The ancient art of bonsai live strong under Elaine’s heirloom trees. A member of the Austin Bonsai Society and founder of the Texas State Bonsai Exhibit, she shares her love and knowledge behind the cultivation of these miniature living sculptures. She discovered their spiritual connection to nature when her husband was stationed in Japan. – And so I took a class there, and since my husband is Air Force, we moved 18 times, and I didn’t get to do that much until we settled here.
He retired, and then I could do my hobby. – As I was a very very young child, my parents in the military lived in Hawaii and went to a sushi restaurant. On the top floor, there was a bonsai display, and I remember at the age of about 3 years old – tiny child walking up and looking up into these bonsai trees and wondering that they were huge but they were small.
– I’ve been involved in bonsai for about five years, but the interest began all the way in elementary school. – After college, he got back into bonsai, tending them on this patio. – People with art degrees love it. Young people are getting more involved in bonsai because it’s a focused art, and it’s a creation, and you tell a story. – The story behind this would be that perhaps there was a hurricane or something that pushed the tree over and then it started growing again once it was sideways. – Bonsai design often takes its cue from nature. – Bonsai represents tenacity and endurance, and you have things that have experienced trauma or have experienced stress in the environment. – When stress occurs on a bonsai, like bores in the trunk of Elaine’s live oak, her skillful hands added it to the story. – It’s still enjoyable to look at to me. – And those sort of things – they bring a kind of devastated beauty. – It used to be a forest, and I’d had another tree on the other side.
A deer came along and jerked that tree out, and this is its replacement. – Balance and emphasis comprise two elements of bonsai design. – Bonsai has a front, it has a viewing angle. If you imagine that it’s actually turned sideways, you don’t get as much of that. – Like any plant, success begins at root level. – Sometimes you can get them in department stores where there’s gravel glued on top just for appearance. First thing you do is you take off all that glued gravel because you need water to penetrate through the root system. – Avoid potting soil or compost. Bonsai need sifted large granules for aeration in shallow containers. – The various components of bonsai soil include shale or calcine clay, akadama, which is a Japanese form of clay, sifted pine bark. and frequently red lava. So our finished bonsai soil is very porous, allows for a lot of oxygen to reach the roots, and prevents root rot.
– Elaine reserves a greenhouse for tropicals. – They would normally live outside in warmer climates such as Florida, South Carolina. – Bonsai trees like Oaks Ashton and prison Elms need winter’s cold. Trees that change color in fall before dropping their leaves need that natural cycle. – They stay outside all the time, so when people put them in their house they wonder why they die. – Still, outdoor plants must be protected in winter since roots are restricted. – I put them on the ground in between the benches, and then if it’s going to have a hard freeze I can cover all of them at the same time to keep them protected from the wind. – Periodically we will take them inside, and we’ll show them when we have guests, when we have special events.
– Bonsai don’t use gallons of water, but they do need thorough soaking. – There’re holes in the bottom of every pot, and I think that’s what so many people – mistake in raising bonsai – they don’t water them enough, so the water drains out the holes in the bottom of the pot. – Training takes time. Every few years when roots have filled the pot, they trim back when dormant. Growing in flat pots, rather than deep ones, encourages horizontal roots. – After about three years of being in the bonsai training container that we see here, it’s actually a lot like a cat litter size box, we’re able to begin putting it into an entry level show-grade pot. We can take a tree from a training pot that’s a lot deeper than is really necessary for a finished showpiece and work with it for a few years until we feel like it’s ready to be moved from its training pot into a finished show pot, which is going to be quite a bit shallower. And what this will do is give proportion to the trunk.
– Part of the art form of bonsai is that it’s in a pot, and the pots can be just as artistic as the trees themselves. This one is a handmade pot. – Pruning for design can take years. – When you go to start working on a bonsai it’s like everything else disappears: all the worry, all the fret that you go through in life. – This looks more like a bush instead of a tree. This branch is very long. You will cut it back. And the way you trim it is at the angle of you want it to grow. I want this branch to grow this way and not be longer than all the others. – There’s a Japanese word called “bunzhen”, and it’s basically this long thin line that resembles calligraphy. It’s beautiful. There’s cascade, so it looks like a tree is growing up on a mountain, and it’s cascading down the side. – Anodized aluminum or annealed copper wires help shape. – And that is just there to give the branch direction, to change the angle, maybe give it a little bit of movement, and much like braces on your teeth, you take them off once it is set.
– Many plants qualify for bonsai. The Austen Bonsai Society rescues plants from the wild or starts from nursery pots. – This is a lower pendulum, and it’s a fringe lower pendulum. – This is a Japanese boxwood that a lot of people have in their front yards, and when people re-landscape their plants or re-landscape their yards, sometimes you know these things become throwaways, but to us – years have been spent growing out the trunks, growing out the branches, and we then give it shape and form to – often to mimic trees in nature is the point, but sometimes we’ll do things with an artistic touch that doesn’t even mimic trees in nature. – This is a trident maple that was field grown for about five to seven years, and it’s been topped from about 14 feet down to its current one foot stump, and then a progression in about three years, we might see this evolving into a beginning of a tree that has some structure of branching and some curvature that has been applied by wire.
– To help new growers get started, the Austin Bonsai Society holds meetings and workshops along with its annual show and sale at Zilker Botanical Garden. Elaine founded the Texas Bonsai Exhibit to preserve heritage plants in private gardens until a permanent exhibit is built. – We have these beautiful old trees that people have had and they’ve spent decades working on and then maybe they’re not able to care for them anymore, so we are able to care for them and then put them back out to view – for the public to view later on. – There’s one in the National Arboretum in Washington that is 400 years old. It came through the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and last year – they never knew exactly whom it belonged to or where it came from, you know, specifically – two boys showed up at the National Arboretum looking for their grandfather’s tree.
That was it. So they found a little bit more of the history of that tree. .