What is it about bonsai plants that seems to obsess certain people, to make them want to retreat from everyday life to the chopping, twisting, and pruning of tiny, potted trees?
A visit to the Descanso Bonsai Society's 15th annual exhibit at the Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge offers some clues. Considered the largest outdoor bonsai show in the nation, the exhibit has about 300 plants, many of which seem to capture a miniature universe within themselves and resonate emotional overtones that ordinary gardens just don't have.
But don't think about their attraction too much, society members warn, or you, too, may join the ranks of the obsessed. "God help you if you get hooked," joked Jim Everman, the show's exuberant chairman.
An American Airlines executive, Everman dates his addiction to a business trip to Japan 23 years ago. He said he did not understand Japanese customs of hospitality and had enthused over some lovely objects in his host's home. To his surprise, he said, he found the objects--antiques and a Japanese pine bonsai--in his car en route to the airport for the trip home to Newport Beach.
Once back in California, he learned about the Descanso society and attended one of its monthly lectures.
"From that moment on, every major free moment of my life has been devoted to bonsai," said Everman, 60, who now travels frequently to bonsai conventions and has been president of both the Descanso-based group and the statewide federation of 53 such clubs. He says he has about 350 bonsais in his backyard; a dozen are at the show.
"Bonsai is the only art form we know of which is alive and changing," he explained. "In a painting, when an artist is done with a landscape, he's done. But bonsais live and we can change them constantly. Our art form is never finished, which is very attractive."
Another bonsai exhibitor, Elizabeth Likes, an office manager from Sunland, compared the tiny trees to children. "They become part of you. You watch them living, growing and changing. You cry if one dies. And, when you go away on vacation, you've got to get a baby sitter," she said.
Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) literally means potted tree in Japanese. It is the art of cultivating miniature trees through rigid discipline, pruning foliage, wiring branches and confining roots in small containers so that each bonsai creates the illusion of a mature tree in nature.
Began in India
The 3,000-year-old art of bonsai cultivation began in India, spread to China and then, with Buddhism, to Japan, where it reached its highest fruition. Japanese immigrants to the United States recreated their bonsai gardens here in the 19th Century. But it wasn't until after World War II, with the return of GIs exposed to Japanese culture, that bonsais really took off as a hobby for non-Japanese Americans.
The many rules and styles are still patterned after Japanese classics. But that, Everman said, should not scare anyone off because "bonsais allow you to be creative without having a lot of artistic talent."
The trees can range from a couple of inches to 50 inches high. They can be of any species: pine, juniper, pomegranate, olive, ginkgo, elm and cedar are among the types displayed at the show.
Emotionally, they can be as austere as a wind-beaten tree on a rocky coast or as cheery as a fruit tree in blossom in a lush garden. Each bonsai is supposed to contain the essence of a thought about the beauty of nature.
"If you are harried at work, you can take a few seconds to look at a bonsai and be instantly transported to a mountain or a meadow, " said Ted Matson, 32, of Eagle Rock. "The feeling of calmness is tangible and you can get on with your work, refreshed."
5 Years of Experience
A bank vice president in charge of a communications department, Matson said he began working with bonsais five years ago as an outgrowth of his interests in sculpture and Asian art.
He said he now devotes about 15 hours a week to bonsais and is becoming a specialist in trees smaller than nine inches--a category called mame in Japanese.
"The challenge is to create the illusion of size and age with something very small and make it as powerful a piece as a big one," he said. "As in Japanese art, the fewer the brush strokes, the better." At the show, Matson won second place in the category of clumped trees (korabuki) for a thick-rooted olive.
The show, which lasts through Sunday, offered prizes in 30 categories. The overall "best of show" award was won by Robert Bauder of Laguna Beach for his wind-swept California juniper. Its bare and twisting trunk is topped by leafy branches stretched to one side as if winds were still blowing; the impression is of a strong but graceful survivor.
The most coveted of the prizes is the John Naka Award of Merit, named after the Los Angeles bonsai master who is considered the mentor of the Descanso club. This year, that prize for overall achievement went to Georga Flaherty of Van Nuys, president of the Golden State Bonsai Federation. Among her trees cited by the judges are a San Jose juniper in the flowing, raft style, with branches growing vertically from a horizontal main body--like separate trees in a forest.
Now retired from her job as a secretary with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Flaherty says she spends 90% of her time on bonsais and bonsai club activities. "It really is one of the most relaxing things anyone can do. It's the best therapy," she said.
The Descanso Bonsai Society was founded in 1970 and has since grown, its officials say, from 22 members to more than 200. It is an open club, meaning that anyone interested can join, unlike the older and more prestigious Los Angeles Bonsai Society, which requires sponsorship and a high level of technique. However, some members of the Descanso group belong to the downtown-based organization.
Society Meets Monthly
The Descanso society meets at the county-run gardens on the third Tuesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. for a demonstration lecture. It has more than 200 members from all over Southern California but most live in the Glendale, La Canada, Pasadena and San Fernando Valley area.
Some bonsais are for sale at the show and part of the proceeds will go to the Descanso Gardens Guild, which supports activities there. Those at the show cost anyplace from $10 to $100, but some rare or antique plants can cost up to $5,000.
Everman said his group is also raising funds in hopes of one day building a permanent exhibit area for bonsais at the gardens.
Maintaining a bonsai plant is a little more difficult than keeping an ordinary house plant, but even 6-year-olds have been able to make them flourish, said Everman.
The bonsai exhibit runs 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Sunday. The gardens are at 1418 Descanso Drive, and admission is $1.50 for adults and 75 cents for children, with children under 5 admitted free.