Nature has captured imaginations and inspired artists for thousands of years, but none encapsulates the weather-beaten beauty of a tree more than the ancient oriental art of Bonsai.
The Northeastern Pennsylvania Bonsai Society, founded in 1988, in Pittston, was formed by six people out of love for the beauty of recreating the natural artistic look of a tree, but in a smaller form.
“Many people, when they think of a Bonsai, they think of Mr. Miyagi trimming his tree in the1984 movie, Karate Kid,” said NEPA Bonsai Society President Carl Achhammer.
Bonsai trees can intrigue the mind as delicate tiny branches twist and reach out from a thick tree trunk, standing only a few inches high. The root system is disguised beneath coarse soil topped with green moss and situated in a shallow tray.
The age of the trees can be deceiving, from just a few years old to 30 years and older, trained to thrive in a shallow pot called a bon. The root system is gradually trimmed to increase “ feeder roots”, and the trunk and branches are trained to grow into intricate and graceful forms, using a variety of techniques.
Achhammer said the art of Bonsai was first practiced thousands of years ago in China, when people noticed how dwarfed the trees were on the tops of mountains.
“It was believed the small trees held spiritual properties,” he said.
Over the years, the practice migrated to Japan, where the technique of using thin wire to “train” the branches to bend and grow in different directions was used. This technique enhanced creativity by adding shape and dimension to their trees.
“In this country, we are only about 70 years into this art form,” Achhammer noted. “Since the end of World War II, interest in Bonsai has grown.” The NEPA Bonsai Society has grown to about 40 members. Past President Sue Lauer, owner of Midway Garden Center, in Pittston, said the group is constantly learning new Bonsai techniques, both from each other’s experiences as well as hosting speakers.
The Society meets on the last Wednesday of the month, at 7 p.m., at Midway Garden Center, Route 315, in Pittston.
Lauer said the ultimate goal of Bonsai is to recreate how a tree grows in nature, but in miniature.
“You are trying to make a tree look old and natural, but in a pot,” she said.
She explained that almost any tree can be used as a Bonsai, even fruit-bearing trees. It just takes time and patience to grow, maintain, and shape the tree.
Some trees in Japan are so old that they have been passed down through generations, Achhammer added. His love of Bonsai began 12 years ago. One of the several trees he is working with is a 20-year-old American Larch, a deciduous relative to the pine family. It stands about 2Ω feet tall, with branches wired in a downward direction.
“If you have ever seen trees in the higher elevations, they are small and their branches are short and low,” he said. “Snow weighs the branches down, while the lack of air quality, harsh elements, and poor soil keep the tree small. For beginners, both Achammer and Lauer suggest beginning with a juniper or fichu, as they are hardy and easy to train.
“Don’t get discouraged if you kill your first one,” she said laughingly. “We all have done it.”
Another misconception is that the tree needs little water. Achhammer said he reminds his group to check its trees daily for watering, explaining that the shallow pots and coarse soil do not retain much water.
It is important to know what type of tree you are working with. Lauer noted that outdoor trees, such as junipers, pines, and maples, should be kept outdoors, while tropical trees can be kept indoors all year. indoors all year.
Trees can be either be found or purchased, starting at $12 and can range up to thousands of dollars. Achhammer warned against hunting trees in state parks without the proper permits. Even collecting one out of a neighbor’s yard requires permission first.
Walking through the Midway Garden Center, Achhammer and Lauer pointed out some Bonsai trees. In an enclosed but unheated area, trees of all shapes and sizes are dormant. Despite the chill of winter and dim gray skies, the trees’ graceful,
leafless branches revealed significant beauty and the distinctive touch of artful form.