America’s youngest bonsai master flourishes in native soil

Bjorn Bjorholm, 34, zooms in from his home near Nashville, Tenn. It’s February, a deep winter, and her skin looks pale surrounded by bare white walls. Outside, an unusual cold snap has closed the town and its Eisei-en bonsai nursery sits under a thick blanket of snow. “Dreary” would be the best word, ”he says to describe the space. “Which is always the case in winter.”

Bjorholm, from Knoxville, Tenn., Explains the name of his dormant business: “Evergreen garden,” roughly translated from Japanese; the one that is always in bloom. “But it also has some deeper meanings,” he continues. “Forever young”, or having an open mind, ready to learn. “And that can also translate to ‘always green’, like always making money,” he laughs. “My wife made it up.”

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Called the “Brad Pitt of bonsai,” the six-foot-six Bjorholm is a house of mirrors when juxtaposed with his chosen contraption. With the muscular construction of a tight end, in good weather he towers over miniature trees which he bends, tears and cuts. He was even more visible during his nine years in Kyoto, Japan after college, most of which was spent in the routine of learning bonsai seven days a week from sunrise to sunset. He was an anomaly, “a novelty,” he says of his apprenticeship under the guidance of elder Keiichi Fujikawa. Despite the master’s initial reluctance to hire an apprentice, let alone a foreigner, Bjorholm came to be treated like a son as well as some sort of local celebrity. Customers in their forties, depositing their trees at the nursery for annual maintenance, would seek his hand rather than that of the owner. “I like to think it was because I was good,” he said, “but I think it was because they wanted to brag to their friends that a Westerner had styled their tree.”

But as infatuated as he was with Japanese culture, which led him to make the decision to emigrate, the great American quickly left his tourist mentality behind and became one with the land itself. (After all, after a decade very few people still feel like a foreigner.) One of his greatest lessons: patience, a virtue he believes most North Americans don’t understand. “Say, for example, that you remove a large branch from a tree,” he says. “You want that wound to heal in four, five, six years, so in 20 years it’s imperceptible on the trunk of the tree. You must therefore know the right technique and apply it now to be able to achieve this result in 20 years. These are all things that I think about much more deeply from my learning in Japan. “

Contrary to the understanding of many in America, bonsai is not a species of tree but a style of cultivation, in which specific trees, selected by the merits of their curvature, the size of their leaves and their adaptability. , are established in small pots and trained to grow. in certain curves and planes. In a field, they can grow to 40 feet or more, but with precise pruning, dressage wires, and shallow dishes, they live their hundreds of years in miniature. Another detail that goes against popular belief: while bonsai training can be gradual, for young trees it is often violent, with pruned branches and sheared taproots. Any action plan, fast or slow, is obtained by a spirit of decision turned towards the future. Cuts are made to focus the blossoming. “It totally changed my perspective on work, on life, on thinking about the future, on culture, on everything,” says Bjorholm.

In Japan, bonsai, like sumo and sushi, is a subculture in itself that far exceeds the surface knowledge of the United States. with pages in glossy magazines and portraits sewn onto handkerchiefs. “There are 50 to 60 trees in Japan that everyone knows. And of those 50 or 60 trees, there are probably four or five that will forever be considered the best bonsai in the history of the world, ”he says. “So, yeah, seeing these in person was crazy.”

Bjorholm looks like an American when he talks about the awe he felt walking through these exhibition halls with his head and shoulders higher than the native population and speechless from his poor Japanese and the effects of ‘be struck by the stars. But his actions were anything but stereotypical American during the long hours of a six-year apprenticeship, which could include repotting hundreds of trees and then walking through town to help Fujikawa-sensei’s parents pull vegetables from them. their garden. Under the guidance of his teacher, he grew up, and after graduating from the program, he remained working in the same nursery while traveling within the country. He and his wife, a Chinese national he met during a study abroad program in his last year, considered staying in Japan, but immigration restrictions meant they would have to still a decade before they can start their own nursery. In the long run, it was a bad future, and so Bjorholm made a decision, returning to the United States in 2017 and relocating to Nashville, where he believed he would find the most fertile ground to develop his own business.

Bonsai has been in the United States for decades, although it is largely a japonophile hobby. Bonsai techniques were passed on from first generation Japanese immigrants to other Americans, who then passed them on to young people like Bjorholm. In this generational transfer, Asian trees had become orthodoxy. “It was the Japanese species,” he recalls. “It has never been so cool working with native stuff until I come back from Japan and realize how good the base material is here.”

While he had experimented with American flora as a high school student – after all, it’s cheaper to dig up a tree in a field than to buy a seedling from a garden center – red cedars and Virginia pines didn’t hold the mystery of a Japanese Maple. But after nearly a decade in Japan, with mystery replaced by practicality, Bjornholm began to soberly appraise New World wood, and what he found was promising.

“When [the Japanese] see our native material here, they are very jealous, ”he says, explaining that in Japan, the overexploitation of wild trees from the 70s adapted to bonsai, or yamadori, led to the scarcity of wild nature, and since then the collection has been prohibited. At the same time, a growing and affluent Chinese market buys heritage trees, a second deforestation. “All that is bonsai in Japan is all they have,” he said, “so there are fewer and fewer good trees in Japan. Here there is an almost endless supply.

Bjorholm has not only become a pioneer and advocate for North American species adapted to bonsai, but he is also a leading educator in the United States. Thanks to his YouTube channel, which he films and edits himself, he has already amassed over 150,000 subscribers, which is no small feat for what many consider a niche hobby. For subscribers, part of the attraction is its natural magnetism; minimalist and refined sets; and clear instructions. But a lot can also be attributed to the influx of bonsai researchers in 2020, during which any socially remote activity that state governments have not restricted, from houseplants to bicycles, has seen unprecedented demand. .

“Right now in the United States, bonsai is booming,” he says. “Plus, the ability to work with native material and do unique and interesting things that have never been done before has all happened before us.”

The late winter season, which he calls “the calm before the storm,” offers a brief respite. Its workshop and cold frame are filled with trees stacked on all surfaces to protect them from single-digit temperatures, which are extreme even for hardy trees, and the outdoor benches they are typically displayed on are buried under six inches of height. ice and snow.

But spring is coming.

With temperatures forecast to reach the 60s in the coming week, Bjorholm can already see into the future. Over the next few days, this snow-covered space will melt on the bare wood shelves, and it will slowly move the trees towards the sun. In March, the bare brown and gray branches will swell with green buds before the reds of the freshly foliated deciduous trees, the chartreuse feathers of the juniper branches and the pale blossoms of the cherry trees will dot the space. Customers will drive, lay down their overwintered trees for annual maintenance, prune new growth, and rewire branches and trunks. And at the end of April, his wife will give birth to their first child, a daughter.

We talk a little more about the North American wild species that he collects to learn about a new culture. The agents he works with in Colorado scour the backcountry looking for the right trees to carefully remove and return to Eisei-en and a new home in the south.

“These plants, in their natural environment, survive. That’s why they all look twisted and gnarled, ”says Bjorholm, owner of the evergreen garden. “Our goal is to make them prosper.

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