The Art of Bonsai: Little Big Trees Marry Science and Aesthetics

By Toto, Christian | The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview

The Art of Bonsai: Little Big Trees Marry Science and Aesthetics


Toto, Christian, The World and I


Christian Toto is a staff writer for The Washington Times.

Bruce Lee movies inspired Terrance Adkins to take up the martial arts in the early 1970s. The iconic films also persuaded Adkins to consider Asian culture in general, and bonsai trees in particular. Adkins, 52, quickly discovered what others have known for centuries: Delicate but beautiful bonsai trees are worth all the hard work and dedication they demand.

Bonsai, which means "potted tree" in Japanese, is the ancient art of growing miniature trees. The creations date back to about 200 A.D. in China, but the practice later spread to Japan.

They can be as diminutive as 2 inches tall or grow up to 3 feet, depending on the size of the shallow pot used and how vigorously its growth is stunted by the gardener. The trees' limbs are pruned periodically during their growing seasons to help limit their size, while the pot's restrictive dimensions keep the roots thin and short.

The branches can be trimmed to form a variety of shapes, or they can be wrapped in aluminum or copper wire to help create specific looks.

The illusion of an enormous tree reduced to the size of a common houseplant proves irresistible to many.

For Adkins, the trees set up around his Washington, D.C., home can be humbling. "I think it's a creator syndrome. You're controlling another life form. You structure it. ... They die so easily and need so much care," says Adkins, who won best of show for his bonsai work in a Chicago competition two years ago.

His home features Japanese maples, white pines, black pines, and azaleas, all transformed by the bonsai art form.

"People think they can keep them indoors year-round. I don't bring them in for any more than three or four days at a time," he says.

Jim Hughes, assistant curator of the National Arboretum's National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, suggests that beginners try Chinese elms, junipers, or trident maples for their first bonsai experience. These trees are a bit more forgiving should mistakes in watering or other treatments be made.

Some bonsai trees require daily watering and plenty of sunshine. The soil bonsai trees sit in is hardly the same the average rose calls its home. The bonsai soil is made up of a mixture of elements that drain quickly, such as crushed granite.

Hughes, who says the World Bonsai Federation is slated to meet in the nation's capital next spring, explains that bonsai trees are meant to be seen from a specific direction, much as a painting needs to be viewed from a certain perspective. "Bonsai have fronts, backs, and sides when they're designed," he says. "It's a three-dimensional art form. It looks like a living sculpture."

Silver Spring, Maryland, resident Ross Campbell, a member of the Washington Bonsai Club, caught the bonsai bug 15 years ago while browsing at Eastern Market. "I'm intrigued by the idea of the illusion of them--make something relatively small and young look old and big," he says. …

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