Columbia bonsai aficionado's big interest in tiny trees grew out of trip to Japan

April 20, 1994|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Special to the Sun

'TC Lloyd Rozeboom can, indeed, see the forest as well as the 22 trees that line his 40-foot-long balcony. As a matter of fact, he watches his bonsai woodland daily.

As spring fulfills its promise, the miniature evergreens now are displaying a new growth of bright green needles; the other trees, with twisted gray bark and most under a foot tall, are still barren but beautiful in various sculptural shapes.

Having potted, pruned and tended each tree -- some for as long as 35 years -- the 85-year-old resident of the Vantage House Retirement Community in Columbia knows every branch of every specimen that grows in his collection.

"Before making a drastic cut, I think about it for a long, long time -- even years," said Dr. Rozeboom, who keeps the collection in a 4-by-40-foot balcony off the apartment's living room. "I set the tree in a special place, and I study it for several hours. It's very relaxing."

The medical entomologist and professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore became interested in bonsai -- the Japanese art of growing dwarf plants -- 35 years ago when he and his wife, Mae, took a trip to Japan while they were living in the Philippines.

At the time, Dr. Rozeboom was teaching and conducting research through an exchange professorship at Hopkins.

He started looking at the shapes and growth patterns of bonsai trees, imagining how he would re-create those forms.

"I'd be walking in the woods, and I would say, 'Oh,

what a beautiful tree; this would be nice as a bonsai,' " he said.

Before long, the professor was growing saplings in coffee cans. He now has two miniature "forests" -- collections of more than one plant in a single pot -- along with a number of single plants in separate pots.

One such forest is made up of of seven 10-inch-tall maple trees; the other consists of two evergreens just over a foot tall.

Single potted trees include Japanese maples, American elms, beeches, junipers, pines, spruces and cypresses. In addition, Mrs. Rozeboom's love for flowers has inspired the growth of miniature azalea bushes.

Mrs. Rozeboom, a former home economist with the University of Oklahoma's extension service, said cultivation of the plants requires "getting them adjusted to living in a pot" outdoors in a location with no direct sun.

After deciding what shape a tree should be, it is pruned and the branches are bent and wired into the desired shape. Roots of the saplings are wired to the container to prevent being dislodged from the pot.

"You have to take care of the trees a little every day," Dr. Rozeboom said. "And you need to be prepared to water them every day all summer long and to trim them all the time."

In the fall, the couple bury the roots of the trees in boxes of peat moss to protect them from the weather. During the spring, the plants are removed, their roots and tops are pruned, and they are repotted into fresh soil. In the summer, they feed the specimens and keep the soil moist.

In time, the trees adapt to their restricted environment, taking on the shape of a full-grown tree, but in miniature form.

"Gradually, the leaves will shrink. It's a slow process. You need to be patient," Dr. Rozeboom said.

Recently, as he took a stroll around his collection, he inspected the trees for signs of damage from the harsh winter.

"Here's a red maple that I started as a small seedling," Dr. Rozeboom said as he motioned toward a miniature tree with sculpted gray bark that has hints of green in its stark branches.

Each tree is at least 20 years old and has a story behind it.

The miniature elm, for instance, is the offspring of a tree that was growing on the front lawn of the couple's former home in Baltimore, where they lived for 26 years.

A 30-year-old dwarf red maple tree was once a sapling that had sprung from the side of a building.

A spruce tree that is growing horizontally used to be a shrub "cascading down a hillside along the lakes of Minnesota."

Some of the trees were purchased from nurseries; others were gifts.

The Rozebooms stress that patience is the key to learning the art of bonsai.

"You need to start when you are young," Mrs. Rozeboom said, laughing as she referred to the age of their trees.

Her husband, however, said he is "very much tempted to find another tree in the woods and start all over."

"I love to sit in an alcove with the radio playing classical music and watch the plants," he said.

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