Small wonder

“We [aren’t] trying to portray this as an Asian cultural display, but as a horticultural art,” explains Arthur Joura, the bonsai curator at the North Carolina Arboretum.

The facility boasts an extensive display of the ancient art – from the expected ficus pruned in the traditional Asian manner to trained bougainvillea and more radical creations of limber pine and bald cypress.

Joura first came to the arboretum a dozen years ago, about the same time the first bonsai tree was donated. Faced with deciding the future of bonsai within the arboretum’s nursery program, Joura made a bold move: He began applying techniques of what was once exclusively a Chinese art form to native plants.

“It came about organically,” he reveals. “Once we took the first donation, questions started popping up about why we were taking on this Asian thing. It couldn’t be just because it was neat.”

So the curator considered what about bonsai seemed most important, and why this living art form had lasted a millennia, branching out from China (where it’s known as penjing) to Japan, and now taking some root in the Western world as well.

“The Japanese veneer attracts people’s attention,” Joura opines, “but that’s not what [our program is] about. This is a cultural exchange.

“We’re adding our own touches.”

Joura is talking about the arboretum’s work with native plants — something the public will be able to appreciate when the facility opens its new bonsai garden in the spring.

Even Chinese-born bonsai master Qingquan “Brook” Zhao favors using indigenous flora.

“He wants to be as natural as possible [in his work],” maintains Zhao’s interpreter, Karin Albert.

Zhao, the author of Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment (Venus, 1997), is the guest artist at this year’s Carolina Bonsai Expo, taking place at the arboretum this weekend.

“He emits so much peace,” Albert reveals. “The quality of his work is meditative. He lets the spirit of his material guide him.”

Drawing much inspiration from this master artist, Joura began applying bonsai techniques to native plants. His work at the arboretum is now divided into three groups, or landscape plantings, which represent different facets of Western North Carolina.

“Mount Mitchell,” for instance, features a dead tree as its central element; “Graveyard Fields” includes miniature blueberry bushes; and the trees of “Rhone [Roan] Mountain” flower each year.

Such seasonal changes are part of what makes bonsai more than just simple sculpture practiced on plants. While oft-photographed specimens tend to be evergreens, thus never losing their foliage, many of Zhao’s penjing are trees that go bare with the winter, enacting the cycle of nature in miniature.

Joura’s own native plants act the same way. Leaves turn red and gold and then drop off in autumn. The local evergreens prefer full sun and the outdoor environment, while their Asian counterparts must remain in the controlled climate of the greenhouse.

But just as with Asian bonsai, Joura’s plants require painstaking care and training to achieve their delicately twining figures.

“The grower, like an artist, manipulates the medium,” Joura notes. Some of his bonsai are wrapped in wire at times, to allow branches to be shaped. One tree sports a swath of dead wood, which has been lovingly carved to add to the plant’s appeal.

“The challenge is, it’s always changing, because it’s always growing,” Joura continues. “The growth may interrupt [the artist’s] idea for the form.”

But bonsai offers substantial rewards even beyond the artistic and horticultural challenges it presents.

“You create the plant and it, in turn, has as effect on your psyche,” the curator muses. “The plants start to have an individual personality in your mind, and then your start to see all plants as individuals. It affects the way you think about nature.

“There’s a lot of depth [in bonsai] if a person cares to go that way.”

For those who want to delve deeper into the art form – and for those who are, simply, casual appreciators — the local arboretum’s soon-to-be-completed bonsai garden will offer a place to view, ponder and enjoy. The garden will also house a teaching facility where enthusiasts can get their hands dirty.

But there’s no need to wait for next spring to start digging bonsai. The arboretum’s ninth-annual Carolina Bonsai Expo this Saturday and Sunday will include the work of 12 bonsai clubs, as well as displays of ikebana flower arranging, free bonsai demonstrations and a plant marketplace.

“Bonsai is all over the country, but you have to go all the way to Washington, [D.C.], to see anything comparable,” Joura insists.

And when it comes to native-species bonsai — the Arboretum is the only place to find it.

The ninth-annual Carolina Bonsai Expo, featuring displays, a plant marketplace and a live auction, will be held Saturday, Oct. 9, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 10, from noon-4 p.m., at the North Carolina Arboretum (100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way). Admission is free. Bonsai master Qingquan Zhao will also offer three separate paid workshops: “Intermediate Bonsai” on Saturday, from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. ($130); “Advanced Bonsai” on Sunday, from 1-4 p.m. ($85); and “Connecting Cultures: Artist at Work” on Saturday, from 6:30-9:30 p.m. ($10/arboretum members, $14/general public). To register, or for more information, call 665-2492, or visit the arboretum Web site (

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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