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The Gift of Bonsai

Chris Baker —  December 17, 2014 — Leave a comment

Thirteen years ago, when I was working as an exotic animal veterinary technician, I bought my friend a gift—a juniper bonsai—that would set me on a course that I never could have imagined.

I already had a yard full of tropical plants, succulents, and orchids, but once I added my first bonsai, I knew something had changed. It was the beginning of a journey that took me from Gainesville, Florida, to Washington, D.C., to Japan and finally here to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I am the curator in charge of the Bonsai Collection, which is known as one of the best of its kind in the world.

PHOTO: Chris Baker pruning bonsai.

Tending this large bonsai is a delicate task.

Shortly after I purchased my first tree, I started learning about bonsai and joined a prominent bonsai club in Gainesville. In 2006, Gainesville (home of the Gators) hosted the State Bonsai Convention. That weekend was an eye-opening experience for me, as I got to learn from and assist international bonsai artists like Jim Smith, Colin Lewis, and others. That weekend convention was very influential and would fuel my desire to continue learning.

Less than a year after that convention, I had an opportunity to move to Baltimore, Maryland, and work at the National Aquarium. I quickly joined the Baltimore Bonsai Society and continued learning. Feeling more and more drawn to a career in horticulture, I made the move from veterinary technician to horticulturist of the Rainforest Exhibit at the National Aquarium. This opportunity made me think that I actually could have a career working with bonsai. Then, during a Baltimore Bonsai Club event at the National Arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C., I had a chance meeting with the curator Jack Sustic. I introduced myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Chris Baker. I have aspirations of being a bonsai curator some day, and I would like to volunteer here at the collection.” That sentence would forever alter my path. My time as a volunteer and then intern at the National Arboretum was inspirational and educational, and ultimately would lead me to Japan.

Jack Sustic would become a mentor and friend; he introduced me to Torhu Suzuki at the Daijuen Bonsai Nursery in Okazaki, Japan, where he had spent some time. Suzuki, or “Oyakata” (an honorific reserved for a person of high authority) as we would call him, was a third-generation bonsai master and prominent figure in Japanese bonsai culture. In 2012, I spent six months as an apprentice at Daijuen. In that time I learned so many lessons and skills that I use every day. It also gave me an entirely different perspective on how the practice of bonsai has evolved in Japan for centuries.

In April 2014, I started as the curator of bonsai at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Having the opportunity to be the first full-time curator here at a collection of this caliber is a dream job, which comes with a lot of expectations and responsibility. During the display season (April to November), horticulturists Joe Olsen and Gabe Hutchinson provided great support in keeping the trees watered and benches looking great for our visitors. The remaining trees are kept on the south end of the Garden, in the production area. Brian Clark, manager of plant production, and his team help care for the trees on my days off. Last but not least, the support of my 12 volunteers is essential. They are a great team of dedicated people who each brings something different to the Collection. 

PHOTO: Volunteer Eileen Michal working on Bonsai with Chris Baker.

Volunteer Eileen Michal working on the Collection with me.

I’m often asked what has drawn me to bonsai, and why would I pursue a career in it, with only ten or so full-time curator jobs in the entire country? For me, bonsai starts with an appreciation of nature over all things. An ancient tree has the power to move people and evoke emotion. It’s what inspired the Chinese centuries ago to take something of beauty they saw in nature and grow it in a container.

Creating bonsai takes the eye of an artist, the horticultural knowledge of a botanist, and the hands of a mechanic. I have been painting and creating art with many mediums for years. I often draw my trees prior to styling them. It allows me to see different style ideas before I even touch a single branch. I love the horticultural aspect of bonsai, from soil science, to fertilizing, to advanced techniques of grafting and air layering. To me, the mechanical aspect is fun as well. I enjoy making large bends in branches using rebar and guy wires on developmental trees, as well as doing the fine detail work for a show-quality tree. A bonsai is never finished, and the skills and knowledge of a true bonsai expert take a lifetime of study to master and fully understand all it has to offer.

Bonsai has taught me many things, introduced me to wonderful people, and taken me to places I never thought I’d see…At this point in my life, it just seems silly for me to do anything else.

PHOTO: Bonsai Book

Know someone else curious about the Garden’s Bonsai Collection? Bonsai: A Patient Art makes a great gift.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Have you been to the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden lately? If you have, you probably saw some of the garden staff perching in the branches of the niwaki. We’re not building nests or hiding out; we’re candling.

PHOTO: Niwaki near the Japanese Garden bridge.

In early spring, a niwaki near the bridge stands in need of candling.

Niwaki

Niwaki, literally translated, means “garden tree.” Some people think of niwaki as big bonsai, but that relationship isn’t exactly right. Bonsai translates to “tray (or pot) planting.” While we may think of niwaki as big bonsai, we should try to think of bonsai as niwaki in a pot. The purpose of the two arts are the same; they represent the essence of the tree.

If you consider how bonsai and niwaki are styled, they give the impression of age. The trees may be windswept or upright, often with gnarled bark and wide trunks. We achieve these effects by holding branches vertically with string tied to the ground, with fall pruning, and with candling in both spring and summer.

What’s candling?

In spring, we all know things start to grow again: seeds sprout, perennials push out growth from the roots, and trees break dormancy. In pine trees, these shoots of new growth are called “candles.” When we candle, we break off part of the new growth to stimulate growth from lower nodes. (In other plants, we often refer to this as “pinching.”)

PHOTO: Closeup of the tip of a pine branch, showing new growth.

A closeup of this Pinus sylvestris shows where the candle was broken last year and where you expect the new growth to emerge.

