Califonia Bountiful


Jan./Feb. 2014 California Bountiful magazine

The art of shaping nature's narrative

More online: Traditions and art of bonsai

Bonsai can be hundreds of years old. Because the trunk of a bonsai is one of its most eye-catching features, artists generally select plants that have a thick base that tapers upward.

Bonsai, the Japanese art of shaping miniature trees and shrubs into living sculptures, takes years—sometimes hundreds of years. And it's an ancient horticultural practice that has been reinterpreted in California by artists, gardeners and commercial growers to reflect a distinctly Western style.

Robert Pressler, a landscaper and owner of Kimura Bonsai and Landscape Nursery in Northridge, said many people are intrigued by the trees and are drawn to the style, but they often don't know a lot about bonsai.

"Generally, the art and horticultural practice of bonsai, which literally means 'grown in a pot,' aren't widely understood," Pressler said, adding that many people believe the miniaturized plants result from special breeding.

The truth, he said, is many of the trees in his nursery are native California species—junipers, pines and oaks—that naturally lend themselves to pinching, pruning and shaping to retain their small stature while graceful lines are developed through training.

Pressler sells species that thrive in the local climate because, "bonsai, however small and stylized, are trees that grow outdoors."

"The plants should be species that grow well in the area where you live," he said. "Fruit trees need cold winters; redwood trees need a moist, coastal climate. In this area, bougainvillea does well and flowers—so does citrus."

Los Angeles nursery operator and bonsai artist Robert Pressler says attending bonsai exhibitions and demonstrations is a good way to pick up techniques and ideas for styling trees.

Growing a legacy

The art of bonsai can be traced back more than 1,700 years, Pressler said. California, which has a large Japanese-American population, has produced many acclaimed bonsai artists, particularly since the 1950s. The National Arboretum, maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., has an extensive bonsai collection, including the Yamaguchi Garden, which features the less formal styling and design diversity of American masters—many of them California bonsai artists.

Using wire to gently bend or change the position of a tree branch over time is an important bonsai training technique. After several months, the branches become set in their new shape and the wire is carefully removed.

Trees often are passed from one generation to the next. In a way, that's how Pressler—who is of Irish-German descent—came to own a Japanese bonsai nursery in the Los Angeles area.

"My friend Jim Kimura grew landscaping material that he sold to his Japanese gardener buddies," Pressler explained. "They used to hang out here and dabble in bonsai. Jim was a serious artist and had an impressive collection.

"I came to see Jim one day and saw a 'For Sale' sign out front. When I asked why he was selling, he said he was sick. He needed to sell the nursery and there wasn't anyone to take care of his trees."

Although he had a busy contracting business, Pressler said he gave some thought to buying the nursery and went back to talk with Kimura. A few weeks later, the sale was final.

Bonsai are grouped by style and shape, including the upright, slanting, cascade and semi-cascade styles. The young tree above is an upright juniper with berries.

Slanting pine

Upright conifer

"The deal closed on a Wednesday in 1996," Pressler recalled. "Jim died that Friday. I honestly feel he waited until he knew his trees would be cared for before leaving. After the funeral, I was in the nursery watering, wondering how I'd gotten myself into this and what I should do next. I know it sounds funny, but I heard Jim's voice.

"He said, 'Keep watering.' And that's what I've been doing ever since."

Finding tranquillity

Pressler said he became interested in bonsai when he was about 10 and saw the miniature trees for the first time on display during a school field trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

"It fascinated me," he said. "Back then, before the Internet, I went straight to the library. They had one book about bonsai in our small-town library and that got me started. I've been doing it ever since."

For some nursery customers, bonsai is a novelty, yet for others, it's a passion, said Pressler, who has served on the boards of several Southern California bonsai associations. Students in his master classes come from all walks of life, but the practice seems to attract people in stressful occupations who find the contemplative art relaxing.

"I can go into my studio and start working on a tree. Within minutes, nothing else exists except me and the tree," he said. "I don't consciously think about what I'm doing. I just do it. People walk in here and sometimes I don't notice because I'm so wrapped up in what I'm doing.

"Some people say they find this a challenging way of gardening," he said. "Some clients have invested millions of dollars in bonsai trees and other customers simply think it's an interesting pastime. For a few, it's a passion and a way of life."

Building character

Italian architect and bonsai master Mauro Stemberger said, "It's amusing how sometimes what in nature might be considered bizarre or grotesque, in bonsai is something beautiful.

Italian bonsai master Mauro Stemberger, right, demonstrates wiring techniques during a workshop in Los Angeles.

"The search for plants with strong character is one of the things that fascinates me in the art of bonsai," said Stemberger, who teaches worldwide and recently conducted a workshop for advanced students at Kimura Nursery. "For me, yamadori is the best material. It offers the opportunity to work with old trees and that gives me great satisfaction."

