All About Time: The Art of Bonsai

On the Vineyard, a club of dedicated horticulturists practices the ancient and meticulous skill of growing trees in miniature.

When I first became aware of bonsai – the miniaturized trees and shrubs of Japan – I found them almost artificial in their stylized perfection. As a gardener used to the ebullient, often hard-to-control growth of perennials, shrubs, and trees, I found it difficult to believe these small replicas were living plants. But after seeing a beautiful old tree in the living room of a friend, I realized how much it contributed to the serenity of the room. Last spring I visited the collection at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain and found myself drawn to these precious reductions of nature. Cared for fastidiously, they seem to understand their value and accept the need for their own patient endurance. The larger specimens appear most noble, imbued with strength and courage.

Martha’s Vineyard has its own Bonsai Club, started in 2000 after one of its first members, Myrtle Case of Vineyard Haven, put an ad in the Vineyard Gazette, seeking other like-minded enthusiasts. The club now claims fifty-five members. In August I met its president, Dan Harnen of Vineyard Haven, at the Agricultural Fair in West Tisbury, where he presided over a small collection of bonsai on loan from members of the club. There were individual trees as well as several landscapes featuring clusters of trees, rocks, and figurines. He told me the club meets the first Tuesday of each month, usually at the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury, and invited me to the meetings. Ernie Carlomagno of West Tisbury, an expert in the field, works with the bonsai collection at Donaroma’s Nursery and Landscape Services in Edgartown. Another member, Don Sibley of West Tisbury, is an Island artist and head gardener at Mytoi, the Japanese garden on Chappaquiddick, which is owned and maintained by The Trustees of Reservations. Pruning bonsai trees is similar, he told me, to pruning full-size trees. However, full-size trees are meant to be seen as you stroll through them, whereas bonsai are pruned to be seen from either the back or the front to give the illusion of size and age.

Vincent Dellatorre of Oak Bluffs has been a member of the club for three years. He became interested in bonsai twenty-three years ago, after seeing the forty-piece collection – purchased in 1913 by Larz Anderson, the U.S. ambassador to Japan – at the Arnold Arboretum. After Vincent and his wife Linda moved their family to Martha’s Vineyard from Marshfield, they renovated their vacation house and turned the backyard into a bonsai garden. A small pond has a fountain embedded in a sculpture of leaves and cattails. There are goldfish and reeds, giving it an Asian look. As you wander down the path of recycled bricks (from the old Tisbury Inn) you pass bonsai on raised stands. Everywhere is green with dappled sunlight falling on the grass and plants.

The trees range from one to almost four feet tall. There are juniper, pine, maple, a buttonwood, and a ginkgo that was damaged by a squirrel trying to reach a bird feeder. This damage requires finding a new shape for the tree, which will take many years. Vincent prefers the natural look in bonsai to more stylized and likes to work with larger trees that allow for more creative shaping.

One of the most interesting features of these trees is something called shari (deadwood). Over time, deadwood tends to whiten naturally, but in bonsai trees it can be enhanced by the use of lime sulfur. The appearance of whitened deadwood can also be produced by painting on living wood without killing the branch, giving the effect of death in life – a strip of deadwood on a living limbs.

The trees are removed from their ceramic pots or trays every two years so the roots can be pruned. The root system is picked apart with a special implement, and after it has been let down (like a woman’s hair) it is examined for any insect damage or disease, and trimmed. The same pot is then filled with fresh soil and the plant replaced.

The tops of the trees are constantly pinched and trimmed to encourage the desired shape. Many trees are wired to prevent the branches from pulling upward. This creates a more horizontal appearance. Wiring also twists branches into desired shapes and directions.

The smallness of the leaves is fascinating. Also of great interest are the above-ground roots called nebri. Some are large knots, others light and airy as trellises. These are controlled by removing soil to expose more root mass or packing soil in to force them upward.