The result of breaking these candles is that the new growth spreads more horizontally than vertically, and the density of the pads increase, which makes them appear more lush and healthy over time. We never purposely take off an entire candle, because it removes the most actively growing point and takes longer to recover.

Why candle?

The pine shoots that emerge in spring are called candles for a reason: they tend to be very tall, skinny cylinders like taper or dinner candles. If we let this growth continue, the growth from one pad would grow into the next pad within a few short years. By the time this would happen, much, if not all the original pad would be woody, old, and almost impossible to repair. So in order to maintain the appearance of these trees, we need to candle every year. 

PHOTO: Uncandled new growth on the Japanese Garden pine trees.

If allowed to grow, these new shoots would quickly take over.

How long does it take?

There are 180 trees in the Malott Japanese Garden trained in this style. Each tree can take anywhere from eight hours to multiple days, depending on the size and on the person who is working on it. Most of the trees at the entrance to the garden will take eight hours for some of our speedier employees. Most days, during our regular hours, you can expect to see between two to five employees in the trees.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Journey to Kokufu

The Garden's Curator of Bonsai and Newest Bonsai Book Travel to Japan

Karen Z. —  April 4, 2013 — Leave a comment
KANJI TEXT: To Garden is to Learn.

Niwa ni manabu koto desu.
To garden is to learn.

PHOTO: Overhead shot of viewing room.

The main gallery at Kokufu.

That’s why Ivan Watters, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s curator of bonsai, travels to Japan every year to attend Kokufu — the Japan National Bonsai Exhibition and most important bonsai show in the world.

“It’s a true learning experience,” he says. “You pick up technical ideas, artistic ideas, and learn a few bonsai tricks.” For example? “The first branch of an informal upright bonsai should come out of the midline across the front of the trunk. But the unconventional branch on one entry started at the back of the trunk and wrapped around to the side, with a secondary branch positioned to hide the manipulation.” It’s a vivid description, sure to be shared with his bonsai volunteers.

PHOTO: Ivan Watters

Bonsai curator Ivan Watters arranges a speciment at a photo shoot for Bonsai: A Patient Art.

Watters is a long-time member of the Nippon Bonsai Association, the venerable group that sponsors the exhibit. Held this year (for the 87th time) at the recently renovated Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Kokufu brought together 204 of the most outstanding trees in the country, culled from 500 entries. As always, requirements for entry are firm. Trees must reside in Japan (quarantine issues prohibit the Garden from competing) and, if selected, entrants must wait three years to compete again in the show.

This year marked Watters’ 20th year attending the show. What caught his eye this year? One large bonsai that combined nine separate Japanese white pines, each more than 100 years old. “It was the majesty of it,” he remarks, “so beautifully placed in their container.” Also large in scale were several bonsai from the Imperial Palace Collection, holding pride of place at the entrance to the show. Displayed on burgundy velvet cloths, the imperial bonsai befit the proportions of the Imperial Palace — many imperial trees are more than 500 years old and have been in the collection for more than 300 years.

Watters took a side trip to the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama, and to a small exhibit (just eight trees) at a temple celebrating ume season, the flowering of Japan’s plum or apricot trees.

PHOTO: Susumu Nakamura trains a bonsai.

Bonsai master Susumu Nakamura tends a white pine that he donated to the Garden.

The trip wasn’t all business. Watters also hosted an 81st birthday party for bonsai master Susumu Nakamura at the latter’s favorite eel restaurant, Izuei. Nakamura, the former vice chairman of Kokufu, donated 19 of his trees to the Garden’s collection in 2000. (Only one other donated tree has come to America, at the United States Botanic Garden.) On this latest trip to Japan, Watters gifted Nakamura with a copy of the Garden’s newest publication, Bonsai: A Patient Art. The beautifully photographed book illuminates the intricacies of bonsai in both art and history. Most of the trees that came from Nakamura are included in its pages, including an extremely fine example of a formal upright bonsai, the white pine shown here, which has been trained for at least 100 years.  

This spring, Watters and his volunteers are busy repotting more than 100 bonsai trees in preparation for the reopening of the bonsai courtyards on April 29. Watters is also teaching bonsai workshops. Bonsai Basics on June 1 is a good first class to begin your learning.

PHOTO: Bonsai Book

Curious about the Japanese trees at the heart of the Garden’s bonsai collection? Bonsai: A Patient Art is available to purchase. This stunning volume presents more than sixty living masterpieces from the Garden’s collection. Board member and bonsai enthusiast Robert H. Malott supported publication of this beautiful book.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

While many city-dwellers might be noticing a serious lack of snow this season, winter finally arrived at Chicago Botanic Garden last week.

The first significant snowfall of the season gave the Garden a perfect white coat for winter. What better reason for a walk through the Malott Japanese Garden?

Many consider winter to be the Japanese Garden’s most beautiful season. Its design emphasizes nature’s forms like clouds, stones and hills. In winter, pruned magnolias, azaleas, forsythia, quince, as well as smooth lumps of yews and junipers, resemble white boulders or fluffy clouds. Open-pruned pines, wired to maximize long and borrowed views, are natural snow catchers, offering up their own cushions of snow. Even the lanterns are designed to catch and display light snowfall.

To learn more about celebrating winter in Japanese culture, be sure to check out the Three Friends of Winter show, held at the end of January each year. 


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Three Friends of Winter

Julie McCaffrey —  January 29, 2010

The annual Three Friends of Winter exhibition highlights the bonsai in winter, when its structure is at its most elegant. This Bonsai exhibition is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. January 29-31, 2010. Want to try your own hand at learning the art of Bonsai? The Joseph Regenstein Jr. School holds classes throughout the year. Register online at chicagobotanic.org/school. For more information on the Three Friends of Winter event, visit chicagobotanic.org/plantshows/three_friends.