Having gazed into the boughs of a towering forest and rested in the lap of a mature tree, I was unprepared for a recent magical moment with a bonsai. Never before had I stood beside such a small, living specimen and experienced that overwhelming sense of understanding and awe. I saw the tree’s entire form and outline — the curve of the trunk, the subtle twists of twigs and details of leaves. In a split second, I learned just how mysterious and intimate an encounter with a bonsai tree can be.
Many people have wondered how a bonsai collection came to find a home at The North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville. The term refers both to ornamental, dwarf trees and shrubs grown in shallow pots or trays and to the method of cultivation. But bonsai isn’t limited to its Asian origins and traditions. And if we choose to view it as pure horticultural art — a way to express a local culture, regional landscapes and nature’s influence on a plant’s composition and form — the possibilities are enormous. Looking at the dense shade of an American beech grove, lightning’s scar on a pine or the dead spruce on Mount Mitchell, we open ourselves to stories of every kind, and our spirits are more fully attuned to nature’s offerings.
A broad range of shrubs, trees and vines are suitable for bonsai. They can be evergreen or deciduous and tropical, temperate or hardy, as long as they can tolerate heavy pruning of both shoots and roots. Overwintering requirements should also be considered. Tropical plants need the shelter of a greenhouse or other heated, well-lighted space. Temperate plants need both exposure to the cold (to meet their dormancy requirements) and protection for their roots (like all containerized plants). Bonsai gardeners keep plants healthy but diminutive via small, shallow containers; regular pruning; controlling water; and maximum exposure to sunlight. Soil replacement and judicious fertilization also help maintain healthy growth, but with bonsai, the focus is on quality, not quantity of growth.
Watching bonsai curator Arthur Joura care for the arboretum’s collection, I’ve learned that a lot of the development of bonsai stems from a close relationship between person and plant. Whether Arthur starts with a seedling, a rooted cutting or a nursery cull, he can zero in on one small aspect or redeeming characteristic, such as the slightest curve in the trunk, and have a good idea of what the bonsai may look like in five to 15 years. Decisions such as which branch to retain or remove, or where and when to use wire to influence the structure, are of particular importance in shaping the tree’s total expression and enabling the grower’s creativity to come through. Visionary grower/designers also choose whether to use a single tree or create a whole miniature landscape including all the layers of the forest — canopy trees, understory shrubs and perennial components.
But the bond between bonsai and grower often yields as many stories as specimens. Listen in on conversations between growers and you’ll hear how a plant found in someone’s woods 25 years ago was trained and nurtured by a family member who’s since died, and how their spouse or friend is carrying on its care. You’ll hear how a particular landscape planting was created in a class given by a visiting bonsai master from another country, using native plants grown from seed in someone’s nursery. There may also be a tale behind the rock, slab or pot if it was found, handcrafted or bought for that purpose. We often think of plants in our landscape as close friends with stories that we hold in our hearts. Typically, however (unless they’re dug up and passed on), the plants stay in the ground and the stories tend to end. But with bonsai, the history lives on. These enchanting trees are given names, bequeathed in wills and eventually placed in the safekeeping of others.
The best way to understand is simply to stand before a bonsai and experience its beauty and grace. Many books, clubs and other resources can show you the particulars of growing bonsai. But there’s nothing like a direct person-to-plant encounter, and I encourage you to visit The North Carolina Arboretum and experience the new bonsai exhibition garden. Seeing plants in their entirety helps you grasp the complexity of this subtle art. On return visits, you may look forward to catching up with certain plants and seeing how they’ve changed since you last looked in. And before long, you may find you have stories of your own to share.
To learn more about the arboretum’s bonsai collection and exhibition garden, visit www.ncarboretum.org, or call 665-2492.
[Alison Arnold is horticulture director at The North Carolina Arboretum. She can be reached at 665-2492.]