Carmen Leskoviansky

Carmen Leskoviansky, Matthaei-Nichols staff collections and natural areas specialist, works on a bonsai.

By Folasade Adegbenro

Each intern in the Nature Academy internship program at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum chooses a summer project to research and report on. The project culminates in a poster displayed in Matthaei’s public indoor spaces. Interns also write a blog post about their project concept or the research they’ve conducted.

This summer, I am working in the Bonsai & Penjing Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens with Carmen Leskoviansky, our staff collections and natural areas specialist. My job consists of watering, weeding, pruning, and wiring the bonsai. Currently, I am also working on a project to identify pests and the methods needed to manage them. Knowing how bonsai are grown is important to understanding all facets of their care, including pest management.

Bonsai are woody plants that are kept miniaturized in small pots and containers. In Japanese, bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) means “tray planting” or “potted trees.” An art style that originated in China years ago, called penjing, was later adapted by the Japanese into bonsai. The process is done by placing a live tree in a miniature pot to inhibit its growth and then pruning and wiring the trees to shape. In practice, any tree can be made into a bonsai; however, some are more difficult to grow and maintain than others.

Since bonsai is the art of styling trees, there are basic guidelines hobbyists and artists usually follow, but once bonsai artists learn these they have the liberty to bend the rules.

Bonsai pine in the MBG garden

A beautifully styled Japanese white pine in the Bonsai & Penjing Garden at Matthaei.

Bonsai styles-group

The style of the tree depends on the shape and form of the trunk. Common bonsai styles (pictured here) include upright variations, slant, cascades, root-over-rocks, forest, and raft, and there are many others that can be created if the artist is daring enough.

Then there are size classifications for the bonsai as well. Shohin is the name of the miniature varieties, and Omono for the larger, for example. The Japanese proclaim simplicity is the best way to develop bonsai. The bends and cuts of the tree should be natural, the flowers the same color, and the apex or peak should come toward the viewer.

Bonsai artists don’t only remove the leaves and prune the branches of the trees. Like other plants, bonsai need to be watered. Trees should be checked at least twice daily and watered as needed. In hot, dry, or windy conditions it’s best to check, and likely water, even more. Every year, when new growth pushes out and hardens, it is time to prune some of it back in order for the shape to be maintained and allow for more growth for next year. After cutting and pruning, there will sometimes be open spaces that can make the tree seem off-balance or unnatural. The next step is wiring. Typical bonsai wires are made out of aluminum or copper. Using one’s hands or a tool, the wires are wrapped around the branches. Once the wires are secured, the branches can be moved to a desired spot and will stay in position. This is no rush job: wiring can take from four to 70 hours in total. The size of the tree and how many branches extend from the trunk are huge factors in the time it will take to wire a tree. I recommend that you exaggerate how far you move the branch, because once the wires are removed, the branch will move back to its original position slightly. The wires should also be removed before they dig into the branches and leave a mark.

Robins eggs in bonsai garden

This past week, we had a distinguished American bonsai artist, Bjorn Bjorholm, visit our garden to work on our pines and yews. Bjorn did his apprenticeship in Japan, thus he is very well-versed in bonsai. Together we worked on the trees, getting one ready for a show, and others as part of our seasonal maintenance. Bjorn has been a very big help, and we thank him for taking the time to work on our collection. Bonsai is relaxing yet painstaking work, and with time one sees the many changes their tree will go through.

Yew in bonsai garden

This more than 100-year-old Japanese yew in the Matthaei-Nichols collection has been growing since 1903 and styled since 1957.

As a public garden we are blessed with avid volunteers and members of the local bonsai society who want to work on the bonsai. With more than 70 trees in our collection it’s quite a job to maintain all of them during the growing season.

And our little bonsai house get small visitors every day. Tiny tree frogs hide under the pots, so if you find yourself in the bonsai house working, be careful moving the pots, you wouldn’t want to crush the little guys.

Birds try to make nests in the trees, and butterflies drink from the fertilizer tea bags. Sometimes, we get annoying pests like borers and mealybugs that invade the trees, and unfortunately they must be treated with a pesticide. However, if the trees are healthy, pests are kept to a bare minimum.

Bjorn Bjorholm

Visiting bonsai artist Bjorn Bjorholm works on a tree in the Matthaei-Nichols collection. Bjorn visited June 19-21 to consult and work on our bonsai collection.

Sade Adegbenro

Folasade Adegbenro, from Sterling Heights, Mich., is majoring in neuroscience. She is the bonsai garden and medicinal garden intern at Matthaei-Nichols. Sade is excited about learning how to take care of various bonsai specimens and being able to identify native plant species. Her internship was made possible by a gift from Jerry and Rhona Meislik and Dr. Melvyn Goldstein to provide support for the ongoing care of the bonsai and penjing collection at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum.