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August 08, 2022

Bonsai!

By Alexandra Queen

You've seen them before - miniature trees in tiny planters, grown to look so real that all they lack is a person in a rubber monster suit to be the stars of the set in a homegrown Godzilla movie. They are bonsai, and their world is one of art and drama.

It was at the fifteenth annual Cherry Blossom Festival at Lodi's Micke Grove Park that I met my first contact in the world of bonsai, a woman known to me only as "Pam". Pam Less is More bonsaiwas there that day representing the Big Valley Bonsai Club, and though she was more than willing to talk, it would have to be on her terms. The world of bonsai has its shadier side, it seemed, and she'd seen people burned before. "Some of the trees in some shows are worth five or ten thousand dollars," she told me. "It's just not safe to give your first and last name anymore. People will use it to look up where you live and then come steal your trees."

As Pam showed me around the exhibit, I came to a better understanding of the value of some of the specimens. None of the plants on display at the Cherry Blossom Festival were in the same league as the five or ten thousand dollar trees, she said, but even so, many of the plants had decades of training put into them. Two of the oldest specimens on display were forty and fifty years old. Pam said that the bigger shows sometimes have trees that are a hundred years old. Those are the little legacies of time and discipline that start to accrue the big price tags.

More lush bonsai

Age isn't the only thing that makes a bonsai tree valuable, however. As an art form, there are a number of rules a proper bonsai tree should adhere to. For starters, there are traditional forms that the miniature trees should take - the formal upright, the grove, and the cascade, which evokes images of a windswept seaside vista, are just a few. In addition to pruning the little trees into these forms, care should also be taken to block out the spacing they occupy visually. "Everything is supposed to be a triangle," says Pam. The triangle can vary in position and shape, but should always be discernable. Another aspect of the art form is a guideline best summed up as, "less is more". She showed several strictly pruned samples, whose austere lines certainly demonstrated minimalism and restraint, then confessed that she personally preferred a slightly less formal, lusher growth. Indeed, looking at the displays spread across the tables was like going from high up along the tree line, where a few rugged trees persevere against the elements, to descending into a forest in spring. Not so correct, according to Pam, but very pleasant.

Cascading Bonsai

How hard is it to make your own miniature forest? "They don't require too much maintenance," says Pam. Keeping the tree so small is done by limiting the roots. Since the roots are how the plant takes in food and water, and you are essentially tying the tree's mouth shut, you do have to help out a little more. "Bonsai are outdoor plants," stresses Pam. Though this means some varieties are naturally resistant to the elements, the limited roots and soil cause them to dry out quickly. For a serious hobbyist like Pam, sometimes this means coming home at lunch to water the plants a second time in summer heat waves.

Grove bonsai

So the romance of an ancient art form and the thrill of secrecy have called to you and you've decided you want to try a bonsai or two of your own - what advice does Pam have for the beginner who wants some instant gratification? Maples and elms are good varieties for starting out with. A handy trick - no need to start out with a seedling; instead just go to a nursery and find a young gallon sized tree to prune to shape. Some nurseries even have older trees and "sports" - young offshoots from the more mature roots of a parent plant - available in small pots just for bonsai enthusiasts. Also, get your plants from an actual grower. "Don't buy your bonsai plants from retailers or those kiosks," Pam suggests, "they let them dry out." And although the root damage caused by going too long without water is hard on any plant, with the specially limited roots of a bonsai, it's almost a guarantee for death. If you find yourself unable to resist one of those mass marketed cuties anyway, at least remove that hard, cemented coating covering the soil. And finally, remember - as the years pass and your bonsai matures, you may want to think up a secret identity, because there's a lot of adventure in the little world of bonsai.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-04-22
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