Yamadori are trees that have been stunted and shaped by nature, and collected from the wild. In many cases, these dwarfed trees are hundreds of years old. In California, yamadori can be found growing at high altitudes in the Sierra Nevada or in desert areas.

Tools for pruning and shaping are essential.

Suitable specimens include mountain maple, junipers and pines, along with Joshua trees and bristlecone pines, a species known to live more than 5,000 years. However, unless taken by permit, trees cannot be removed from public land, and private property owners need to grant permission before plants are dug up.

Although it's considered bad manners to talk about bonsai prices, yamadori can sell for thousands of dollars or more after a few years of shaping.

Value, species rarity, age and style aside, Pressler said, "When people get passionate about bonsai, their interest lasts a lifetime. What's happening now in the U.S. is that people aren't just seeing bonsai as farming, gardening or a hobby. They're getting serious and recognizing it as an art form. That's very exciting.

Stones and pots add to the artistry of a developing tree.

"With bonsai, we're trying to emulate the very essence of nature," he said. "I want to tell stories with bonsai. Every tree has its own narrative."

Kate Campbell

Tips for growing beautiful bonsai

Robert Pressler, owner of a bonsai and landscape nursery in the Los Angeles area, advises beginners to remember that bonsai is a living art form based on plant science and sound horticultural practices.

"When people ask me how much care bonsai require, I usually tell them more than a kitten, less than a puppy," he said. "Bonsai artists need patience and must provide ongoing attention to the trees."

With appropriate care, bonsai can live hundreds of years. Pressler's tips for beginning bonsai artists include:

  • Clubs: Join one of the many local bonsai clubs located throughout California.
  • Trees: It's often best to start with several inexpensive plants of different species that grow well in the local climate.
  • Tools: Buy the best you can afford, especially sharp shears or scissors.
  • Pots: Use shallow trays with large drain holes to prevent standing water and damage to tree roots.
  • Location: Bonsai are trees that grow naturally outside. They're not houseplants.
  • Watering: Keep soil moist year-round, but don't overwater. You may need to water twice a day when it's hot.
  • Soil: Buy a potting mix that contains crushed granite, lava rock and a small amount of organic material. Garden potting soil is not recommended.
  • Feeding: Use bonsai food pellets. Water-soluble fertilizer used sparingly at half strength is also helpful.
  • Trimming and training: Snip and pinch growth to slowly develop an artistically shaped tree.
  • Shaping and wiring: Use wire or twine to hold branches in position, removing or loosening as positioning becomes stable. Avoid binding or scarring the bark as the tree grows.
  • Transplanting: Depending on the species, bonsai should be transplanted every two to three years.
  • Pests or diseases: Treat promptly and gently. A properly watered tree is the best defense against pests and disease.

Getting started: Bonsai resources

Clubs and organizations

Golden State Bonsai Federation clubs, located throughout California and adjoining states, welcome new members. The federation's website includes a club directory and also lists upcoming bonsai events.

Artist websites

Notable bonsai collections

The Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt
650 Bellevue Ave.
Oakland, CA 94610
Home to some of the finest bonsai on the West Coast and the only public collection in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was built and is staffed and maintained by volunteers, entirely by donations.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Road
San Marino, CA 91108
Features bonsai masterpieces and viewing stones from noted artists throughout the region. Collection curated by internationally acclaimed bonsai master and teacher Ben Oki. The collection offers visitors an opportunity to view world-class examples of this emerging global art form.

U.S. National Arboretum
Bonsai and Penjing Museum
3501 New York Ave., NE
Washington, DC 20002
Located about 10 minutes from the U.S. Capitol, the museum houses the largest collection of bonsai and penjing (Chinese-style) masterpieces in North America. The collection is maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and supported by the National Bonsai Foundation to promote the art of bonsai in North America.

Getting started: Japanese bonsai gardening terms

The art of bonsai is the shaping of miniaturized trees and shrubs to reflect both nature and culturally valued garden designs. The art, however, extends far beyond the trees to include many other elements found in nature: stones, sand, streams, ponds and moss. 

  • Bon-seki: The art of placing pebbles on a sand-covered tray, the dry equivalent of bonsai. Some analysts relate the famous garden at Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple near Kyoto, Japan, to this practice.
  • Ishi: Rock or stone. Elements that employ the term include ishigumi (the arrangement of stones), ishidoro (stone lantern), ishiniwa (stone garden) and ishihama (pebble beach).
  • Kanshoniwa: A garden intended for contemplation, as opposed to a stroll garden or boating garden.
  • Karikomi: Clipped shrubs.
  • Niwaki: Japanese pruning techniques used in ornamental gardens to sculpt trees and shrubs, with visual effects that evoke bonsai styles.
  • Niwa shi: Garden designers are sometimes called niwa shi, which means "garden masters."
  • Tamamono: The shaped pruning of shrubs.

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