In 1999, Larry Logue left Pittsburgh and moved to Macon with his wife, Cecelia, to take a position as a pharmacist at what was then the Medical Center of Central Georgia. Packed to make the move with them was one bonsai tree that was a gift from Cece, the name by which she is known to friends and family. According to Larry, he nurtured his bonsai for a long time before losing it; however, his new Macon neighbor was interested in the ancient Japanese art form and introduced him to resources that would serve him well in his new avocation as cultivator of bonsai trees.
There is data documenting the growth and development of bonsai in Japan for over a 1,000 years, after the practice started in China as penjing in the sixth century. Japanese scholars and the aristocratic class visited China frequently, always returning with Chinese goods, which included the little trees in trays or, as another translation reads, “little trees in pots.” There are traditions in other Asian countries that are similar to bonsai or penjing; however, the process by which bonsai are grown and coaxed to thrive in the small containers is specific to Japan.
Bonsai are grown only for the pleasure of the grower and of the art lover who appreciates the discipline and guidelines that govern how bonsai successfully flourish. They cannot be used as a source for food or for medicine – they are strictly for the appreciation of the process by which they are created.
SELECT HARDY PLANTS FOR LOCAL CLIMATE
After 18 years of working with bonsai, Logue advises the uninitiated to “select native plants which are not fastidious about the local climate.” Traditionally, bonsai are perennials which usually can survive outside in extreme temperatures. They are not taken inside during inclement weather because most interior environments are too warm and too dry, a deadly combination for the bonsai’s growth.
For the few days of frigid temperatures in Middle Georgia, the Logues have a small greenhouse on standby to protect fragile leaves. High temperatures combined with direct sunlight can be equally detrimental to bonsai, for the foliage will scorch and the root system can be compromised by the dryness.
The same evergreens a homeowner uses in the landscape can be rooted and grown as bonsai; the goal of the grower is to keep the same perspective and proportions in the miniature bonsai version as found in the standard size tree or shrubbery. The same conifers used for shade in one’s yard can be trained as bonsai. Logue has several species of pine and fir trees, pruned and propagated to replicate their roles as mature trees in a standard landscape plan.
Several pots contain climbing wisteria plants, which lend themselves well to being trained as bonsai. The same azaleas enjoyed in the yard around one’s house can be reduced in size to the small trays or containers with the same bloom proportion to size as the standard healthy azalea.
PLANT CARE AND CONTROL OF SIZE
Bonsai are not grown from seed, but from small plants or cuttings that are chosen for adaptation to the small containers. For instance, long needle conifers are not as appropriate as short needle specimens that, as adult plants, are proportionate to the containers. Additionally, leaves of adult plants are a consideration in deciding which plants would be pleasing as they mature. There are many azaleas which are excellent sources for bonsai and make a showy display of blooms in season.
Logue’s care of his collection of bonsai includes keeping the crown or top of the plants pruned, trimming the root system to control the size within the container and shaping the trees according to certain aesthetic standards relative to the cultivation of bonsai. “It is important for the plant’s root system to be confined by the container, almost root bound,” Logue said.
There are several methods of achieving the desired shape – pruning and a procedure called “shari,” the removal of a significant limb and treating it with a chemical to whiten the stem or trunk, adding a different, aged texture to the bark surface. Logue prefers trees with rough bark as opposed to smooth bark, one reason being the effect with the shari technique.
Wire can be used to direct the growth of limbs for a desired shape. However, Logue said he prefers to keep the use of wire to a minimum to prevent damage to the bark, even with the application of malleable copper wire. Controlling the sizes and shapes of his bonsai collection is a full-time endeavor, according to Logue, who displays the miniature trees under a canopy of shade trees in his back yard. They are the accessories to a seating arrangement and a focal point where a group is arranged on a low bench, its bleached finish a complement to the bonsai plants and their containers.
FROM SEEDLING TO ADULT BONSAI
Traditional landscaping or potted gardening is less complicated than growing bonsai, though seeing the bonsai mature from a cutting or seedling plant can be as rewarding as seeing a painting come to life on an easel. The Logues’ canopied seating area in the backyard, like an artist’s studio, is a display of art work – bonsai trees from tiny table top to healthy shrubbery size. Each one tells a story of its provenance, its conformation and its container – integral components of a successful bonsai creation.
Bonsai are not considered ready for pairing with the perfect tray or shallow pot until they start maturing. Only then can the grower know the required space for the root system; the design, under the guidance of the grower’s deft hands with the shears, also plays a part in the design of the container.
Pointing to a large bowl that is home to a healthy wisteria plant, Logue stated that the cost of the containers for bonsai trees is a serious investment in the symbiotic relationship between plant and pot or tray. The texture, shape and size of each container is specific to the plant which, with proper care, can live in that one spot for hundreds of years.
Surrounded by giant fig trees, gingkos and hardwoods, the Logue’s bonsai collection is flourishing in the company of a rare Wollemi pine, which is native to Australia and on an international list of endangered species. It is growing in a traditional pot and could grow, in its natural habitat, to an enormous height. So far, Logue has been unsuccessful in getting Wollemi cuttings to survive; if he does, the graceful ancient species, similar to the decorative Norfolk Island pine, will have a chance for survival in this part of the world, possibly as a bonsai tree.
Katherine Walden is a freelance writer and interior designer in Macon. Contact her at 478-742-2224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.