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Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010 12 years ago

SWEET GIG: The art of bonsai

by: Loren Mayo Black Tie Editor

Dressed in a classic black sweater, jeans and flip-flops, Julie Trigg sits quietly amidst the serene bonsai exhibit at Selby Gardens. The rain has just stopped falling, and Trigg is admiring the blooming orchids that line the walkway.

From an outsider’s point of view, the artist appears simple and uncomplicated. But judging by her bonsai collection — rumored to be 200-plus — and her status as president of the Sho Fu Bonsai Society and co-curator of the group’s permanent exhibit at the gardens, she’s nothing of the sort.

About 25 years ago, Trigg, who is also a painter and owns an art studio at 1369 Main St., operated a vendor booth at an outdoor Sarasota art show.

“The gentleman at the next booth had bonsai, and I fell in love with his bonsai pine trees,” Trigg said. “I ended up trading a painting for a pine tree.”

A move to Pennsylvania from New York in 1994 led to Trigg’s joining of the local bonsai club there, and it was then that she began to delve into the realm of pruning bonsai. The goal, she says, is to make young trees look old.

“Unlike us,” she jokes.

The art dates back to more than 1,500 years ago to China, when naturally dwarfed trees were collected. It is not uncommon to find bonsai there that are 300-to-400 years old.

“It teaches you patience and is also calming,” Trigg said. “And you can make it out of any type of tree — it’s not like ‘The Karate Kid,’ although those were all junipers, by the way.”

Although the bonsai display at Selby Gardens is only two years old, this year marks the Sho Fu Bonsai Society’s 35th anniversary. The display’s 15 trees, in addition to a plethora of members’ trees, will be featured in numerous how-to demonstrations at Selby Gardens’ annual Asian Cultural Festival, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 27 and Feb. 28.

The festival is the society’s biggest event and is one of the main reasons Trigg has been so occupied lately. And the other? Epcot recently accepted one of Trigg’s bonsai trees, for the second time, into its International Flower and Garden Festival. With all expenses paid, Trigg will take the bonsai — a juniper grafted onto a driftwood base — to be displayed for three months at Epcot.

“Last year, I had a ficus exhibited inside Torii (the Japanese pavilion) at Epcot,” Trigg said. “They only took 21 trees this year, and only three trees under 30 inches. I really worried and agonized over days about moving limbs and removing inches — but mine was one of those (chosen).”

Bonsai — A living art form that dates back 1,500 years to China.

Common styles — Formal upright (chokkan), informal upright (moyogi), slanting (shakan), semicascade (han-kengai) and cascade. Formal and informal upright are the easiest to work on because they take little trunk manipulation.

Collection — The best time to collect deciduous trees is during their dormant season (usually early spring), just before the new buds pop out. Mountainous regions, cow pastures or storm-ravaged coastlines are good places to look, but make sure to adhere to all local laws regarding tree and natural-object removal.

Tools for collection — Shovel, cutting shears, burlap or plastic, string, tree saw, sphagnum moss and a small crowbar.

The right tree — American hornbeam, maple and sweetgum trees grow quickly, develop nice branching and good trunks and are favorites for beginners. The best specimens are 5 to 6 feet tall with lower branches.

Apex — Locate your new top, or apex, of the tree and cut it off before digging the tree out of the ground. Always make slanting cuts as close to the trunk or branch as possible, allowing for faster healing and less scarring.

Wiring — One of the special training techniques for bonsai is wiring. Copper wire is most commonly used, and a general rule for wire sizing is one-third the width of the branch at its thickest point.

Pruning — Two kinds of pruning are used on bonsai — cutting and pinching back. A concave cut is the most desired because it will heal without noticeable scarring; pruning helps to create the tree’s basic shape.

Appearance of age — Peel off the bark where the look of dead wood is desired. The exposed wood will die and turn gray. Using a small paintbrush, paint the dead wood with lime sulphur to preserve the wood and turn it white.

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