Bonsai is part art, part structure and part gardening. To many, it's silent poetry

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2003

EDITOR'S NOTE Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)

NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) It's been said that mastering the ancient art of bonsai requires the eye of a painter, the technical skills of a horticulturist and the hands of a craftsman. Not to mention the patience and enlightenment of Buddha.

Bonsai (bone-SI') is the technique of training trees to miniaturize and mimic nature. The carefully tended plants are considered ''living sculpture,'' ''harmonious display'' or ''silent poetry.''

To the casual observer, bonsai calls to mind small, gnarled trees bowing gracefully from shallow trays. Perhaps they have some moss or gravel spread naturally around their sturdy trunks, which have been groomed to look wind-worn and ancient.

Bonsai is all that and a great deal more. It's proportion and balance sensing where to place each branch, particularly the primary branch, and ''suggesting'' what direction each should take. It's thickening the trunk, and aging the surface roots.

It also is sizing, soil mixing, repotting, nipping buds, root thinning, watering, wiring, pruning and anchoring.

Above all, it's long-term devotion many years of cooperation and compromise between plant and planter.

''Bonsai trees are a lot like pets,'' says Elizabeth Stump, newsletter editor for the Yamato Bonsai Club at Castro Valley, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay Area. ''They need a great deal of care and feeding.''

Bonsai gardening got its start in China a couple of millennia ago. It began there as an indoor activity. The Japanese carried their trees outdoors when they adopted and adapted the art form several hundreds of years later. Americans generally chose the Japanese style of doing bonsai when exposed to it after World War II.

''Bonsai are outdoor plants,'' Stump says. ''They're trees. The only bonsai plants that should be kept inside are the tropicals (like bougainvillea or ficus). Generally, you can plan on bringing your bonsai in for a day or two to show them off for company, but they need to be outdoors.''

Bonsai trees, like their full-size counterparts, glory in the seasons. They go dormant in winter, leaf out in spring, bloom in summer and produce colorful foliage in autumn.

''Some trees flower. Some bear fruit. Each region and each tree is different,'' Stump says. ''You have to go with your climate.''

Bonsai can be shaped from seeds or saplings sold at garden centers, specialty shops or via the Internet. Wild trees with promising personalities can be found growing in nearby woods.

Prices vary from the free transplants to tens of thousands of dollars.

''There's a wide variety of bonsai out there,'' Stump says. ''Everything from conifers to deciduous trees to tropical plants. The black pine is considered the king. The maple is the queen.''

Choose what suits you, tree or shrub, sized from just a few inches to four feet tall. But choose long-lived native plants cultivars that grow at least 50 years. And choose plants with naturally small leaves. In bonsai, scale is everything.

You generally work with what each plant gives you. That could be a tree with a natural bend (called an ''informal upright''), a seedling with a definite lean (''windswept'') or a plant with its trunk growing downward (''cascade'').

That isn't to say you can't make a tree fit your own vision of reality, which usually means doing some wiring.

Most recommend waiting until the plant goes dormant before twisting a soft wire around the selected branches, anchoring them to the pot. You can leave wire attached anywhere from three to six months, but continue checking to ensure it doesn't scar the developing tree.

Properly done, wiring forces branches to bend lower. That creates an older look for what in reality may be a young tree.

Most people get started in bonsai by reading books. Then they join clubs, attend garden shows or take a class. How-to information also is available on the Web. The really serious hobbyist might travel to Japan to study under a sensei, or master.

''Everyone has a different reason for being involved in bonsai,'' Stump says. ''For some, it's plant aesthetics. Others may be fascinated by Oriental art. For me, it's dealing with the science of nature in miniature.''

It isn't uncommon for bonsai trees to be hundreds of years old and be passed along from generation to generation.

''It's an art form for the ages. Some (trees) have been chronicled in scrolls,'' Stump says. ''Articles describe how they set about retraining their trees. They took something in already good condition and worked to make it better.''

Probably the best way to learn is simply by doing. ''If you're a novice, you usually end up killing a few (trees),'' Stump says.

But even a bonsai master never stops learning.

''I compare it to the way the French approach cooking,'' Stump says. ''The first year, they learn how to do the dishes. Many Japanese the first year simply learn how to water their trees properly.

''Bonsai training is addictive.''

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