Bonsai in Austin

By Elaine White

Bonsai, the ancient art of growing miniature trees in pots, attracts many enthusiasts in the Austin area.

The word "bonsai" is Japanese and means tree growing in a tray.  Pronounce it as bone-sigh, and more than one is still "bonsai".  (no "s")

The practice originated in China thousands of years ago.  When Buddhism spread to Japan, Buddhist monks carried it with them.  Fifth century scrolls and poems refer to bonsai.

In the beginning, bonsai was limited to aristocracy.  Written records have been kept more than 500 years on some bonsai trees in Japan.

Bonsai was relatively known in the United States until after the end of World War II when U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan learned the art and practiced it after they came home.

Today, gardeners worldwide use this gardening forum.  There are numerous State, National and International conventions each year.  Bonsai has become one of the fastest growing horticultural hobbies during the past decades.

Bonsai combines horticultural knowledge with sculpture.  Unlike an inanimate piece of sculpture the bonsai grows, changes and improves as years pass.

A tree planted in a shallow pot does not automatically become a bonsai.  The plan must be pruned, shaped, trained and kept manicured in the desired shape to be a bonsai.  A bonsai may live to be very old and change from season to season as in nature.  It should, over the years, become more and beautiful and valuable.

To get started, potted and trained plants can be purchased at bonsai nurseries.  There is one in the Austin area and one in Wimberley.  All belong to the Austin Bonsai Society.  They propagate, grow and train many of their own trees.  For little more than a bonsai purchased in a discount store or Mall, you will receive care instructions and a phone number for future questions.

If you would like the challenge of developing your own living sculpture from a small plan the Austin Bonsai Society can help you achieve this goal.

Plants suitable for bonsai can come from nursery stock or from the wild.  Many plants other than Juniper make excellent trained bonsai specimens.  Some favorites among local growers include Holly, Pine, Boxwood, Azalea, Flowering Quince, Persimmon, Pyracantha, Cotoneaster, Elm and Citrus.  Plants with overly large leaves such as Magnolia will look out of proportion and should not be used for bonsai, although some some leaves can be reduced with proper training methods.

To choose a proper container, brown or gray are used for needle evergreens, which fruiting and flowering trees like a deeper pot chosen to complement the color of the fruit, flowers or bark.

Depending upon the plant variety, size and age, bonsai are usually repotted every two to four years.

Watering is the most crucial element of proper care.  Bonsai should be treated until it drains out the holes from the bottom of the pot.  Soaking is not a good idea unless the plant has dried out completely.  Each environment is different as to wind, humidity, amount of sun, etc.  Pots come in different shapes and sizes so you need to check your tree daily.

Those bonsai we called outdoors trees (Juniper) need to be outdoors to experience the full cycle of seasons, including six to eight weeks of coldness in Winter.  Those that naturally grow in the tropics can be adapted for indoor bonsai provided your home has bright lights.  They like high humidity and nighttime temperatures above 50 degrees.

For more information, please visit the Austin Bonsai Exhibit the 3rd weekend in May each year at Zilker Garden Center.  There will be demonstrations both days at 2pm and vendor booths by members.  Free admission.