Bonsai — the Japanese art of growing trees in pots — takes on a decidedly local flavor as Tucsonans experiment with native and other arid plants as their canvases.
Randy McLean and Ray Noseck are two who have applied the gardening technique to such trees as mesquite, palo verde, one-seed juniper, Arizona cypress, hackberry, ironwood and desert willow.
They’ve also tried their hands on such familiar Tucson landscape plants as bougainvillea, Texas ranger, Texas ebony, vitex and African sumac.
Both are members of the Tucson Bonsai Society. McLean, who’s grown bonsai for 15 years, says the success of members growing bonsai native to Arizona is new to the bonsai world.
“We’re kind of trailblazers,” says McLean, who will teach others how to grow bonsai arid plants at a major gathering in California next year. “We’re growing things natural to our area.”
Bonsai gardeners take a young tree or shrub and prune growth, wire branches and reduce roots to create a miniature version of its full-grown self.
Often, these stunted plants are shaped to look like the mature version of the plant complete with fat trunks, sturdy branches and leafy canopies.
Some bonsai gardeners will specially shape a plant into a more artistic, less natural look.
Typical plants used in bonsai include juniper, Japanese maple, Chinese elm, ficus and cypress. Similar but different-looking species exist in Arizona. Other typical bonsai simply can’t survive in the desert.
Turning to local plants is both a joy and a challenge. The palo verde is a good example.
Noseck, president of the Tucson Bonsai Society and a grower for nine years, is partial to palo verde because of its green trunk and branches. “They’re so beautiful,” he says.
But because the tree grows differently from, say, a Japanese maple, growing it as a bonsai requires a bit of adjustment.
As it matures, a palo verde grows a long taproot that runs deep into the ground. The maple’s roots tend to remain close to the surface.
In season, a palo verde quickly grows branches and leaves, which then require a lot of pruning. If pruned in the wrong season or incorrectly, the tree will make the cut branch die off. Maples grow more slowly and better tolerate pruning.
These differences cause constant problems when trying to shape the palo verde into its full-size appearance.
“I get terrible dieback,” says Noseck. “The bark is very hard to wire.”
McLean says he’s constantly having to cut back new palo verde growth that shoots straight up from main branches in its attempt to get to its regular size. “They do not like to be in pots,” he says.
But the two keep trying. Noseck pots a palo verde seedling before it can grow much of a taproot.
McLean discovered that if he used a craft knife to cut the branches into points, cutting it the way a critter would when it eats the tree, that seems to make the tree less likely to die back.
Fortunately, there are other local species that lend themselves pretty well to living in pots.
“The mesquite is actually fun because there are these natural turns in the trunk,” McLean says. That makes the plant naturally sculptural, a prized look in the bonsai gardening technique.
The one-seed juniper, which society members collect in Rosemont Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains, grows as well as traditional varieties of the species.
It’s even better, actually, because it’s adapted to the high heat and low humidity of the Sonoran Desert.
While Noseck maintains that any plant can survive if watered correctly, McLean asserts that there is no margin for error when working with non-native species. He’s had the fried remains of a Japanese maple to prove it.
As for growing in pots, native and desert-adapted plants seem to do fine as long as they’re potted at a very young age, McLean says.
Daily watering keeps the plants from growing more and deeper roots, which helps to make them stay miniaturized.
“Nature has a way of basically having her plants adapt,” he says. “They have not known any other environment.”
In a concession to growing bonsai in the desert, plants are put in deeper, wider pots than what is traditionally used. Shallower pots make the soil dry out faster, requiring several daily waterings in arid climates.
Despite the differing conditions of growing bonsai, the spiritual benefits are the same.
“It’s very time consuming,” McLean says of why he enjoys the art form. “It’s my peaceful, quiet, meditative time.”
Noseck says bonsai helps him appreciate the perspective of life he has as a Christian.
“You’re amazed by what God does and how little you do,” he says. “You do one zillionth of 1 percent and God does all the rest. It lowers your ego.”