A work of art, in miniature

Bonsai enthusiasts immerse themselves in a weekend of learning at the Pennsylvania home of a master

Short Hop

October 20, 2002|By Lester A. Picker | Lester A. Picker,Special to the Sun

Imagine admiring a 500-year-old ponderosa pine glistening in the sun, noting its crooked branches, its sturdy yet gnarled trunk, its prickly green needles. Now imagine picking it up and moving it to a shadier location.

Superhuman effort? Not if you grow bonsai trees.

Bonsai is the art of growing and shaping dwarf trees in small containers. Originating in China and Japan more than a thousand years ago, the hobby is getting so popular in the United States that even Home Depot sells the tiny trees.

And now there is a way to have your own bonsai immersion weekend, studying with a bonsai master in Pennsylvania and seeing the bonsai collection at nearby Longwood Gardens.

My odyssey into bonsai began more than 25 years ago, when I lived in Maine. Like most beginners, I began by killing several trees. Fast-forward to a few years ago, when a visit to the bonsai collection at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., renewed my interest. Today, my wife, Leslie, and I are the proud owners of a dozen healthy bonsai trees.

After reading everything we could about growing bonsai and joining the Baltimore Bonsai Society, we were ready for a more intensive learning experience.

Searching the Inter-net, I found Michael Persiano, considered one of the foremost bonsai designers in the country. His articles about bonsai are widely read, and his book on growing Japanese pines is due out this winter.

Persiano and his wife, Sarah, offer weekend workshops in their Downingtown, Pa., home, less than two hours from Baltimore (although the package does not include lodging). So one Friday, Leslie and I packed our trees and headed north.

Longwood Gardens

The route to Persiano's house took us right past Longwood Gardens, the former estate of Pierre S. du Pont and now a world-renowned horticultural center that caters to more than 900,000 visitors a year.

We were eager to see the bonsai display, recently relocated to quarters that highlight the small masterpieces as never before. The facility is state-of-the-art, with climate controls and a snow-melting system for the roof. The exhibit space allows visitors to see the bonsai even in their winter dormancy, which for Korean hornbeams, Chinese elms and various maples is among the best times to view them.

The gardeners and carpentry crew at Longwood came up with their own system to display the bonsai, using slatted pau lope, a plantation-grown hardwood from South America. The rich features of each tree stand out for viewers to admire.

The hushed tone in Longwood's bonsai space reflects the trees' majesty and provides a Zen moment, which is what growing bonsai is all about.

Similarly, Persiano's trees are so visually stunning that they evoked gasps from my wife when later we toured his meticulously landscaped back yard.

There are perfectly balanced white and black pines, magnificent hornbeams, stately elms and entire groves of maples growing in shallow pots, each tree expressing Persiano's art and achieved through his sometimes revolutionary carving and fertilizing techniques.

Rather than a formal Japanese garden, the Persianos have designed their collection around their swimming pool, adding an Ameri-can touch to the Eastern art.

Over wine and a wonderful home-cooked meal prepared by Michael and Sarah, we discussed our passion for bonsai, our short-term and long-term goals and his somewhat iconoclastic views of the art.

For a hobbyist like me, the evening was akin to sitting at the feet of Buddha. At this point, Persiano had not yet seen our trees, and I was keenly aware of the difference between his artistic creations and our fledgling ones.

Yet, sitting in the Persianos' comfortable dining room, with their 92-pound Doberman, Duke, on one side and their talking parrots, Tortellini and Sake, on the other, Leslie and I agreed that we needn't worry.

The Persianos live about four miles from the Duling-Kurtz House & Country Inn, an 1830s-era bed and breakfast that's been magnificently restored.

Although we weren't able to stay at the inn this trip, we have been there, and each of its rooms, named after a famous early American (with the exception of the Winston Churchill suite), is decorated with antiques, and some rooms have fireplaces and sitting rooms.

The inn also has a four-star restaurant with a romantic ambience, including small rooms that help keep down the noise. Before dinner, take a stroll through the lovely gardens. There is a stream and a lighted path that meanders through the property.

'Creating living art'

Saturday, we arrived promptly at 9 a.m. to take another peek at Persiano's trees and to begin work on ours. After breakfast, which the Persianos had ready for us, we began work on the six trees we brought.

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