden.

Bright pointed leaves fall like a meteor shower over the gnarled branches of an old maple in a Japanese garden in Portland, Oregon...
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