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Learning to create nature in miniature

Ed Murakami got into it to cure an ulcer. “I found it very relaxing and the ulcer disappeared,” said Murakami, a Monterey Park business executive.

Torrance engineer Mike Muha was looking for ways to landscape his home.

“I get lost in it,” he said. “It’s something that’s never finished.”

Both are members of the South Coast Bonsai Assn., a collection of about 95 people devoted to the traditional Japanese art of cultivating trees in miniature.

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“Bonsai is bringing the great nature to you,” says Thomas Meagher, a Lomita tool and die maker who is association president. “The trees are the essence of nature, of a full-grown tree on the cliffs of Monterey or a whispering bristle-cone pine in the High Sierras.”

Through meticulous shaping, watering and regular soil changes of the potted trees, bonsai artists--"It is a work of art,” Meagher says--create trees a few inches or a few feet tall that look exactly like the ones towering outdoors. “If properly done, it gives a tremendous feeling of space and age and nature,” he said.

People will have an opportunity to see what bonsai is all about Saturday and Sunday when the association holds its annual exhibit, sale and bonsai demonstrations at the South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. More than 100 plants--some 200 years old--will be shown.

“We display plants for the general appreciation of the public at large, and for our own members, because we do not get to visit everyone else’s houses and view bonsai,” Meagher said. “We award no prizes and make no judgments because we feel it is unfair to judge another person’s art.”

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Bonsai plants will be on sale, with prices starting at $12. Demonstrations on creating bonsai will be at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. both days.

Meagher said the basic creation is simple: A 1-gallon nursery plant, most commonly juniper for beginners, is radically trimmed and copper or aluminum wire is used to shape the limb structure. “You clean the soil, prune the roots and put it into a bonsai container,” Meagher said.

The difficult part, he said, is “the inspiration, the vision,” which precedes cultivation. “You have a mental plan, just like the sculptor, who looks at a piece of stone, envisions the grain and color of the stone and makes something out of it. A bonsai enthusiast gets a piece of material and sees a particular work of art lying within the pieces.”

Muha says he gets ideas for bonsai when he travels or goes on hikes: “I see large oaks or redwoods or trees that have been damaged by severe storms.” And once he has created a tree, he said, it’s “for a lifetime” because bonsai must be constantly tended, trimmed and shaped.

Most association members are hobbyists, and obsessed hobbyists at that. Murakami--who likens bonsai to “creating a living thing"--started in 1971 after he saw people “lugging in plants” at a Japanese temple in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. “They were setting up a bonsai show,” he said. “I asked about lessons, and that’s how it started.”

He said he hasn’t kept count of the number of plants he has. “My wife says too many,” he said.

Meagher, who said his interest in nature began when he pruned fruit trees on his great uncle’s Hollister ranch when he was 10, has about 400 plants of several varieties in his home. “I enjoy the beauty of them, and I enjoy teaching students to do it,” he said.

According to Meagher, bonsai--which he said originated in Mongolia and made its way to Japan in the 15th Century--had religious origins and remains a soothing, peaceful art. “It is so important in Japan because of space,” he said. “In an intensely crowded mass of civilization, there are little corners of serenity with trees in them.”

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He says the popularity of bonsai is growing in Southern California, in part because of “our shrinking world. . . . People live in condos, or have small yards, which gets reminiscent of Japan--compact living.”

Meagher teaches ongoing bonsai classes at the botanic garden on Wednesday evenings. “We get a lot of new people after the shows,” he said.

Gerald Faris

What: South Coast Bonsai Assn. exhibit and sale.

When: Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: South Coast Botanic Garden, 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Admission: adults, $3; seniors and students, $1.50; youngsters 5 to 12, 75 cents.

Information: 544-1948

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