Staying Alive

Care for Trees with the Ancient Art of Bonsai

How Houston's bonsai artists are passing down their artful tradition.

By Gwendolyn Knapp April 1, 2020 Published in the April 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

From left to right: An 11-inch Kingsville Boxwood grown from nursery material, owned by Pete Parker. An award-winning 54-inch cedar elm collected back in 1992 in Wimberley, owned by Pete Parker. An award-winning 54-inch bald cypress, collected in the New Orleans area 30 years ago, owned by Scott Barboza.

*The Japan Festival Houston, scheduled for May 2–3, has been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.  

On a foggy Sunday in February, longtime Houston Bonsai Society member Scott Barboza welcomed two students, Tim and Bobbie, into his garage, a veritable tiny-tree workshop full of wire spools, ceramic pots, and soil bins. The reason for their visit was twofold: to give their teacher a hand photographing one of Barboza’s 60 beloved bonsai trees—a Japanese black pine no bigger than a head of romaine—for an upcoming issue of Bonsai: Journal of the American Bonsai Society, and for their monthly mentorship session. 

The latter is part of the society’s mission to promote bonsai and teach Houstonians how to care for the trees—a task it’s been doing since the organization launched in 1960—or, as Barboza explained, “so these students can learn from my mistakes.”

Bonsai, which actually originated in China some 2,000 years ago before Japanese monks popularized it in the 12th century, roughly translates to “tree in pot.” It's not a species of tree, but rather the act of training any perennial woody plant—even native Texas trees like cedar elms, bald cypress, mesquite, alligator junipers, and live oaks—to grow in a potted, miniature form that mimics nature. The point is for your bonsai to resemble a fully mature tree out in the wild—just one that’s 4 inches to 4 feet tall and in a container. It’s exacting work, and the art is in making your bonsai, whatever age it is, look old.

Achieving this feat requires an array of skills that take years to cultivate, including learning to create deadwood, encourage corky bark, and play Dr. Frankenstein with root and branch grafting. There are risks involved at every part of the process—a young plant collected from the wild may turn out to be poison ivy; poor pruning can make it ugly; grafting can fail and cause scars; and, if you overwater, underwater, repot in the wrong season, or look at it wrong, a bonsai might die, wiping out countless hours of work and effort from seemingly small and innocuous mistakes. Plus, some problems—from fungi to infestations of sap-sucking aphids—are sometimes unavoidable, so it can be downright scary to get started.

Perhaps that’s why Tim and Bobbie only watched as Barboza—now about 30 years into his craft after falling for the obscure hobby in the early ’90s when his Japanese college roommate introduced him to it—approached the metal cart in his driveway that held a two-foot tall, 40-year-old live oak. There it rested like a green-afroed patient on an operating table, a sheath of intimidating instruments splayed out beside it. Barboza trimmed back the roots using pruners of all shapes and sizes, even a scalpel—“like a surgeon,” Tim joked—then talked his charges through each subsequent step: tightening the plant’s anchor wires into place, steadying the tree into its new pot, and using tweezers to place tiny pebbles around the roots. 

Once they'd finished they moved the tree to the backyard, where Barboza’s astounding collection—“it’s pretty addictive,” he admitted—includes a hauntingly beautiful bald cypress from a swamp outside New Orleans, which won the American Bonsai Society’s Award of Merit (best in show) at last year’s national convention, along with more of his favorites, all miniature versions of what you might see in the wild: a crape myrtle, a wisteria he and his wife dug up to make room for a pool, a mission olive saved from an orchard’s demise in California, and two 500-year-old junipers from the Mojave desert covered in graft shoots that will someday replace the real branches—for aesthetics—if all goes as planned. Even after decades of working with these delicate creations, Barboza admits he still gets nervous when he turns his attention to the pair of ancient junipers. “It scares me,” Barboza said, “but you build confidence over time.” 

The rest of us can simply take in the masters’ incredible art next month when the Houston Bonsai Society presents its Spring Show at Hermann Park during the 9th annual Japan Festival*. There, many of the club’s 126 members are expected to roll out their best bonsai—likely plants all under 50 years old—including Japanese pines, junipers, and tropical bougainvillea. Barboza will probably bring some native Texas trees, and the society’s president, Pete Parker, will present a dwarf yaupon holly he bought for $5 a few years ago when it was about two feet tall in a three-gallon bucket. Now, after four years of careful bonsai-training, it’s about six inches.

There will be demos and chances to sign up for the club (and yes, there are members under 40). And if you’re brave enough to dive in, Barboza suggests starting with a ficus since they’re affordable and forgiving. Plus they grow fast, so you can practice wiring (both to shape the branches and anchor the trunk) and repotting one all summer long.

More important, he notes: “They’re very, very hard to kill.”

Show Comments