Walking through Vincent’s garden, we came to the shed where the trees spend the winter. Unheated, with three glass sides and a vented skylight, it provides ideal conditions for the trees. In summer, the Dellatorres use it for entertaining. The baskets on the floor and willow covering the ceiling contribute to its Asian appearance. Through the windows, you can see most of the small trees. Many of them are arranged on staggered platforms just beyond the shed. My favorite is a Rocky Mountain juniper that had been collected from the wild in Colorado. It was found growing in a rock and flattened by years of snow accumulation. A few of these shimpaku junipers still exist in the wild, but they are rare and now protected.

This is a true reminder of the original bonsai collected millennia ago in China. The Chinese named these small trees pensai, which was translated into Japanese in the early nineteenth century as bonsai – which derives from bon (tray) sei (tree).   

The trees winter in the shed and Vincent waters them by covering the roots with either snow or ice cubes to keep the temperature down and allow the water to slowly penetrate the roots. On hot, sunny days, he opens the vent to prevent dehydration. His few tropicals that cannot survive our northern winters go to the greenhouse at Donaroma’s, where Ernie keeps an eye on them.

My visit was coming to a close as my host reflected that bonsai is “all about time.” I left thinking of the many ways in which that applies to the history and culture of this singular art of miniaturizing trees by planting them in small trays, controlling nutrition, water, and light, and selectively trimming roots, leaves, and branches. The beginnings of this ancient art are uncertain, but it goes back at least three millennia, begun perhaps during the reign of the mythical Chinese Emperor Huang. Caves were thought to be entrances to the spirit world, and the mists that clung to the mountains hid the homes of the gods. Small rocks that mimicked the larger caves were collected and often placed on trays or tables. Trees planted around the rocks created an artificial landscape, a place of contemplation where the aesthetic qualities of the rocks and trees imparted their spiritual energy to the beholder.

Before the art of dwarfing plants was developed, naturally stunted trees were gathered from the forest and potted. This was done for reasons other than aesthetics. It was a practical way to transport trees needed for food and medicine, and dwarfing them resulted in trees that lived hundreds of years in little pots.

Thus, the earliest form of collecting small trees required often arduous searches in the forests, bogs, and cliffs for suitable specimens. Collectors often worked in pairs. After a plant was spotted high up on a cliff face, one of them would be lowered by a rope to the plant, which then had to be teased out of its crevice, saving as much of its root mass as possible. These trees, although small, were often old and therefore already had the character and beauty that comes with age, thus giving them immediate value. Many collectors paid with their lives.

This search for small, aged plants was seen by the Buddhist monks of China as a “quest for the inner self,” which forged a special link with God, creator of nature in all forms. By the sixth century, the monks had brought Buddhism to Japan and with it the art of bonsai. Over time, the trees were taken up by the aristocracy to become symbols of prestige and honor.

When bonsai was introduced to the West at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, the French were fascinated by this art of miniaturization – but not particularly approving of it. A reporter found the skill “disconcerting and astounding.” He described “strange contorted products of cunning cultivation which produces minute forms twisted and bent by invisible storms and the weight of years.” He called the taste for this culture “bizarre.”

When in 1909 bonsai went to London’s Imperial International Exhibition, it was welcomed more kindly by a nation of gardeners who liked to manicure their lawns and clip their roses. However, Cassell’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1905) describes bonsai as “monstrosities,” and in many English journals there were assertions of “cruelty thought to be practiced on trees.” There were suspicions that there must be some Oriental method at work, something inscrutable and therefore suspect. In 1862, Scientific American quoted The Scottish Farmer, which compared the ancient Chinese practice of binding girls’ feet, which went on for thousands of years, to the pruning of these plants to keep them small.

World War II was responsible for the destruction of many ancient trees that had been handed down from one generation to the next. Those trees that escaped bombs, neglect, or abandonment fell into disrepair. In the West, the culture of bonsai was considered unpatriotic. It was not until the mid-1950s that bonsai was revived both in Japan and in the West. Due to the destruction of many landscape trees and the lack of opportunity to forage, practitioners began to use seedlings or grafts instead of more mature trees. This allowed them to more easily fashion the tiny trees into what were considered ideal shapes.

Today, the art of bonsai is enjoying a new and increasing popularity throughout the world. Clubs such as the Vineyard’s have sprung up in numerous locations, allowing for the exchange of information and the practice and culture of this ancient and unique aspect of horticulture.