Living art: Horticulture, styling vital to molding bonsai

Dr. Gene Manahan has searched the world in his quest to attain knowledge about bonsai gardening.

The retired Lawrence surgeon has traveled to Japan (three times), China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and Hawaii to further learn from bonsai masters the unique and intricate form of growing plants.

Manahan has discovered that the living art is as fascinating as its history and as beautiful as the gardener’s soul who embarks on molding these little trees to their eyes’ fancy.

“You have to learn a little bit about horticulture and a little bit about styling to begin growing bonsai trees,” he says.

Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is derived from the Japanese word “hom,” meaning tray, and “sai” meaning tree. Bonsai have taken on a variety of styles through the centuries. Rocks were introduced into the containers, as were supplementary and accent plants — even small buildings and people, known as the art of bon-kei.

The art of bonsai gardening is a wonderful way to stay occupied with gardening all year round.

But it takes patience.

Tireless enthusiasm

Manahan works tirelessly on the bonsai plants in his garden and greenhouse. He has 15 to 20 hardy bonsai outside, including juniper, elm and black pine, and another 10 or so tropical bonsai in his greenhouse, including bougainvillea, ficus, buttonwood and Fukien tea.

He labels the trees with the dates they were last re-potted, defoliated and root-pruned. He also keeps a detailed journal, with photographs and notes of his bonsai plants’ progress and appearance throughout the year.

Manahan’s bought his oldest bonsai in 1971: a Ginko tree that was 75 to 100 years old at the time. The 3-foot-tall tree sports a gnarled old trunk and stunning yellow leaves.

The beauty of bonsai plants, Manahan says, is age.

“It is not how old the tree is,” he says. “It is how old the tree looks like it is.”

Many of Manahan’s trees were collected from the forest or by taking a clipping from a tree found in nature. Small-leafed varieties are most suitable, but any plant may be used, regardless of the size it grows to in the wild.

“Bonsai are interesting because when some varieties are potted they will adapt and actually reduce the size of their leaves,” Manahan says. “However, their flowers and fruit sizes will remain the same.”


Bonsai can be developed from seeds or cuttings transplanted into containers. They range from 2 inches to nearly 31/2 feet in height. Bonsai are kept small by pruning the branches and roots and by training the shape with wiring.

They are potted in shallow vessels. A bonsai tree should always be positioned somewhat off-center in its container. Not only is asymmetry vital to the visual effect, but the center point is symbolically where heaven and earth meet — and nothing should occupy this space.

Another aesthetic principal is the triangular pattern necessary both for visual balance and as an expression of the relationship shared by a deity, the artist and the tree.

There are two styles of bonsai: classic (koten) and the informal (bunjin). In the classic, the trunk of the tree is wider at the base and tapers off toward the top. The informal style is opposite — and more difficult to master.

How to get started

The art of growing a bonsai tree is quite personal, and there are no strict rules. However, it requires commitments of time, patience, skill, endurance and artistic expression.

Find a shallow container. Manahan suggests not potting in ordinary soil because drainage is of the utmost importance.

“Try using a mixture of baked clay bits with peat moss and a little bit of plain dirt. This concoction works wonderfully for me,” he says. “Sand is OK as well, but great drainage is an absolute must.”

Before planting in the soil, take the young plant and gently spread out and look at its roots. They should be healthy and have many small tendrils. You may trim the excess length off and round out the root ball.

Place the plant in the shallow dish, put the soil mixture over the roots and then let the bonsai grow for about six months without disturbing it other than watering. After the first six months, you may begin to manipulate the plant to achieve a desired look. This is done by wiring around the limbs and/or trunk. A paper-coated wire is best to protect the plant. The wire is usually left on anywhere from three to six months, after which it’s best to repot the plant and trim its roots.

“The roots should be pruned one-third to one-half of the entire root ball,” Manahan says. “Junipers and pines are good plants to get started in bonsai. They are not as difficult because they only have to be re-potted and the roots pruned every two or three years.”

CamelliaFavored in bonsai for their profusion of flowers. Informal upright is generally how they grow with single or multiple trunks.Cedar elmCan survive neglect. One desirable feature is its rough, fissured bark. The specimens are collected from the wild and have an aged look.Chinese elmGood for beginners to bonsai. They have a predictable growth pattern and are forgiving when pruned.CotoneasterHas glossy green foliage and is covered with tiny white flowers. Some varieties produce minute red berries.Dwarf pomegranateSeasonal yellow-orange “trumpet style” flowers. It has a naturally twisting trunk and the leaves are a dark green with shades of bronze.Flowering quinceHave red, pink or white flowers. They have tough, springy branches that are often thorny. The leaves are simple and finely toothed.Fukien teaHave shiny, oval, dark green leaves with a grey-green trunk. They have slightly perfumed flowers which may boom all year round.Jade treeAn evergreen succulent with a thick trunk and branches. The green succulent leaves may develop red edges and produce clusters of white flowers.Japanese mapleA compact tree with delicate ferny foliage and brilliant autumn coloring that varies anywhere from a rich gold to blood red.JuniperHardy, non-flowering evergreen conifers that are easy to grow, prune and train.Bonsai classificationsFormal upright (chokkan): The trunk is kept straight and the tree has a very balanced distributions of branches. The first branch should be the most developed and should be positioned roughly at one-third the height of the tree.Informal upright (moyogi): Is one of the most common styles. This is the most basic design wherein the idea is to develop a single line of the trunk. In this style there should be little or no empty spaces. Most deciduous trees will be best suited for informal upright.Slanting (shakan): The word slanting denotes the direction in which the tree’s trunk moves. A shakan bonsai will have a very distinctive slant, with a properly balanced movement of the trunk and placement of the branches so that the tree does not appear to be lopsided.Cascade (kengai): These trees give the appearance of a waterfall or cascade of foliage which spills over the pot and down toward the ground. The cascade has a long cascading main branch that flows from the lower portion of the trunk to the apex exhibiting both beauty and strength.Windswept (fukinagashi): In this style each of the branches appears to be “swept” to one side, as if being blown by a strong wind. These trees are the replicas of trees usually found in coastal areas where strong environmental forces have given them such a shape.More informationFor more information on bonsai, call the Bonsai Society of Greater Kansas City at (816) 356-5093. The society’s address is P.O. Box 1484, Mission, KS 66222.