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Transforming Trees: Breathtaking Bonsai Well Within Reach of Beginners

Dec 07, 2012 07:16PM ● By Cate Reynolds

By Kevin J. Kohler

Forty years ago, most of the public had never heard of bonsai, though for green thumbs in our region that time period certainly may be considered its genesis.

Today, bonsai are well engrained in American popular culture through movies, TV shows, and prescription drug commercials. For better or worse, plants marketed as bonsai are available at grocery stores and big box centers. Books of “Forever” stamps depicting five species and styles (shapes) have been “extremely popular” according to a USPS spokesperson, with two printings of 400 million each. But more importantly, classes, clubs, and demonstrations abound for the uninitiated.

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Bonsai enthusiasts see the trees as more than nature and beauty combined; they see them as a way of connecting to the past, looking to the future, and being peaceful in the present.

“My earliest memories of visiting my grandparents include seeing bonsai,” says Brookside Bonsai Society (BBS) member Daphne Fuentevilla. Ten years ago, the two took a course with American master Chase Rosade. “Now we repot our trees together, and while we work our conversation meanders to family history.”

Brian Santos, an Air Force RN currently abroad, keeps a collection and attends club meetings when he can. “It is my personal expression of nature…but more importantly, it gives me an opportunity to live in the moment, which is very hard to do in this fast-paced world,” he says.

December may seem like a strange time to contemplate bonsai, but it’s far from it. Besides avoiding the dog days of summer, “winter is best, as it allows you to see structure, and ramification if the artist has done his/her job right,” explains National Bonsai & Penjing Museum curator Jack Sustic.

Deep Roots, Strong Tradition

Plants in containers have a long history, including evidence from ancient Egypt and India. However, most cite the Chinese’s penjing made for emperors’ gardens as the beginning. The Japanese refi ned the art, applying Zen rules to its practice and creating numerous styles based on nature: formal/informal uprights, depending on the trunks; slanting; cascades, as if growing from a cliff; windswept; root-over-rock; and multiple trunk or group plantings, among others. Unglazed brown pots frame bonsai, whereas penjing often have ornate glazed pots and may be landscape-oriented.

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Bonsai is two Japanese words: bon meaning pot and sai meaning tree. It’s pronounced “bone-sigh,” whereas “banzai” means 10,000 years and recalls WWII cries. Note it does not mean “little tree.” Bonsai sizes can range from fingertip (shito) to palm or handheld (mame or shohin) to forklift required!

Our region has been especially blessed: 110 years ago, the beloved cherry blossoms came. Forty years ago, China gave President Nixon several penjing, and then Japan presented the U.S. National Arboretum with 73 bonsai to honor America’s bicentennial. Three years later, Arboretum volunteer Janet Lanman, a founding member of the Potomac Bonsai Association (PBA), spoke to Dr. John Creech, Director of the Arboretum, about obtaining American trees to go with the others. The rest, as the say, is history.

“Maybe the timing was right, but I just thought bonsai was so wonderful, more people should enjoy it,” says Lanman, now in her late eighties and still an active member of BBS. “I can’t say it has necessarily kept me young, but it has given me a lifetime of joy, creating beauty.”

The National Bonsai Foundation (NBF) was then created to support the arboretum’s museum, which now displays about 150 trees in four pavilions—Chinese, Japanese, North American, and Tropicals—while stunning half a million visitors each year. Sustic reports more penjing will be added to the Chinese pavilion and the Japanese pavilion will be renovated, complete with “granite pedestals, more sinuous lines, improved landscaping, and irrigation for non-bonsai.”

And just last June, a special “How Do They Do That” exhibit was installed at the museum. With the support of the museum, NBF, and PBA, which has nine regional bonsai clubs and one suseiki (viewing stone) club, beginning bonsai doesn’t get much easier.

Pursuing Perfection in a Pot

Unfortunately, when a tree dies, beginners presume bonsai is beyond their reach and give up. Many times, however, the problem is remarkably simple: choosing the right tree(s) for your needs.

While popular culture shows bonsai indoors, most bonsai must be outside all year long, just like their natural counterparts. Deciduous and evergreen trees require the cold for dormancy, but must be protected from the wind, which can dry them out and kill them. Tropicals such as ficus, scheflerra, and many flowering species benefit from summer sun. Buddhist Pine (podocarpus macrophyllus) allows for a rugged evergreen appearance indoors, but also shouldn’t experience temperatures below 50°F.

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Particularly in hot months, bonsai need daily watering (or more) as well as periodic fertilizing to grow. Devoid of nutrients, bonsai soil is designed for superior drainage, which helps reduce the chance of overwatering and root rot. Beginners find half strength 20-20-20 works well with many trees. “I get questions about watering the most,” says Sustic.

