Bonsai blossom in Hampden

March 03, 1993|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Staff Writer

Arschel Morell has found an unlikely place to grow his finicky bonsai trees -- on an odd-shaped patch of ground behind a converted textile mill in Hampden, and inside his basement store in the Mill Center.

Bonsai Associates, also called Ichi-no-eda, is the only place in Baltimore that exclusively sells what you need for the ancient Chinese gardening art -- books, special wire for training tiny branches, cutters, special soil and the shallow pots in which to grow the delicate dwarf plants.

But Mr. Morell's personal collection of 400 bonsai trees is not for sale. His collection includes little pines, junipers, maples, azaleas and a mountain laurel that looks as if it's been beautifully misshapen by wind for centuries. The bonsai trees range in size from a few inches to 3 feet tall.

"This is the wrong business for me to be in," Mr. Morell, a burly man of 61 who wears his hair in a small pony tail that often is sticking out from underneath a Buffalo Bills cap, said Monday.

"I'm a collector of sorts. I will go out in the woods and collect plants. Then someone will come and say, 'How much do you want for it,' and I'll say, 'Oh, that's not for sale.' I find it difficult to let it go."

In growing bonsai trees, he said, a gardener prunes back the roots on a small tree to get it to grow smaller branches and leaves, then trains it by winding wire around the branches to actually mold each branch into a new shape to look as it would in the wild -- often gnarled and wind-swept.

Mr. Morell's collection of Bonsai trees is a testament to his gardening skills -- and to his patience.

"Bonsai makes you into a patient person. You can't create a bonsai tree overnight," he said, explaining that a tree should be studied for a long time before a single branch is pruned.

Before you train or prune a branch, "You have to look at a tree to find the soul of the plant," said Mr. Morell, a retired federal government worker.

"If you do too much to a tree, it could be fatal. You never see your results until a few years later. I tell my students to buy a lot of old plants to work with so you don't bonsai one of them to death."

Outside the store, Mr. Morell has dozens of specimens waiting patiently for their first pruning.

A Ponderosa pine tree about 2 feet tall, dug up for him in Colorado by a friend two years ago, hasn't even been repotted from its galvanized bucket.

Before he makes the first cut, Mr. Morell is waiting to see how the Ponderosa pine adapts to Baltimore weather and to having its roots cut back so drastically.

Mr. Morell's fascination with plants began when he was about 12. He would take cut roses from his uncle's funeral home, stick them in his mother's yard, cover them with old mayonnaise jars -- creating a miniature hot house -- and watch them take root.

Since then, he has dabbled in all types of gardening, including raising orchids.

In 1971, he discovered the beauty of bonsai when he was working in San Francisco as a Medicare examiner. He lived near a Japanese neighborhood and was inspired by the bonsai he saw there.

He began buying small misshapen plants and "tried to keep them alive on the 26th floor of a high- rise. I killed a lot of plants that year."

Since then, he has pruned and molded hundreds of bonsai.

His business, which is open Wednesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., does not bring him much money, he says.

But maybe its because he'll only sell bonsai trees to serious gardeners who appreciate the art form.

"I'm accused by some people of turning customers away," Mr. Morell says. "They say I can tell if you have a black thumb. That's not exactly true, but I discourage people from buying bonsai for wedding gifts" because a young couple might not want to put in the time and effort it takes to care for the trees.

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