The Growing Fascination With Bonsai

A bonsai tree being "trained" by American-born bonsai master Chase Rosade.
In Japan it's bonsai. In China, it's penjing. And here in the United States, there's a growing fascination with these small wonders of nature crafted by man. Here's Rita Braver:

In the midst of our noisy, jet-propelled, constantly-connected universe, you might want to consider . . . bonsai!

"It just draws you in," said Felix Laughlin.

"It's trees, yes, but the beauty of it is art," said a man at an arboretum.

"They're important to me," said Janet Landman. "I care, I care."

Bonsai is a Japanese term that literally means "a plant in a shallow pot." But, that's just for starters:

"Bonsai is an artistic representation of nature in miniature," said Jack Sustic. "Movement, flow, color . . . all of these elements and more help make up a bonsai."

Sustic is the curator of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington. It was started in 1976, with a gift from the Japanese people.

In its collection, a 200-year-old red pine - The Emperor of Japan donated it; and a Japanese white pine that has been cultivated (or "in training," as bonsai insiders call it) for almost 400 years!

The trees are constantly watered, pruned, and even wired into position . . . a process that requires infinite patience.

"They're not special trees - Bonsai really is the technique applied to these trees," said Sustic. "You can use most any plant that has a woody trunk for a bonsai."

Historians believe that bonsai developed as a popular art in Japan as far back as 700 years ago. But there's evidence that it all began in China some 1,500 years earlier!

The more elaborate Chinese syle is called "penjing."

Sustic showed Braver an entirely landscaped scene: "You have the men in their boats, the mountains, the white marble slab represents water."

"And they introduce these little tiny characters," said Braver.

"In bonsai that wouldn't be the case. In bonsai it would just be the tree."

"They wouldn't like to see little figurines!" she laughed.

It's the simpler Japanese style that's become popular in the U.S., introduced to many Americans by Pat Morita's character in the 1984 film "The Karate Kid."

But the man known as the father of American bonsai was the late John Naka, one of a small group of Japanese Americans who practiced bonsai in pre-World War II California.

"John was really the first person in that group to say that anybody could do bonsai," said Sustic. "In fact he's quoted as saying, 'There are no borders in bonsai.' So he started teaching everyone. And of course World War II had an influence also."

Sustic said GIs exposed to bonsai in Japan sparked an interest in the States when they returned home.

Sustic said a miniature forest of juniper trees "trained" by John Naka is the most famous bonsai in the world.

"There's 11 trees in this forest, and he had 11 grandchildren when he created this," Sustic said. "Anybody in the whole world that does bonsai, you could show them a picture of this tree, and they would know it."

Another Naka tree is now being rescued by an American-born bonsai master, Chase Rosade.

"It was very distressed, extremely distressed, and so it's taken me about five years to get it back into good health," he said.

Roseade spent years studying in Japan. He now nurtures around a thousand bonsai at his New Hope, Pa., farm.

"The artistic end is to be able to take that tree, to work with it, to have it structured the way you want it," he said.

A great bonsai, Rosade said, is like a great painting, capable of transporting you into an imaginary world.

"You want to be able to sit underneath this tree, you may want to contemplate the universe in sitting underneath this tree," he said.

Unlike a painting, however, a bonsai is never finished . . . constantly pruned, wired, repotted and enhanced . . . which appeals to students who study with Rosade.

"As you keep pruning them over the years," said Sharee Solow, "they sort of go from party dresses to evening gowns!"

There's no official count, but experts say thousands of Americans are now bonkers about bonsai, even people who never thought they'd get hooked.

Felix Laughlin calls is "an addiction."

Thirty-five years ago, Laughlin was a tax lawyer whose wife insisted he needed a hobby . . .

"She said, 'You're working seven days a week, night and day, you need something else in your life.'" Laughlin said. "Now she's regretted this ever since, because she's become a bonsai widow!"

Laughlin is now the president of the National Bonsai Foundation, and has a whole Virginia farm to hold his collection of 200 trees.

"These guys right here, I put these together maybe 20 years ago, and then these are cuttings from these trees," he explained. "So these are the parents, and these are the children."

And take it from a former workaholic lawyer: Transforming a small tree can transform your life.

"And it always gets better," he said. "It's one of those things that if you do it right, it will always be better the next year, you know? It'll just look more beautiful."

Transforming a small tree can transform your life.

For more info:
National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum
National Bonsai Foundation