In the 15 years since Rosade, who’s been teaching nearly 50 years altogether, offered free workshops at Salisbury State University, “I’ve lost many trees. But I know everyone has at one time or another.” Local Certified Professional Horticulturalist Gene Sumi says, “It’s marketed as something for everyone. It’s not.”

Rosade agrees. “It does take a little bit of time. A little bit of effort. And as westerners we can be gun-shy of dedicating ourselves to something.” Still, he gives trees and scissors to his grandkids. “I don’t really care how they cut it.” After “life getting in the way,” he sees students return 15–35 years later. Inspired by nature, bonsai artists use special tools to create the illusion of age and tell a tree’s story, which may be harsh. Deadwood branches (jin) or portions of a trunk (shari) can be created with pliers and carving tools to simulate lightening or severe winds. Concave cutters help heal complete branch removal.

Pruning 1/3 to 1/2 the root mass of nursery and collected trees is common, and some should be done with spring repotting every two to five years, depending on tree species and age, to maintain trees as bonsai. This encourages root dividing, which is healthy. Foliage pruning shapes bonsai but also stimulates and directs growth, lessens transplant shock, and reduces leaf/ needle size.

Wiring the trunk and branches governs the shape of the tree, filling in areas that aesthetically need it while “leaving room for the birds to fly through”, as legendary master John Naka said. Certain rules of thumb, such as the first branch should be 1/3 the way up the tree, help the novice. Wires are also used to secure the tree into the pot (especially for transport) and encourage optimum health. “Every student, every tree” says Rosade of this practice.

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Some of the methods employed by bonsai enthusiasts might strike others as cruel: heavy root and foliage pruning, confining into a pot, and wiring branches and roots. However, bonsai is actually the epitome of horticultural practice; properly maintained bonsai may live hundreds of years.

The Giving Trees

Bonsai and pre-bonsai can be found in the area with a little looking. One major local nursery sells bonsai and pre-bonsai, particularly tropicals, and tools from a central Maryland vendor well known to PBA. As of January, another nursery, the site for annual PBA auctions, has Korean master Ducky Hong selling trees and teaching classes.

Since Jim Hughes, the previous museum curator, retired, he has given many Saturdays to new BBS members at his University Park home. Big on outreach, Baltimore Bonsai Club has also visited local nurseries to display their trees and answer questions. Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bonsai Club (CBC) once had more than 100 members, but lost its leader and location and is now down to a handful of members. Bowie Bonsai Club disbanded for location reasons as well. However, CBC President Sharon Katz and others in the area hope to rebuild it, as interest in bonsai appears to be rising, with people looking to bring nature’s wild beauty into a world of concrete jungles.

“When people come here, they get a little intimidated—but they shouldn’t,” says Sustic. “Bonsai isn’t just a noun; it’s a verb. I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from the [more modest] ones in my backyard.” To put it another way, “Bonsai is not the result: that comes after. Your enjoyment is what is important,” as Naka said.

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BBS member Dave Lord always had a green thumb, but though he killed it by bringing it inside, “the fi re was lit” when his wife bought him a tree from the mall. As he points out, the trees transform you as much as you them:

• learning patience
• decreasing stress
• increasing knowledge of horticulture and appreciation for nature
• enjoying camaraderie with new friends that share the same passion
• creating living art and caring for trees once owned by departed masters

In the film The Last Samurai, Lord Katsumoto (Ken Wantabe) examines flowering cherry trees and tells Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), “The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.” Always changing, evolving, and never “finished,” the same can easily be said of bonsai, whether you create, maintain, or simply admire them.

Contributing writer Kevin Kohler’s greatest passions are bonsai, writing/editing, and Sting. He welcomes comments and questions:

Websites: As the article stresses, “but a joined a club” would probably be the best way to properly finish the all-too-common sentiment, “I had a bonsai once”. Site recently overhauled to included meeting and event calendars for the entire MD-VA region. If you enjoy blogs and bonsai, you’ll want to follow this from USNA Bonsai & Penjing Museum Assistant Curator Aarin Packard. Plenty of everything: gallery, history, maintenance, styles, techniques, and more. You’d be shocked by how big the bonsai community is on Facebook, and you’ll be amazed by how much you can learn from this FB page that has short, well-focused instruction on bonsai creation techniques and species-specific care tips. The author’s page. Promotes his business, which utilizes bonsai principles to transform landscape trees, and bonsai culture in general. He encourages questions, comments, sick tree, pictures, etc. via it and


RD Home Handbooks Bonsai—Reader’s Digest publishes a popular guide to bonsai creation and maintenance, species care, and appropriate pot selection.

The Art of Indoor Bonsai by John Ainsworth—Everybody wants to have bonsai in their homes, but that’s a big no-no, except for the tropical, sub-tropical, and tender species profiles (origins, training, and care including pests) with full page color photographs of each. Some may want to start their practice here.

Step-by-Step Create Your Own Bonsai: 50 Step-By-Step Projects by Ken Norman—If you don’t have a club near you, this would be of great help.