Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

April 12, 2014

Bitten by Bonsai Bug

TRAVERSE CITY — The models arrive for the photo shoot. Scarred, mossy, pockmarked and twisted — they are the height of bonsai fashion.

Bonsai bucks the youth-crazed system, as age is the ultimate appeal. Tacking years on is an art form, a test of patience.

"There's no instant gratification in bonsai," Gene Deci said. The retired physics professor shows an oak tree grown from an acorn, its roots spider over a patch of green moss; its smooth trunk scored with knots. The effect took a mere 18 years to create.

Deci has trees in his collection pushing forty. That's a drop a in the bucket in tree time — a bonsai in Tokyo's Imperial Palace is estimated at 550.

Bonsai is pet-ownership and child-raising combined, Deci said.

"You can't go on vacation for a week and expect them to survive," Deci said. Bonsai also grow up too fast, he added. "You spend the first years wanting them to 'grow, grow, grow.' You spend the rest of the time trying to slow them down."

Like either enterprise: "If you love what you're doing, it doesn't feel like work," but even then, a support group helps.

Bonsai, pronounced "bone-sigh," has taken root as a popular social pastime and living art form. Traverse City's Sakura Bonsai Society of Northern Michigan, founded in 1990, now counts 40 members. Newcomers can give bonsai a try this spring for $30, which includes annual membership, a tree collection April 19 and a May 3 Bonsai Basics workshop.

Students will pick trees from the woods, dig them out, pot them properly and begin pruning, wiring, and learning techniques that allow for "ramifications" — the sneaky, years-long process of trimming branches to trick trees into producing dense, miniature versions of leaves and needles.

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