For many, falling in love with bonsai plants happened during childhood while watching Daniel of The Karate Kid discover the ancient art of mindfully cultivating trees kept in bowls and planters. For others, a bonsai may have been a gift or a random purchase.
However one comes to bonsai – Japanese for tree in a pot – enthusiasts say the roots sink deep and don’t let go of you.
For Tulsan Pat Coen, the love for bonsai started when he learned that Japan donated 50 bonsai trees in honor of the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. His interest led him to an exhibit of these plants in Washington. After frequent visits, he developed friendships with Yuji Yoshimura and John Naka, two of the country’s foremost bonsai experts and curators of the exhibition.
Coen later took a community college course on bonsai and, along with some of his classmates, formed the Tulsa Bonsai Society in 1984.
“Today, the club is known as Green Country Bonsai Society,” Coen says. “We bring nationally known guest artists for workshops, shows and sales every spring, usually on Mother’s Day, and a fall show normally in October.”
The club meets at 7 p.m. the first Monday of each month at the Tulsa Garden Center. Coen says guests are welcome.
Experts suggest purchasing the plants on eBay or from occasional bonsai shows because many nursery plants marketed as bonsai “just aren’t as good,” says Trent Strum, former president of the Oklahoma City Central Oklahoma Bonsai Society.
But the truly avid bonsai lover, with a gleam in the eye, tells you of bonsai finds in nature. Oklahoma has an abundance of trees to collect for bonsai, Coen says. Ideal species include hackberry, elm, juniper, maple and azaleas. Collectors seek permission from land owners before harvesting, and Coen says the best places to search are fence rows where cows eat the foliage and keep the trees dwarfed.
“You can find a wild, 25-year-old specimen,” he says. “We’ve found actual fields where cows chewed down hundreds.”
Strum says the Oklahoma City group meets at 7 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month (other than December) at the Will Rogers Garden Center and is open to visitors.
For many, there is a spiritual element to bonsai pursuits; for Strum, it’s about the juxtaposition of art and science.
“I’m an analyst, so I’m extremely scientific in my approach and it’s a way to express artistically what I can do with my mind with analysis and data,” he says. “I have no artistic skills. But because of the horticultural science of bonsai care, if you apply the right techniques, you can favorably impact your bonsai.
“There is also a bond with the tree that transcends science because it is a living thing, always growing and changing. There is a saying in [the] bonsai [community], ‘The tree speaks to you.’ I’ve found it to be true.”