Bonsai knowledge offered at weekend show
A combination of horticulture and art – that’s what awaits visitors to the Pittsburgh Bonsai Society’s 21st annual Spring Show at the Phipps Garden Center this weekend.
Yet to grow these fascinating miniature trees, all you need is a pot or a tray, says Ralph Dukstein, member and publicity chair.
‘Literally, almost any tree can be a bonsai,’ says Dukstein, whose more than 50 trees include trident maple, juniper and Ponderosa pines. ‘I like to say that if you have one tree and it dies, you have more trees.’
Bonsai are becoming increasingly popular, and the Pittsburgh Bonsai Society can prove it by its roster of 87 members. While bonsai are most closely associated with Japan, trees cultivated in pots can be traced back to ancient Egypt. From there, they spread to China, then on to Japan, Dukstein says.
‘Bonsai became popular here after World War II, when the trees and information about growing them were brought back by GIs. It’s relatively new in the United States, unlike in Japan, where trees are handed down through generations,’ he says.
Growers usually begin with ‘pre-bonsai’ trees, which are grown to be trained. Wire is used on some trees to help shape the branches.
‘Some trees are too brittle, but on others the shape can be achieved by bending the wire with the branch inside,’ Dukstein says. ‘You can create a decent bonsai in a minimum of five years if you select the right nursery stock to begin with.’
The trees in the spring show range from 5 years old to more than 100 years old. While bonsai are known for being small, there are actually no limits to their size. Dukstein reports of some as tall as 4 feet high.
‘I have a privet hedge trained as a bonsai,’ he says. ‘The hedge was originally grown in a formal garden on a private estate and was about 2 feet high. My hedge is between 1 and 1 &*#189; inches in diameter.’
This weekend’s show will include a sale where bonsai trees, gardening tools, pots, wires and soil can be purchased.
Trees are grown in a pot or tray and styled into shape, which takes time and patience, Dukstein says.
‘People are surprised to learn that you don’t constantly trim a bonsai tree. You have to let it grow,’ he says. ‘Some trees are trimmed three or four times a year, while others are only trimmed once every second or third year.’
The trimming can be intensive, and a grower can easily spend two days on one tree.
There are standard ways of styling bonsai, including semi-cascade, in which the tip of the cascading growth doesn’t go beneath the pot, and windswept, in which all branches slant in the same direction.
‘In the United States, we don’t look for the age of a bonsai – we want to see how old we can make them look,’ Dukstein says.
Education is an important component of the spring show, which includes two demonstrations and a bonsai clinic. Society member Keith Scott, a recognized master of American bonsai who has studied in Japan and worked with bonsai for more than 50 years, will demonstrate using nursery stock at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Pittsburgh Bonsai Society President Bob Grealish will demonstrate refining bonsai at 1 p.m. Sunday. The demonstrations, along with the clinic where new owners can bring their plants for advice and assistance, are free.
‘People get bonsai as gifts for Christmas or Mother’s Day and don’t know how to care for them. Our clinic gives them access to someone who can help and answer their questions,’ Dukstein says.
The most common problem seen at the clinic are dying bonsai.
‘The first thing we ask is where the tree is kept, and most people say on a coffee table or a windowsill. What they don’t realize is that bonsai belong outside 365 days a year. They should only be brought inside once in a while for a special event like a plant show or as decoration for a dinner party.’
Bonsai should be mulched in winter and kept in a protected outdoor area, such as under a tree, Dukstein says.
The clinic also explains to novice owners that their trees can’t be styled in one day.
Those interested in bonsai growing are invited to join the Pittsburgh Bonsai Society, which, in addition to having monthly meetings, offers classes.
‘It’s becoming very popular across the United States,’ Dukstein says. ‘In fact, there’s a nursery in Olive Branch, Miss., that grows nothing but bonsai … just acres and acres of the trees.’