Our dear friend gave us a lovely gift, a bonsai tree. The miniature Ficus was doomed from the moment it went from his hands to mine, but this brave plant did not die in vain. I have learned much about this horticultural art form since and vow to treat my next bonsai with more respect.
The friend who gave us our short-lived Ficus is McNeal McDonnell, co-owner of Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery, the largest importer and grower of bonsai in America! McNeal and business partner, Brussel Martin, moved the nursery to its present state-of the-art facility in 2005. Located in Olive Branch, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, Brussel’s is a fairyland of magical, diminutive trees. Even if you do not plan on decorating your home with bonsai or taking up this art form as a horticultural hobby, it is fascinating to note that the passion of one grower in a small Southern town has evolved into the country’s largest bonsai business within the last ten years—an influential benchmark in the continuation of a 2,000-year-old art form!
Brussel’s has a catalog and website for direct ordering, but if you have ever ordered a bonsai from Amazon, FTD flowers and gifts, or any other Internet company in the floral business, it probably came from Brussel’s. While online is big business, the nursery itself is a spectacular place to visit, with more than 100,000 square feet of greenhouses and a picturesque collection of miniature trees and shrubs. Brussel’s has been a destination for serious bonsai hobbyists for more than 30 years. They have a range of bonsai on display, even a few that are worth more than $50,000 and over 100 years old.
“We are not just America’s largest but the best,” Brussel adds. “I started the business in my parents’ backyard in the late 60s.” A passionate hobby that grew into much more, this bonsai business has taken off in the past ten years. They cater to gardeners, Asian culture enthusiasts and “those interested in growing a piece of history.”
A Bonsai-ed Amount of History
The cultivation of bonsai originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, and later, the art was refined in Japan. There weren’t many bonsai in the U.S. before WWII, but after the war many Japanese in America started to grow bonsai, mostly on the west coast. “That is where my father got the first ones I ever saw in 1955,” Brussel remembers. It wasn’t until the late 60s and 70s that bonsai took off as a hobby in the U.S. “It is a high art form in Japan and trees can sell for up to a million dollars. In the U.S. it is still primarily a hobby, and most trees sell for between $50 and $300.”
Bonsai trees are an attractive addition to the home, and even a popular Hollywood prop. In the recent comedy, Admission, an uptight admissions officer for Princeton (“Portia” played by Tina Fey) overprunes the bonsai on her desk, a reflection of how she micromanages her own life. The tree, in its supporting role, dies. Portia, in the end, has a healthy change of attitude. And how about a classic, The Karate Kid (1984): “Close your eyes, [Daniel-san], concentrate. Think only tree …”
The name, “bonsai” literally means “little trees in pots,” but the art of bonsai refers to the techniques that you use to create the tree. A bonsai’s leaves, trunk and flowers are cultivated to give the feel of a mature tree. “People have misconceptions about bonsai,” comments Brussel. “They think it is only one kind of tree, but almost any tree can be a bonsai. If the leaves and twigs of a tree are small, such as a Japanese maple, it works better. Brussel explains, “You can bonsai anything, but we select plants that have the potential to make good bonsai. You don’t want to put your time and effort into something that won’t reward you.”
Bonsai is a combination of art and horticulture. You follow horticulture to maintain your bonsai. You use art to style your bonsai. The styling has some basic rules, but a lot is left to you to design your own tree. Bonsai also connects the grower to seasonal changes. Deciduous trees turn color and drop just like their bigger counter parts. Your bonsai is always growing and developing. Through the years it develops more character and refinement. Brussel describes a bonsai as “a changing piece of art.”
Allergic to Cats and Dogs? Try a Bonsai!
Another misconception is that it is too difficult and hard for the average gardener to cultivate a bonsai. Brussel says, “If you can take care of a pet, you can take care of bonsai. They both need watering on hot summer days.”
There are two categories of bonsai: indoor and outdoor. (Hmmm, that’s kind of like choosing a pet, too!) Outdoor bonsai stay outside 95 percent of the time and go through the seasonal changes. This is a big part of their enjoyment. Most indoor bonsai keep their foliage year-round.
Indoor bonsai are tropical trees that can tolerate indoor conditions. Even then, most need some direct sun to thrive. “We also suggest people put their indoor bonsai outdoors for the warm summer months as the growing conditions are much better,” says Brussel.
Then there is the outdoor variety, considered the “true” bonsai. These are the classic bonsai that everyone relates to. They tend to have a more dramatic styling and aged look and often change with the season. Outdoor bonsai collectors may bring their trees indoors for special occasions and then put them back out. Indoor bonsai are for people who want to have a bonsai in the kitchen, den or office window. A common misconception is that any bonsai can be kept indoors. Many hobbyists graduate to outdoor bonsai as their education progresses.
How to Bonsai
Brussel’s Nursery grows trees that will be easy for most bonsai hobbyists to maintain. They also send a basic proper-care sheet with every tree. A trained phone staff can take orders by phone and answer most bonsai care questions. If they cannot, then the customer is connected to either bonsai artist Terry Stamps or to Brussel for one-on-one guidance.
The inventory at Brussel’s comes from several sources. They have contract growers around the country that grow many trees to their specifications; they import bonsai; and they grow many bonsai on site from seed or cutting. Brussel’s is one of the few nurseries that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has allowed to import bonsai trees from China. (The trees from China have to stay in quarantine for five years to be certain that they are disease free.)
There are a few special tools you may want to buy, but the basics are a good pointed-nose pair of scissors and maybe a branch cutter and wire cutter. Most bonsai trees are styled by wiring the branches. The wire is wrapped around the branch or trunk, and the desired shape is made. This wire is usually removed in a few months, and the shape remains.
For beginners Brussel’s has several easy-to-maintain trees. Good outdoor options would be a Juniper or Elm, and a few lower-maintenance indoor recommendations are Ficus, Pony Tail Palm or Hawaiian Umbrella.
I did discover one more option for bonsai enthusiasts in my research … natural bonsai. Back to The Karate Kid; remember when Sensei Miyagi and Daniel-san are hanging on the ledge of a cliff in search of a bonsai? For the Japanese, bonsai is a philosophical and mystical art and may involve a quest for unique trees miniaturized by nature that are hidden among giant trees and in the crevices of rocks—a mystical journey of self-discovery, a symbolic search for the inner self and a test of survival against the elements—fortunately, we can just go to Brussel’s!
Regular hours at Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery are 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and select weekends through the year. Dig in further by attending one of their annual events: their open house in March or the grand Rendezvous held over Memorial Day weekend—a convention of internationally recognized teachers (Masters) from around the world and students from all corners of the U.S. Lectures, hands-on workshops and demonstrations highlight the weekend-long event. If you want to get started right away, they also have a one-day open house coming up on September 28. Brussel also encourages hobbyists of all levels to join their local clubs for support. Learn more at: www.brusselsbonsai.com.