Small wonders tell big stories
It's an early October afternoon up at the Japanese Garden, and the weather gods have been kind.
Sunlight streams through the trees, backlighting the beautiful bonsai that are being arranged upon tall stands. A grove of Japanese maples in a wide, shallow pot is just starting to turn orange for fall, while a firethorn trained to resemble a small tree gleams with red berries. It's the prettiest firethorn I've ever seen, and thornless, too - it's pruned so much that thorns don't develop.
Thirteen bonsai have arrived by truck from Federal Way, Wash., for 'Autumn Leaves,' an exhibit of the Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection. Protected by carpet remnants and cushioned by foam insulation, the plants are immaculate. Some stand up straight, and others lean as though driven by wind; one azalea even drapes like a waterfall.
David DeGroot, curator of the collection, supervises the placement of the pots, and Japanese Garden staff and volunteers carefully water them.
Growing in a soil mix of pumice, lava, Japanese red clay and charcoal to ensure good drainage (especially on rainy days), the plants are thirsty after their journey. Special watering cans with long spouts deliver ample yet gentle streams of water, thanks to the many tiny perforations in the rose.
Traditionally the cans are dipped into a deeper vessel filled with water, and are outfitted with a strainer at the top to keep out debris. This is just one small example of the great attention to detail exercised when caring for bonsai.
Bonsai literally means planting in a shallow container. But much more is involved.
'A bonsai is shaped deliberately to appear as something beyond itself,' DeGroot says. Bonsai represent old trees that have endured the vicissitudes of life. They're intended to move you the same way that coming upon an ancient tree in nature would, deepening your awareness of life's temporary and fragile nature.
DeGroot explains how the quality of wabi-sabi characterizes bonsai. It's a Japanese term derived from the Buddhist concept of impermanence.
'Wabi means an emotional state, a feeling of being solitary, impoverished and melancholy,' he says. 'Sabi' literally means rusty, but signifies being worn, weathered and showing the passage of time.
This is why bonsai specimens often retain dead wood, to show the hardships the tree has endured. A Sierra juniper on display features a prominent area of dead wood on the trunk. It's likely the tree was dehydrated on sunny winter days when its roots were frozen. The lower branches, protected by snow mulch, allowed the plant to survive.
In the garden, dead wood is always removed, as it would spread decay to other parts of a plant. To prevent this, a coating of lime sulfur is applied to this juniper's dead wood - lime discourages insects, and sulfur discourages fungi. Its branches are trained with wires, both to shape them artistically and to keep them separated enough for light to penetrate the interior and keep buds growing.
'It's orthodontics for a tree,' DeGroot says.
The container I return to time and again holds a grove of 59 Japanese maples. Warren Hill, curator of the U.S. National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C., planted the composition in 1970 and named it 'Mountain Song.' Larger trees are placed at the front of the container, with smaller ones growing toward the back to create a sense of depth.
'It's like peering into a deep forest,' DeGroot says.
I'm surprised the pot is so shallow, but there's a reason. Pots should occupy no more than one-third as much space as the plant, and since this container must be very wide to house so many trees, it must also be very shallow to stay in balance with them.
The more you know about bonsai, the more you'll appreciate the exhibit. Just as an artist understands a painting more fully than an amateur, those who are knowledgeable about the technique and philosophy of bonsai will have a deeper experience.
Still, DeGroot recommends that just as in music or painting, it's best to approach the display to simply enjoy its sensual beauty.
'To go deeper, put yourself in that scene. Be by that tree and imagine where it would be - at the mountains, the seashore, the forest,' he says. 'Where would this tree grow, and why is it shaped like this?'
With some of these trees collected in the wild from mother plants hundreds of years old and tended with love for decades, there's a lot to contemplate and admire.
'Autumn Leaves,' noon to 4 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, through Nov. 15, Portland Japanese Garden, Washington Park, 611 S.W. Kingston Ave. For information visit www.japanesegarden.com or call 503-223-1321. Admission is $5.25 to $8.
• Oregon Garden Fall Festival, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 28-29, 879 W. Main St., Silverton, $5 admission, free for children 12 and under. Children's games, complimentary light refreshments, costumes encouraged. For information, visit www.oregongarden.org or call 503-874-8100.