Thursday, March 5, 2015

Creating and Caring for a Bonsai Plant

Azalea bonsai
Photo courtesy of Harold Johnson

By Kaitlin Henderson

Bonsai plants are known around the world -- many people have seen the tiny plants in shallow pots, though most of us know little about their origin or care. If you're curious to learn more about the history and traditions of bonsai, as well as how to grow one yourself, consider taking Duke Gardens' "Create Your Own Bonsai Plant" workshop on March 14 with Harold Johnson, of the Triangle Bonsai Society.

Johnson has been working with bonsai since he and his wife bought one at a market more than 20 years ago. Unfortunately, at that time he didn't know how to properly care for the plant, and it died. Soon after, he found a class on bonsai, and he has been hooked ever since.

Bonsai involves both artistic creation and horticultural practice, and Johnson says he enjoys both sides: "the opportunity to tell a story with the design of my bonsai" as well as "the science and art of keeping the tree alive and thriving." Plus, he says, the act of practicing bonsai is just as rewarding as the plants themselves: "Working with bonsai transports me to a quiet, peaceful place, a contrast with my usual go, go pace."

What exactly defines a bonsai is hard to put into words, Johnson says, but he has some clear ideas. Firstly, it's not simply creating miniature trees. Bonsai plants are designed to create a feeling within you when you look at them. What that feeling is depends on the artist's intentions. Johnson provides the contrasting examples of a tree that is "full, pleasant, no abrupt changes in outline and soothing as you contemplate it" with that one that has "extremes in shape, sparse foliage, sharp angles of the trunk and branches and leaves you with a desire to do something for the tree." Both can be bonsai.

Bonsai can tell stories, as well. Bonsai artists can "show surface roots to indicate age of the tree" or "have the apex of the tree as a sharp, dead, white point to have the viewer see a tree with damage from lightning or other forces of nature."

Bonsai is more than just artistry, though. It's an art form practiced through a living plant, so people working with bonsai need to have a firm grasp of horticulture. When creating a bonsai, you need to know how the plant will respond to pruning and what it needs to thrive. The environment of a shallow pot is much different from a landscape or even a typical container, and the needs of the plant are different as well. "A dead, artistically designed tree in a bonsai container is not a bonsai," Johnson points out, it's just a dead plant.

Junipers are the most common plant used for bonsai, but Johnson stressed that virtually any shrub or tree can become beautiful bonsai in the hands of a bonsai artist. These include pine, maple, elm, azalea, crab apple, holly and bald cypress, to name a few.

In Johnson's workshop, he'll share his knowledge of the history and traditions of bonsai and help participants develop their own artistic and horticultural techniques to create unique, personal bonsai. Those participating in the class will receive their own juniper tree and all the other materials needed to start a bonsai. Under Johnson's guidance, participants will begin transforming this plant into a bonsai by designing, pruning, wiring and planting it. Students will leave with the knowledge of how to continue their bonsai creations over the coming years.

BONSAI: Create your own bonsai plant will take place Saturday, March 14, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. For more information or to register, call 919-668-1707 or email

Kaitlin Henderson is a graduate student in Duke's Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.

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