Everything you don’t know about the ancient horticulture art of bonsai likely begins with its pronunciation.
While most people pronounce it “baun-sigh,” the correct way is “bone-sigh,” according to Peter Camarena, president of the Modesto Bonsai Club.
That proper pronunciation, bonsai displays, demonstrations, tips for beginners, sales, auctions and more will be offered today and Sunday at the club’s 33rd annual Bonsai Spring Show, held at the Park Inn by Radisson Modesto.
Bonsai – Japanese for “tree in a pot” – originated in China in around 200 A.D., and the art spread several hundred years later to Japan. The art of bonsai was introduced in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Expert help, once found only in Japan and China, today is readily available at bonsai clubs and shops around the world. The American Bonsai Society lists clubs across the United States and Canada, including the Modesto group, whose members welcome beginners and are happy to offer that expert advice.
“It is important to learn the horticultural aspect of a plant in order to understand what it takes to keep a plant healthy,” Camarena said in an email interview. “However, after the basics are understood, it then becomes an art in order to style the tree.
“It is often referred to as a ‘living art.’ This is because while you may feel a similar emotion when viewing a painting or drawing, it is never really finished, as the tree will constantly grow and change,” he continued. “The art of bonsai is to make a tree or planting in miniature to appear to be that of full-size trees in nature. When looking at a bonsai tree, the viewer can be transported to a pleasant experience from a time and place in their past.”
For Camarena – who, with his wife, got involved in bonsai about 10 years ago and joined the Modesto club – working with the miniature trees has become “a relaxing time to unwind from the pressures of our fast-paced world.”
His wife, Anne, also enjoys collecting suiseki, or viewing stones, which are stones that naturally depict shapes, scenes, waterfalls and even flowers. Some suiseki also will be on display at this weekend’s show.
The Modesto Bonsai Club formed in 1977 with just five or six enthusiasts who met monthly at a member’s home, Camarena said. “The club has grown and shrunk over the years. We are currently about 25 members.”
Members – who mostly join the club with little or no experience, “but a desire to learn about the fascinating world of the ‘little trees,’ ” Camarena said – meet the third Saturday of each month at the Stanislaus County Ag Center in Modesto to exchange ideas, techniques and experiences while learning and working on their bonsai trees.
They also gather advice from the club’s sensei.
“Sensei is the Japanese word for teacher or mentor,” Camarena said. “Our first sensei was George Fujita, who just passed away at the age of 86 last January. Our current sensei is Sam Adina, who learned from George. George recommended that Sam study under Boon Manakitivipart, an award-winning bonsai master from the Bay Area.”
Adina, of Stockton, began working with bonsai about 14 years ago, originally in search of nothing more than a hobby.
He started that search by raising orchids. “After watering, I saw there’s nothing to do,” Adina said. Bored, he got rid of his orchids and tried raising koi, but a technical power glitch caused his koi to die. So a friend suggested bonsai.
“I was looking for something to do that is not going out, just staying home,” Adina said. Since, he has become a master and his hobby has become more of a career as he works with clubs and clients throughout the region.
Bonsai trees are not dwarf species, but actually trees that are trained to remain pot-size. If left to grow in nature, the trees would attain their normal size, Camarena said. Wires, trimming and adjusting the soil height are just some of the techniques used to train the trees into the shape desired and to create the artful scenes.
“A tree will only grow as large as its feeding system will allow,” he said. “By regular trimming of the leaves and branches and the pruning of the roots, a tree can be kept healthy and vigorous in a very small container. Depending on the type and age of the plant, the branches are done every few months and the roots trimmed every two or three years.”
The shapes and scenes depicted vary depending on the person creating the bonsai – hence the art behind the horticulture. One piece that will be in this weekend’s show depicts three trees growing out of rock, reminiscent of a cliff scene one might see in the Monterey area.
And bonsai isn’t limited to trees. Camarena showed a miniature grape plant that, in the autumn, bears tiny red fruit. Succulents and other plants also can be used.
This weekend’s show is for both experienced bonsai enthusiasts and for those who know nothing about the subject. “We will have an exhibit of club trees of many different types and our members will be there to answer questions about bonsai,” Camarena said.
Adina also will offer demonstrations beginning at 2 p.m. both days.