It is easy to fall under the spell of a bonsai. To see a tree reduced by human hands to a fraction of its size and shaped to appear as though it had been ravaged by sea and wind since time immemorial, is to want one for your own.
You can acquire a bonsai ready-made from commercial sources or you can create one of your own. If you lack the patience of the great Oriental masters, who spend lifetimes pruning and bending trunks and branches, beginning when the trees are saplings, you can take the instant route and reduce to a miniature a regular plant.
The art of bonsai -- artificial dwarfing of trees and growing them in the confinement of a container -- originated in China more than a thousand years ago, and spread to Japan in the 14th century. In the late 1880s the art began to make its way to the western world.
Traditionally, the Japanese obtained their specimens from the wild. They sought trees contorted by nature, whose lines could then be followed in keeping the trees dwarfed as they aged.
These days when bonsai hobbyists are unable to locate the proper wild material, they turn to nursery stock as a substitute.
For newcomers to the bonsai art, whittling down a garden-type shrub provides virtually instantaneous gratification. That does not mean that a plant can be completely shaped overnight (a bonsai requires constant and ceaseless refining throughout its life), but that the wait for development is substantially decreased. Beginners are likely to find it much harder to work with a sprout whose eventual form they'd have to imagine than to remove, from an established plant, growth that's already in place. For a pro, on the other hand, to mold a tree from infancy is to demonstrate one's skill and artistry.
You can get the hang of creating a bonsai in a few lessons. Arschel Morell, for example, gives a series of eight classes in a beginner's course he offers at his studio, Ichi-No-Eda of Bonsai Associates, at 3000 Mill Centre, 3000 Chestnut St., 235-5336. (Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays.)
A retired government employee, Mr. Morell first learned the art through reading, observing and experimenting with plants. He later studied with a fellow bonsai enthusiast, and in 1987 opened a shop, which has now been expanded to include a teaching studio. It is the only facility in Maryland, he says, where the public can obtain lessons, supplies and plants at the same place.
For people who prefer to learn on their own, Mr. Morell suggests first reading Sunset's "Bonsai," (Lane Books) and then advancing to "The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes," by Yuji Yoshimura and Giovanna M. Halford (Charles E. Tuttle Company). They can join a bonsai club, or attend meetings or demonstrations open to the public. The National Arboretem also offers classes and programs besides housing world-renowned bonsai collections for study.
The easiest plant to train as a bonsai, Mr. Morell says, is a Sargent Juniper. "It's very forgiving and pliable," he explains -- to the point where it can practically be tied in a knot. Even when almost all the foliage is cut off, a juniper will rejuvenate itself. Suited to shaping as a small pine, it will grow indoors as well as outside. (Many bonsais are strictly outdoor plants and won't survive for any extended period in the house.) The juniper Mr. Morell supplies to students is 5 years old
and planted in a gallon container.
Begin your bonsai, he says, by studying it from all sides to determine which of its lower branches would look best as the very bottom one. Then remove all the branches below it. The lowest branch, which should be a third of the tree's height, then becomes the guide for shortening the tree if the top exceeds the prescribed measurement.
In pruning a bonsai, strive for a pleasing arrangement of branches -- none should be directly opposite. It also adds interest to the design to expose glimpses of the trunk. A special shallow bonsai container will be needed to house your plant and the rootball trimmed to fit it. Finish shaping the bonsai before putting it in its new pot, Mr. Morell says. Once the bonsai is settled in the pot, it should be left alone to recover from the trauma. As a plant enlarges, it will need pinching and wiring to keep it dwarf and keep it adhering to its shape. As growth is removed, the roots will require trimming back as well.
In a year or two, depending on the age of the plant when you started, your bonsai will require re-potting.The older a plant is, zTC Mr. Morell says, the more time it takes for roots to rejuvenate and the longer the intervals before re-potting becomes necessary.
A bonsai, he adds, must never dry out. To water one, submerge the pot every couple of days or so in a pan of water until the water stops bubbling. Spray the plant with water in between times. Misting is especially beneficial to junipers, which may attract spider mites when dry.