Bonsai take great pride in small trees

The trees may be tiny, but the artists who care for them take great pride in the results.

After a two-year absence due to COVID-19 cancellations, the Alabama Bonsai Society Spring Show is back in Birmingham Botanic Gardens’ main auditorium on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

There will be 64 bonsai on display, all the pruned and pampered work of club members.

The show is free and open to the public. Most attendees really don’t know much about bonsai.

“Maybe 85 to 90 percent have no experience with bonsai,” said Anika Paperd, Alabama Bonsai Society’s spring show coordinator. “Most of them the only time they’ve seen him was in ‘The Karate Kid’ with Mr. Miyagi.”

Paperd herself was at Birmingham Botanical Gardens nine years ago, wandered into the bonsai show and was hooked.

“I found the club at the living room,” she said. “I came to the show, fell in love, bought a tree, joined the club.”

Bonsai is a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term penzai and has become an umbrella term in English for plants kept in shallow pots and pruned to remain small, artful replicas of mature trees.

At their tallest, bonsai trees do not exceed four feet and eight inches in height.

“It must be in a jar,” Paperd said. “The pot can be the size of a small golf art as long as it’s a pot.”

Joining a bonsai club is the best way to learn techniques, she said. There are bonsai clubs in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville.

The Alabama Bonsai Society in Birmingham, with about 20-30 members, holds monthly workshops demonstrating the art of trimming and cutting a bonsai tree.

“There are so many resources now, blogs, YouTube channels and books on bonsai pruning and how it’s done,” Paperd said. “You can use regular gardening tools to start with. I really started to understand it when I joined the club.

Japanese maples are a favorite for bonsai trees because the trees can shrink and the leaves shrink with it.

“You can do this with almost any tree species,” Paperd said.

Some are better than others, however. Magnolias don’t work so well.

“The leaves of a magnolia are so big that if you shrink them, the leaf is still big,” she said. “We are heading towards trees that have small leaves.”

Some bonsai artists can tame an azalea up to a foot tall, but the flowers can be four inches across. “It breaks the sense of scale,” Paperd said.

“You can’t miniaturize fruit,” she said. You can grow a bonsai pomegranate tree, but the fruit is still large.

“He’s pushing a full-size grenade,” she said. For a small tree, even producing a pomegranate every few years is a demanding task. It takes all the energy from the tree.

The preferred bonsai species are different in different parts of the world.

“You need to use trees that can live in your climate,” Paperd said.

In spring and summer, bonsai need daily watering and usually require weekly pruning.

“It’s a living thing that needs daily care,” Paperd said. “You have to water it every day, prune it every week.”

Some bonsai have irrigation systems to water their plants, others do it by hand.

“When you keep a tree in a small pot, its access to nutrients is limited,” Paperd said. “It cannot extend its roots to access other areas.”

In a way, a bonsai is an artistic effort to imitate nature, the grandeur of an adult tree, in miniature.

“We’re not just simulating pruning, but simulating age, pruning and wiring, shaping the branches to make them look like they’re weighed down with age,” Paperd said. “We recreate what we see in nature, in miniature.”

The Alabama Bonsai Society hopes to make a strong comeback after the pandemic hampered its style, and perhaps recruit new practitioners.

“It’s hard for an art form that requires getting your hands on things not to meet in person,” Paperd said.

It is one of the trees on display at the Alabama Bonsai Society’s Spring Show, May 14-15 at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. (Photo by Wayne Atkinson/Alabama Bonsai Society)

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