Life on a small scale
Publication Date: Friday Jan 24, 1997

Life on a small scale

The ancient Asian art of bonsai maintains popularity with younger generations

by Elisabeth Traugott

Like a snapshot come to life, a bonsai is a tiny replica of a scene of natural beauty. Bonsai is an ancient art, expressing the coexistence of opposites: natural and artificial, young and old, tiny and expansive. It is the practice of taking a natural vista--usually a tree or a cluster of trees, often near a mountain or large rocks--and mimicking it in miniature, stunting a tree's growth through special techniques perfected over centuries.

According to the Masters' Book of Bonsai, the practice of sculpting trees into a particular shape and restricting their growth while allowing them to thrive can be traced back at least 800 years to Japan. It was there that bonsai--which literally means "planted in a tray"--was cultivated to an art form.

Bonsai trees can be very valuable. Depending on their age and artistic merit, they will sell for thousands of dollars each. On a tour of Ken's Bonsai on Page Mill Road, visitors can see that starter plants that sell for $20 to $50 stand beside a 300-year-old Trident Maple with a $2,500 price tag and 220-year-old White Needle Pine for $4,500.

It is an expensive hobby, and one that is being taken up by young, monied Silicon Valley execs who see the trees as living investments with a serene, spiritual attraction, says Tak Sugimoto, the son of Ken Sugimoto, a master bonsai and the shop's founder.

Sugimoto says this trend has been good for business. A gardening project that used to be popular with retirees is now becoming more appealing to a younger generation.

"In this country we are now recently appreciating the art of Japan," Sugimoto said. "The younger people, particularly in Silicon Valley who have very stressful jobs during the day, they like to go (home) and work on something peaceful."

And bonsai do require work.

Imagine a robust, 200-year-old evergreen tree dwarfed at a mere 31 inches or a magnificent juniper that at 90 years of age stands two feet tall in a container. Both plants have the uncanny appearance of being aged yet diminutive with wide trunks and tiny blooms, leaves and branches.

The trees are grown in clay or ceramic pots--often works of art in themselves--and receive frequent attention. The gardener's relationship with a bonsai is equivalent to how a painter interacts with a canvas.

In the case of bonsai, nature is expressed artistically, not as a one-dimensional landscape but as a living small-scale model representing a pine tree near a mountainside or group of beech trees in a forest.

Growing trees in pots keeps them small because the roots are constricted. And, trees tend to grow above ground in proportion to what is below, so with small roots a tree would never grow to its natural height.

About every three years the trees are transplanted and 30 percent of the roots are scraped off to keep the plant healthy by preventing it from becoming root-bound, which Sugimoto said is "like not having enough circulation." Root scraping is also a way to continue to limit the tree's growth.

Sugimoto said amateur growers are hesitant to transplant because they don't want to risk harming what can become a valuable collector's item.

By not transplanting, though, the tree can actually be put at risk.

"You have to bite the bullet, so to speak," Sugimoto said.

He recommends transplanting during a tree's dormant period, typically November through March, because the plants won't be expending much energy on growing during those months.

There are rules to bonsai planting, handed down through centuries of teaching from the masters.

Often, miniature deciduous trees are planted together in the same pot to represent a grove of trees. These group plantings are governed by superstitions and strict aesthetic principles.

In Japan, the number four or "shi" is unlucky, much like the number 13 in Western culture. Tak Sugimoto says this is why you would never see a bonsai planting with four plants clustered together. More common are groups of two or three. Then, starting with five, trees are planted together in odd numbers.

It is traditional, Sugimoto said, for plants to be trimmed at an angle, so they slant downward to one side, with a distinctive high and low end. Therefore, most bonsai have a triangular shape, although not necessarily a symmetrical one.

To achieve the twisting branches so characteristic of bonsai, wire is wrapped around the branches of the trees so they grow in a particular shape. Once the branches have matured and hardened into place, the wire can be removed.

On a recent Friday evening at the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, Tak's father, Ken Sugimoto, who is now 90, led a meeting of the Peninsula Bonsai Club, which he founded in 1951. Club members watched intently as he gave them tips. They asked everything from how to identify a particular species to whether to trim the tiniest branch of their own plants. Many of the club members brought their plants to the meeting.

Like visitors to a sculpture gallery, they leaned back from the plants on display, brows furrowed as they muse over a particular tree's shape or line.

Later, the 20 or so club members--a small turnout for these meetings--sat and watch as Ken transformed an Ezo spruce from a bushy runt of a tree into the elegant beginning of a bonsai.

Paul Serizawa, Ken's friend and translator at the meetings, told the audience what Ken was doing and drew diagrams on the blackboard to demonstrate.

Serizawa said Ken Sugimoto is nationally renowned for his talent.

"With his age, I don't think there's anybody that comes above him," Serizawa said. "He's the fundamental, the true, basic bonsai person."

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