Bonsai! Appalachian style

The Appalachian-inspired expression of bonsai at The NC Arboretum has attracted national attention. Bonsai curator Arthur Joura has guided the development of the Arboretum’s collection since its inception and created its related program, and on May 14, he’ll offer a visual presentation — “Defining Southern Appalachian Bonsai.” Featuring images of bonsai from the Arboretum’s collection, Joura will explain exactly what is intended by the Southern Appalachian bonsai concept. Then, in a live demonstration, he will create a new tray landscape planting that evokes the feeling of an Appalachian forest.

The program runs from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and will help attendees achieve a better appreciation of one of the Arboretum’s signature features. The cost is $11 for member and $15 for nonmembers. For more information, call 665-2492.

Joura has also submitted the following article as an aid to understanding bonsai:

Bonsai – Getting Beyond What You Think You Know

It is a curiosity that so many people have some idea of what bonsai is, yet the idea they have is usually badly incomplete or completely incorrect. Let us here avoid starting out with a list of all the things bonsai is not, and instead provide a direct description of what it is: Bonsai is the practice of cultivating ordinary plants, out of the ground, in a way that causes them to miniaturize and allows the grower to shape them to a desired form. Well, that is a sound, practical description, but it omits some important information. Here is another take on it: At its best, bonsai is living art, using containerized plants as a medium to express in miniature an experience of nature. The first definition focuses on the horticultural mechanics, while the second speaks to the aesthetic motivation. Both aspects are integral to good bonsai.

From a horticultural perspective, bonsai can be thought of as a highly developed form of container gardening. Bonsai are always grown in containers or on slabs. Plants grown in the landscape, however they may be pruned, cannot be correctly labeled as bonsai. The standard techniques used to create and maintain bonsai are firmly grounded in sound horticultural practice, although admittedly these practices are sometimes applied in an intensive manner. Pruning, for instance, is a common horticultural activity that is absolutely essential in bonsai. The amount of pruning to which a typical bonsai is consistently subjected far exceeds the amount that even a heavily pruned landscape plant would likely encounter. But it is still simply pruning, and the invigorating, regenerative result of its being done correctly is fundamentally the same whether the subject is a rose bush in a garden or a maple in a bonsai pot.

Pruning of the roots is a logical extension of the practice of pruning plant parts that are above the soil line. It works the same way. When a woody plant is grown in a field nursery and then dug up, balled and burlapped, its roots have been pruned by the digging. In bonsai, annual or semi-annual root pruning allows the plant to continually grow within the confines of a container. It is the same horticultural principle – roots can be cut without harming the plant – applied for a different purpose. The same can be said for virtually all of the various growing techniques used to produce bonsai. Bonsai is without question a manipulative practice, but, in essence, so are all forms of horticulture. Does it hurt plants when they are treated this way? If this question is asked about bonsai, it must logically be asked as well of such activities as mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges.

Artistic Design
Art is the other great integral component of bonsai. Here again, we find that principles applied in bonsai are largely the same as those readily accepted in any other form of art. In terms of visual design, someone shaping a plant to become a bonsai will find the same questions of compositional balance, harmony, contrast and tension that are confronted by a draftsperson, painter, sculptor or photographer. One great difference, however, is the medium used by the bonsai artist is alive. The plant is a living, growing, changing entity, and as such it adds a completely different dimension to the concept of artistic design – the work can never be considered “finished”. A bonsai is not finished until it is dead, or, in some cases, released from bonsai culture, planted in the ground and allowed to grow on, as it will.

Also within the parameters of art is the ability of bonsai to function as a vehicle of personal, creative expression. From the earliest stages of our development up to the present day, humans have been inspired by nature and have attempted to relay some essence of that experience through the act of artistic creation. The same impulse that compels some people to write a poem about the wind, or choreograph a dance to celebrate a river’s journey, or compose music that captures the exhilaration of springtime in the mountains, will sometimes find voice in the creation of a bonsai. A touch of the sublime exists in the idea that a bonsai artist expresses the wonder of nature through the medium of a living, growing piece of nature itself.

The Rest Of The Story
There is so much more to bonsai than this. For example, there is the whole subject of miniaturization, which relates to both the mechanical and artistic elements, and is itself a fascinating part of bonsai’s appeal. And that appeal is no transitory phenomenon. Historical evidence tells us that bonsai has existed in one form or another for more than a thousand years. Bonsai has traveled around the world, too, from its origins in Asia to its present day practice on every continent, in a multitude of countries. Bonsai is dynamic; ideas about bonsai have evolved over time, in both horticultural and aesthetic respects. Right now, there is considerable interest being generated at The North Carolina Arboretum, in Asheville, where bonsai for the very first time is taking on a decidedly Southern Appalachian accent. The fact that bonsai experts regard the Arboretum’s collection as one of the finest in the country, makes the homegrown, regional interpretation all the more significant.

For those of you who already knew all this, apologies must be made for the presumptuous title given to this article. If, however, at least some of this information is new, and especially if it is of interest to you, welcome to the world of bonsai. It’s bigger than you can imagine.

By Arthur Joura, Bonsai Curator at the NC Arboretum

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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