In Washington, less than five miles from our celebrated Japanese cherry trees, another gift from the Japanese people is on permanent display for public enjoyment. This new national treasure is a collection of 53 priceless bonsai - dwarfed potted trees - ever-greens, azaleas, maples, beeches and others. The collection was given to the United states by the Japanese people in commemoration of our bicentennial.
The art of growing plants in this form originated in China and in the 14th century, was introduced to Japanwhere it reached its peak of perfection.
Art and horticulture combine in creation of bonsai. The art is in observing certain esthetic rules for training plants, while directing horticultural knowledge to the needs of the plants. The word bonsai (pronounced bone-sign) means "tray planting." The pot or tray is a ceramic container with small "feet" and a drainage hole. The plants may be one or several small trees or shrubs. The aim is to grow a miniature tree that has all the elements of a large tree growing in a natural setting.
Some devoted indoor gardeners might like to expand their horizons by growing bonsai. This fascinating and demanding art can evolve into a lifetime of patient study. If you do not wish to cultivate a bonsai, you may prefer to experience a feeling of peace and harmony through viewing the exquisite forms created by others. To the Japanese, the beauty of a tree isn't as important as the feeling it evokes in the viewer.
While Japanese bonsai are in no sense houseplants, the indoor gardener can create bonsai using familiar houseplants.
In introducing the Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbook, "Bonsai for Indoor," the editor writes: "Bonsai in Japan evolved slowly over many centuries and the plants selected were the best possible ones - for Japanese growing conditions and climate. The art did not have its origins in hot, dry, sometimes poorly lit apartments - the only condition that many Americans provide for plants." The trees so loved by the Japanese usually withered and died in American homes.
Then a few innovative American gardeners began to experiment with houseplants. Tropical and subtropical plants have been grown as houseplants for years but not in the Japanese manner as bonsai. American gardeners have applied esthetic rules of bonsai to create expressions of American culture as the Japanese creations express aspects of their culture. Today, interest in growing bonsai, both outdoor and indoor plants, is widespread in the United States.
By combining traditional procedures for handing houseplants with bonsai concepts, growers have created different and freer bonsai styles.
Bonsai are kept small by a combination of top and root pruning and growing in small containers. New growth is trained by refined techniques of wiring. Not all plants are equally effective successfully grown as houseplants are suitable and are readily trained.
Each gardener should select plants plants that grow best in his home. Examples are: Citrus species such as calamondin orange, mistletoe fig (Ficus diversifolia), dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum nana), sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera), and Pittosporum tobira. Although any plant which is pleasing to the eye can be dwarfed, varieties with small foliage, flowers and fruit are preferable to maintain the scale of the dwarfed tree.
All the need to get started is a suitable plant, some basic tools, soil, copper wire and a pot. Meantime, make a special pilgrimage to the U.S. National Arboretum at 24th and R Streets NE, to see both American and Japanese specimens of this art form.
On Saturday and Sunday there will be a bonsai exhibition at the Arboretum, sporsored by the Potomac Bonsai Association. The exhibit is open to the public free of charge. The hours are 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On Wednesday, May 18, at 1 p.m. in the auditorium of the Arboretum and introductory film on bonsai, produced by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, will be shown. Following the film, Robert Dreschler, curator of the Japanese bonsai, will conduct a tour of the Japanese garden and the pavilion where the bonsai are displayed. It is open to the public 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
An increasing amount of literature is available on selection of plants and training them according to bonsai rules. Useful guides for beginners are:
"Growing bonsai," House and Garden Bulletin 206, 1973, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., 20250.
"Bonsai for Indoors," Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbook, 1976, from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1000 Washington Ave. Brooklyn, N.Y., 11225. $1.75 postpaid.
"The Art of Training Plants," by Ernesta Drinker Ballard, Barnes & Noble, N.Y., 1974 paperback reprint, $1.95.
In addition, many popular books on indoor gardening give brief coverage which will stimulate your imagination and further inquiry.
Other sources of information are:
Potomac Bonsai Association, Col. John W. Hinds, 1611 Taylor Ave., Oxon Hill, Md. 20022.
Bonsai Clubs International, Horace Hinds Jr., executive secretary, 445 Blake St., Menlo Park, Cal., 94025.
The American Bonsai Society, Lynn Perry Alstadt, executive secretary, 228 Rosemont Ave., Erie, Pa., 16505.