By Donna Mallen, for Let's Talk Plants! August 2023.
Meet The Trees - Bonsai Appreciation Through Demystification
In your first encounter with a Bonsai tree, you probably asked yourself, “How did they do that?” Our July speaker, Kyle Icke, of the San Diego Bonsai Club, revealed many of the secrets that enable Bonsai artists to sculpt these little living trees into their amazing shapes.
Kyle explained to us that each of these miniature trees is telling us a story. One describes its windblown archetype grasping the rocky soil atop a bare mountain crag. Another, with its exposed roots clutching the air where the now-eroded hillside alongside the tree used to exist, tells us the story of the tree’s fight to survive.
The various themes of these stories are the styles of Bonsai that are individualized by the hands of each Bonsai artist as each tree’s shape emerges over the many years it takes to craft the result.
Kyle told us that the concept of creating these miniature trees evolved from humans’ sense of wonder and reverence at the sight of an old tree encountered in the forest, its wind-twisted trunk or its vertical branches shaped by the weight of winter snows over its lifetime. In the old days, Bonsai trees would be collected in the wild. Later, rather than digging up the tree to carry it home in a knapsack to plant in his garden, the Bonsai artist would recreate the tree at home in miniaturized form, guiding it by pruning it and wiring its branches as it would grow over time.
“Bonsai” means “Tree in a Pot,” and the pot is a carefully chosen part of the artform. Bonsai pots have extra holes, in addition to normal drainage holes, to hold the wires that are twisted around the tree to hold it securely as it is trained to its ultimate posture.
Specialized tools used to tell the tree’s story, such as pliers made to crush the cambium and strip the bark to recreate the look of an old injury, a trimmer that makes a convex cut to enable the plant to heal without a “donut” where a collar cut is made, and paste to help it heal.
Kyle described Bonsai pruning as a 4-D puzzle, requiring patience to move toward the distant future as you created a desired shape over the years. The plant is like a living painting, he says, with the tree repeatedly changing as you go along, and you, the artist, have to redraw the lines constantly.
To learn more about Bonsai, you can attend the monthly meeting of the San Diego Bonsai Club, held in Balboa Park on the second Sunday of each month at 10:30 a.m. (note that the August meeting will move to a different site, to accommodate another club’s show being held in their normal room). Much of the meeting time is devoted to teaching and enhancing Bonsai skills and knowledge for a wide range of attendees, from the newly interested to highly experienced.
Visit their website sandiegobonsaiclub.com for more information on their meetings, their extensive educational opportunities, and their upcoming Fall Show on Sept. 23 and 24.
Favorite Tree - San Diego Bonsai Club "My favorite bonsai is this elm that I call Sea Serpent. We were coming back down from LA on a bonsai bus trip and stopped at a mom-and-pop nursery that was going out of business. The owners didn’t speak English but helped me understand that if I dug up this elm that had broken through its pot and grown into the ground, I could have it for 15 bucks! So that is what I did. After I got it home, it did great and I loved it... but so did the deer. Twice. After that the poor thing went to sleep and didn’t wake up for six months. But now it’s doing pretty darn good and it’s getting ready for its first haircut of the year. It's hard to pick favorites, but this tree's tenacity put it on top." - Kyle Icke, 1st VP, San Diego Bonsai Club
Mark Your Calendars! For an upcoming Sharing Garden, happening on Sunday, October 22, 2023, at 11a.m. in Lakeside, CA with Park Ranger Kyle Icke.
At the June meeting Kyle, who is not only the VP of the San Diego Bonsai Club but is also a SD County Park Ranger who resides at a park, invited the members of the SDHS to come to his garden at his park home to meet all of his Bonsai trees, not just the trees that he brought with him to CBI! More info to come. Save the date!