Bonsai: An Inherited Passion

Words and Photography by Jerome Tavé

Bonsai is a Japanese tradition that dates back to more than one thousand years ago. It is best described as an art of growing miniature trees within containers, to celebrate beauty and love of nature. Since trees can live for hundreds of years, for those who grow bonsai, it is a passion that continues to be passed down from generation to generation. 

For me, it all started about 3 years ago, shortly after my grandmother left this world. Toward the end of her life, she lived in a place of natural beauty and quiet retreat in the Bel-Air community of Los Angeles, now named the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden (appropriately named after her by her husband.) This beautiful hillside garden is modeled on the gardens of Kyoto and was designed by noted Japanese garden designer Nagao Sakurai in 1959 and constructed between 1959 and 1961. It is still recognized as one of the finest examples of Japanese gardens in America and was donated to the University of California in 1964.

Unfortunately, after her passing, the garden was closed and its survival was threatened. UCLA announced plans to sell the garden, citing rising costs, deferred maintenance, and the lack of attendance due to limited parking. That’s when our family realized that matters needed to be taken into our own hands. A call was made to close relatives to come and rescue the twelve bonsai trees, since they could be easily removed from the garden and preserved elsewhere. I had always been interested in bonsai, but never knew where to start. Now I was just going to have to dive into the deep end.

I ended up with a Juniper bonsai, which must have been fairly neglected by the time i retrieved it. Lucky for me, juniper bonsais are pretty hearty and love the California climate. My first priority would be to bring it back to full health, so I immediately sought help from a bonsai master in Topanga Canyon who set me on the right path. Shortly thereafter, the tree kept me company during my move to San Francisco, occupying the passenger seat of my U-Haul van, pricking me every now and again to remind me it was there.

The tree is around 40 years old. The trunk has a very dramatic bend in it, and there is a jin (intentionally created dead wood) on the front of the tree. The texture of the bark and the tiny needles work together to create the illusion of a very wise and mature tree. It’s really humbling to think that it has been around almost twice as long as I have, receiving special care and attention from someone else’s hands for all of those years. I often catch myself staring into it and letting my mind wander. It is a perpetual source of inspiration. This tree has a special place in my heart, serving as a living memory of my grandmother, and I’ve developed a close bond with it.

I’m still very new to the art of bonsai, but have learned a tremendous amount already thanks to the experienced bonsai masters from the Bonsai Society of San Francisco. It is an ongoing learning experience, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far: 

1. Caring for a bonsai is much more than just having a houseplant for decoration. As bonsai master Saburo Kato describes it, raising bonsai is like raising a child. You need to be a teacher and guide to provide structure for the developing tree, and at the same time, make sure you’re doing it with patience and loving care. You need to treat your plants as you do your family.

2. When viewed at eye level, a bonsai tree must be designed in a way that produces an illusion of a real mature tree. In order to achieve this effect, you use specific techniques such as pruning and wiring around branches with copper wire, to be able to bend those branches into the desired position. It is also very important to learn about the strengths and characteristics of each plant. 

3. Bonsai trees have a front and back. The front is the side from which you intend the tree to be viewed. In this way, you can have more control over the visual composition, playing with positive and negative spaces. A balance needs to be found between what you want to do with the tree and how the tree is going to respond to it.

4. Despite all the time and work put into raising a bonsai tree, it is never finished. It continues to grow and change, much like we do. As the tree develops, it is visual evidence that time is passing, and a good reminder to enjoy and make the most of each day. It’s a very slow and thoughtful craft that promotes the appreciation of human virtues such as truth, goodness, beauty, and patience.

After some time attending to a bonsai tree, you can start to develop a sense of what the plant would say if it could speak to you. You’ll know if it needs more water, or fertilizer, or if it needs to be repotted. At that point, you’ll know you’ve formed a close relationship with the plant. At the end of the day, bonsai trees bring to light the essence and dignity of life, responding to your love and becoming your loyal friend.