Photo courtesy of Randy Clark – These Japanese maples cycle through the same seasonal changes as their larger versions. They produce leaves that change color and drop off in autumn.
by Ellen Goff
They have a mystical quality that draws you in and fools your perceptions of height and scale, age and authenticity. These trees and shrubs are true to their leafy or coniferous species and cycle through the usual seasonal changes. The only difference is they're small. Really, really small.
Bonsai is the Japanese art of dwarfing trees or plants by growing them in shallow pots and training the trunk and branches into artful shapes. Though it originated in ancient China, modern bonsai is considered an art form that connects one's spirit to the natural world.
"I enjoy the creative process and never feel that my bonsai are truly finished," says Randy Clark, an internationally recognized bonsai artist and owner of The Bonsai Learning Center in Charlotte, N.C. "As living plants, they're growing, changing — there's always more to be done." A completed bonsai may be more art than science, yet its creation is definitely rooted in horticultural practices. The style desired depends on the plant you select. Upright styles require a species of tree with a strong trunk.
A fluid profile that appears windswept is appropriate for plants with sprawling habits. The species commonly used in bonsai are divided as either outdoor or indoor. Those in the outdoor group are trees and plants that require seasonal exposure to varying light and temperature.
Be advised that outdoor bonsai can't tolerate indoor conditions more than a few days. Indoor bonsai are becoming popular in part because fast growing tropicals such as ficus and schefflera adapt well to a sunny, climate-controlled environment.
The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens,
Delray Beach, Fla.,
North Carolina Arboretum,
Central Texas Bonsai Exhibit,
The Bonsai Learning Center,
Or, join a local club through
The American Bonsai Society.
The best way to learn about bonsai is to care for one that's already formed. A leading source for these plants is also the largest producer of bonsai in the country — Brussel's Bonsai Nursery in Olive Branch, Miss. During peak holidays, Brussel's ships 6,000 bonsai per day. Dana Quattlebaum is the manager of this dizzying production. "The public's interest in bonsai has taken off," Quattlebaum says. "Customers like the everlasting aspect of bonsai. Purchasing a piece of art that can last a few months or even years with a little care is very appealing."
Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She is passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.