SHERRY KUGHN: Ann Jones finds caring for bonsai trees relaxing

Ann Jones shows one of her bonsai trees.

Sherry Kughn

Ann Jones of Heflin sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees, bonsai trees, that is. On the days she trims the branches, leaves, and roots of her 35 bonsai trees, she hardly has time to look around to see anything else.

Recently I visited with Ann in the home she shares with husband Steve. They had mostly lived in Huntsville but returned to his hometown after his recent retirement. The move affected the trees, Ann told me; and they are just now recovering. (Spoken like a true gardener.)

I happen to know, though, that few house or yard plants like to move out of a familiar environment. Therefore, bonsai, which she pronounces “bone-zi,” are trees different from regular plants in other ways. The emphasis for their care is on keeping them small by regular trimming and shaping.

Ann showed me her trees, which are separated into two groups, tropical and sub-tropical. She stores her tropical plants indoors during the winter months.

“The others stay outdoors because they need the cold weather,” she said.

Ann started her hobby of raising bonsai trees because she wanted to help her father-in-law Houston, who is in his 80s. He lives nearby with Ann’s mother-in-law, Betty. The couple felt the trees were becoming too time consuming. Ann offered to help. Several years ago, as she learned to care for the trees, Houston gave them to her. He gave her one that Steve had planted as a first--grader when the teacher told the students to find a seed and plant it. Steve took a grapefruit seed from the breakfast table and placed it in a cup with soil. To his father’s surprise, it thrived. He applied his knowledge about transforming a small tree into a bonsai. He had admired them as a soldier in Japan during World War II and decided to learn all he could after the war. On Ann’s porch, the 62-year-old grapefruit bonsai, a 2 ½ foot tree, stands straight with shiny leaves. It does not produce grapefruits, but she has another bonsai made from an orange tree that produces tiny white blossoms and green and orange fruit all at the same time during their growing season.

Ann said almost any young tree can be transformed into a bonsai with the proper care. She shared tips on becoming the owner of an “instant bonsai.”

Go to the yard and find an offshoot of a boxwood, azalea, or other small tree that has a root ball. Carefully remove it without damaging the root ball. Place it in a grow cup (a regular pot) until it grows a bit. Then move it to a pot that, in most cases, should be flatter than regular pots. Make sure the pot has plenty of holes for drainage. Choose a pot that is about 1/3 the height of the desired height of the tree you want to grow. Water the plant frequently to keep it moist.

There is another path to obtaining a bonsai. Do as Ann and Steve do each year. They travel to Olive Branch, Miss., each May to the Annual Rendezvous, sponsored by Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery. They pay about $200 to take a class and to learn about caring for their bonsai trees. Afterward, they keep the bonsai tree they worked on. Sometimes attendees can win special bonsai trees, and once Steve did.

“A person can spend thousands of dollars on a bonsai,” said Ann.

The Chinese and Japanese say the instant bonsai trees are not authentic. They believe trees should be raised from the offshoot of a true (old and established) bonsai or from a seed. Some families from those countries have bonsai trees they have passed down from generation to generation.

Personally, I think I will try my hand at raising an instant tree. I have always admired bonsai trees because they seem to be a miniature version of not only trees but also of settings, such as a rocky terrain. Ann taught me several things about a bonsai’s shape. These include formal (upright with straight trunk to the apex), informal (curved trunk with apex over the base), standing (tree leans to left or right with apex above the rim of the pot), semi-cascade (slanted angle with branches cascading to the feet of the pot), and cascade (sharply bent tree with branches that extend far below the pot).

I plan to study about bonsai trees before moving forward; but, because I like house plants so much, I think I could spend the time it takes to grow one. All it takes is trimming the branches and leaves as needed and trimming most trees’ roots about once every two years. My favorite bonsai trees are evergreens that remind me of the forests here in Alabama. Now a pine tree would be fun to own.

Ann says that her two daughters show no interest in growing bonsai trees, but she likes the process.

“I love this hobby,” she said. “It is relaxing. I start working and lose track of the time. It is sort of soothing to snip and snip.”

Email Sherry at sherrykug@hotmail.com