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Bonsai
This bonsai belongs to the collection at Longwood Gardens. Bonsai are traditionally displayed against a plain backdrop to set off the artistic design of the tree.

My daughter took a bonsai class in Washington, D.C., last weekend and came home with her own little bonsai creation.

She is not sure what kind of plant it is, but I think it might be a myrtle, which has small oval-shaped evergreen leaves and eventually, if it survives, white flowers.

I have long been fascinated by miniature plants - mosses, clubmosses, tiny ferns, conifer seedlings, woodland groundcovers, such as partridgeberry - that form mini-landscapes in the woods, and by man's re-creation of those tiny scenes through melding art and horticulture such as terrariums and bonsai.

I am a complete novice at bonsai and have often thought it would be a good hobby for retirement, but now that we have a bonsai of our own to care for, I did a little research to find out more.

Bonsai (pronounced "bon-sigh" or "bone-sigh") is the creation, through artistic design and horticultural techniques, of small trees that resemble mature, full-sized trees. The term comes from the Japanese words bon, meaning "a tray or basin," and sai, meaning "to plant or a planting."

It can refer to either the art as it is practiced or the specimen that is created. Bonsai has been a tradition in Japan for more than a thousand years, and descends from the even more ancient Chinese tradition of penjing.

The plants chosen for bonsai are not genetically dwarfed hybrids. They are regular trees that are cultivated to maintain a small, artistic shape using methods such as pruning of trunk, branches, and roots; potting; wiring; and leaf pruning; along with regular watering and fertilizing to maintain a healthy plant.

Most bonsai range from 6 to 36 inches in height, but some are even smaller or larger. A bonsai that is properly maintained can live hundreds of years, longer than its full-size counterpart would survive in nature; one of the National Treasures of Japan, in Tokyo's Imperial Palace, is a bonsai tree that is more than 500 years old.

Almost any perennial woody stemmed tree or shrub can be used to create bonsai, as long as it is amenable to the pruning and shallow pot restrictions, but often those that work best have small leaves or needles that fit the compact visual scale of the design.

Traditional choices are evergreens, such as pine, larch, juniper and cedar; cotoneaster; azalea; holly; and deciduous trees such as maple, beech, elm, zelkova, crabapple and flowering cherry. These are all temperate species which must be kept outdoors over winter, except for short periods of indoor display.

There are some warm climate species, such as Ficus, myrtle, and pomegranate, which also work well for bonsai and will survive indoors during winter.

I noticed that the tree my daughter brought home was not centered in the pot. This asymmetry is deliberate for two reasons.

First, asymmetry is considered essential to creating the artistic effect. Second, the center point is considered the meeting point of heaven and earth, and nothing should occupy that space.

Another important principle of bonsai is that the hand of the artist must never be visible to the viewer - it must reflect nature in miniature. There are many different styles - formal upright, informal upright, cascade, slant or forest, to name a few - which the grower can follow to create an artistic specimen.

But the natural form and characteristics of the plant selected should also guide the grower's creativity.

We were instructed to water our bonsai by completely submerging the shallow pot in water until bubbles stopped rising, and then letting it drain, which we did, and to do this every few days.

One of the critical components of bonsai is the soil mix, which must be loose and fast-draining so that the roots don't rot. A layer of tiny stones covers the soil in the pot.

Every bonsai has a definite "front" side which is displayed to the viewer, and the pot is carefully chosen to complement the tree while on display. At other times, when not on display, the tree may be kept in a larger growing or training box to allow more root growth.

The National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., maintains a collection known as the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, and Longwood Gardens also has a small collection.

In our area, Nature's Way Nursery & Bonsai Studio, just off Linglestown Road in Harrisburg, offers bonsai nursery stock, supplies and many classes for beginners to experts. The Susquehanna Bonsai Club is a chapter of the American Bonsai Society and can be contacted through Nature's Way Nursery.

Bonsai requires much time and patience to achieve good results, so I am not sure my usual houseplant approach of benign neglect bodes well for the survival of our little bonsai. Time will tell, but I am excited about my first attempt at bonsai.


Annette MaCoy is the consumer horticulture extension educator and master gardener coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. If you have garden questions, contact Annette at 240-6500 or by e-mail at ahm11@psu.edu.

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