The long and (very) short of bonsai

By Claire Donnelly

Chris Baker has 269 children.

Her children are green, leafy and live in the Chicago Botanic Garden. They are bonsai.

“[They] be very careful,” said Baker, who cares for more than 150 different species as a bonsai curator at
Chicago Botanical Garden.
Baker and nine community volunteers water and prune the trees daily, part of the ancient art form and horticultural practice of bonsai.

And what is bonsai?

The rough translation is “tree in a tray” or “tree in a container,” Baker said. But the word is used in multiple ways. “We use it to refer to the tree itself, [and we also] use it to refer to the art form of creating these trees,” Baker added.

And, in case you were wondering, the plural form of “bonsai” is “bonsai.”

Baker is hard at work pruning a bonsai tree at the Chicago Botanic Garden. (Claire Donnelly/MEDILL)

Baker explained that bonsai trees can be created from different tree species, but the art and skill lies in training a tree to grow into a specific, sculptural shape using wiring, root pruning and other techniques.

“The forming process is part of horticulture, part of the mechanical manipulation of the tree, and it’s also part of design and styling,” Baker said. Basically, the idea is to grow a tree in a container that looks like a tree you might find in the wild. “A tree should take you to a place,” Baker added.

Susan Babyk, Board Member of Midwestern Bonsai Society, said, “It’s like shrinking nature and bringing it inside. …It’s a miniature landscape that you can keep [inside].”

Baker honed his bonsai skills for about 13 years. In 2012, he spent six months in Japan, where he studied with a bonsai master and lived in a nursery. The master followed centuries-old bonsai traditions.

Baker at a bonsai nursery in Japan in 2012. (Courtesy of Chris Baker)
Baker at a bonsai nursery in Japan in 2012. (Courtesy of Chris Baker)

Upon his return to the United States, Baker volunteered at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Most of the bonsai that Baker cares for at the botanical garden are hundreds of years old. The oldest bonsai trees are between 150 and 200 years old and were donated to the garden in 2000 by a Japanese bonsai master.

Baker also cares for a pine tree that is estimated to be up to 800 years old, but it has only been in training as a bonsai for 35 or 40 years.

“There’s so much history in bonsai,” Baker said. “I have to take care of the trees now…and I hope to improve them every year, but I’m just one of a line of people who have taken care of these trees.”

Quick guide to growing small trees

  • Start small.
    Start with one or two tree species that you already know how to care for, or teach yourself how to care for just one new species. Focus on tending to those one or two trees and keeping them healthy. Your trees will respond more favorably to bonsai handling and training if they are already happy and thriving. “Tree Health [is] first and foremost,” said Chicago Botanic Garden bonsai curator Chris Baker.
  • Know your resources.
    Be honest with yourself about how much time you will spend growing a bonsai tree and keep this in mind when selecting a tree species. For outdoor trees, keep your garden conditions in mind – don’t buy a shade-loving tree species if your outdoor space is bright and sunny. Also, make sure you have a cool, dark place to store outdoor bonsai during the winter months when the trees are dormant.
  • Read.
    Midwest Bonsai Society board member Susan Babyk recommends Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Bonsai. She said it contains useful information for beginners as well as many photographs. “Everyone has this one,” she said.
  • Find other bonsai enthusiasts.
    Looking for pruning advice or other bonsai tips? Take a bonsai class with Baker at the Chicago Botanic Garden or get involved with the Midwest Bonsai Society. There are many other bonsai groups in the Midwest with experts who can help you expand your hobby.

Information compiled from interviews with Chris Baker and Susan Babyk.

Bonsai trees have a reputation for being labor-intensive plants to maintain. “They definitely require more care than your average potted houseplant,” Baker said. “The size of the container and the floor itself are what make them tricky. They are [generally] very warm trees.

A lavender flower bonsai (Grewia occidentalis) in the literary style (far right), displayed in a recent exhibition at the Botanical Garden, with two accent plants.  (Claire Donnelly/MEDILL)
A lavender flower bonsai (Grewia occidentalis) in the literary style (far right), displayed in a recent exhibition at the Botanical Garden, with two accent plants. (Claire Donnelly/MEDILL)

According to Baker, bonsai trees grow best in loose, well-drained soil, and the plants are usually grown in shallow trays rather than deep pots. This means bonsai need more frequent watering, which can be difficult for the occasional or forgetful home gardener.

“They keep me busy,” jokes Babyk, who has more than a dozen outdoor and indoor bonsai at her home. “I don’t see it as a job. I consider it pure pleasure,” she added.

Baker agreed. “It’s a labor of love,” he said. “They require care, but it should be nice, in the end.”

Top photo: A willow-leaved fig (Ficus salicaria) bonsai in the formal upright style on display at the Chicago Botanic Garden. (Claire Donnelly/MEDILL)

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