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Sacramento bonsai clubs host national convention

A small plant labeled Ishitsuki grows at the home of Kathleen O’Donnell in Sacramento. Sacramento will host the nation’s largest celebration of little trees, and O’Donnell will be participating in the big show. She has a marvelous collection of little trees that show you don’t need a lot of space to go big in bonsai.
A small plant labeled Ishitsuki grows at the home of Kathleen O’Donnell in Sacramento. Sacramento will host the nation’s largest celebration of little trees, and O’Donnell will be participating in the big show. She has a marvelous collection of little trees that show you don’t need a lot of space to go big in bonsai. rbenton@sacbee.com

This is a big week for people who love little trees.

Bonsai enthusiasts from throughout the United States will convene in Sacramento for a double convention, hosted jointly by state and national organizations.

“It’s really exciting,” said co-chairman Scott Chadd, who teaches this botanical art at his Lotus Bonsai nursery near Placerville. “It’s the one time annually when we all have a chance to get together and see what we’re about.”

Renowned for its full-sized urban forest, Sacramento also has long held a reputation among bonsai fans as the “city of little trees.” Founded in 1946, the Sacramento Bonsai Club ranks as the oldest in the nation. Four bonsai clubs, each with its own niche, make Sacramento their home.

“Our clubs are very active and well attended,” Chadd said. “Sacramento is a good place to grow trees – of any size.”

That made Sacramento a logical host for the Golden State Bonsai Federation’s 37th annual convention, which opens Thursday at the Doubletree Hotel. With the theme “Bonsai Visions of the West,” the four-day event will be held jointly with the American Bonsai Society, bringing in nationally known experts as well as attendees.

Most of them will bring trees, either to show or for sale. With about 80 entries, the juried exhibition and vendors hall will be open free to the public. Nonmembers also may sign up for workshops (for a fee) with some of the country’s top bonsai masters.

That’s a draw for bonsai growers such as Sacramento’s Kathleen O’Donnell. Some of her favorite trees are products of convention workshops or other study sessions with these sought-after experts. She’s looking forward to learning more. Her trees bring back memories of lessons from these masters, each with a story.

“Some of the trees I first did when I started bonsai I still have,” said O’Donnell, who took her first bonsai workshop in 1989. “I can see my progress grow.”

A Hokkaido elm with tiny leaves shows traces of the original handiwork of Kathy Shaner, one of the convention’s headliners. Sam Adina, another popular teacher, helped O’Donnell shape a foot-tall olive.

“Olives are a wonderful tree for beginners,” she said as she snipped an example into shape in her backyard bonsai shed. “They’re almost indestructible.”

Bonsai is all about editing, O’Donnell noted. “You’re taking things away – if you do a good job – to reveal the tree’s beauty.”

A retired print manager, O’Donnell has learned by doing. About 80 bonsai decorate her small backyard.

“They’re ideal for small spaces,” she said. “Most of them like shade or filtered sun. They don’t use that much water. And if I need to move them, I can carry most of them around.”

O’Donnell credits the state federation and national society for helping gardeners hone their bonsai skills while learning to appreciate this ancient Japanese art.

“Both are educational nonprofit organizations formed specifically to promote and preserve the art of bonsai,” she said of the convention’s hosts. “By design, they provide the general public with access to see exquisite exhibits, and hobbyists the chance to attend workshops and seminars with some of the greatest artists, teachers, authors and curators. It’s been my experience that the trees I’ve gotten from convention workshops are part of the foundation of my collection.”

In their handmade pots, each bonsai is precious and special. O’Donnell dotes on them daily.

As she introduced a craggy California juniper with a twisted trunk, O’Donnell explained that the tree was collected by David Nguy, who will be teaching at the convention. “I started work on this tree in one of his convention workshops. It must be 250 years old.”

These ancient trees come from the highest elevations of California’s Sierra and White Mountains, where they are collected in very small numbers with a state permit. Chadd, the convention co-chairman, leads such expeditions annually to find a few new specimens.

“We collect from 8,000 to 10,000 feet (elevation), at the upper limits of the timber line,” Chadd said. “These trees have been exposed to tremendous stress from wind, snow and sun. Due to the drought, they’re under additional stress from lack of rain.”

All that stress shows in their dwarfed form and unique features.

“A 100-year-old tree will have a trunk no thicker than my wrist,” O’Donnell said. “It’s almost hard to comprehend how old they could be.”

Added Chadd, “It takes years and years and years to grow them. These trees can be quite old, and yet they’re alive and healthy.”

Like knowledge, these trees grow ever so slowly over time. But the results are stunning in their simplicity and timelessness.

“They are living art,” Chadd said. “How do you know it’s art? If it’s art, you want to look at it. Your eye wants to stay there like the way these trees draw your eye; it’s art. If it’s not art, your eye will go elsewhere.”

Starting with a century-old tree to make living art is one thing. It’s much harder making a young tree look beautifully old and sculptured.

“That’s where the art comes in,” O’Donnell observed. “Bonsai holds such a respect for age, which is refreshing in our (youth-oriented) culture.”

With specialized tools and wire, training and grooming, these little trees can be a form of meditation. The mind rests as it focuses on twisting minute branches into shape and trimming errant growth.

“I think of bonsai as moving Zen,” Chadd said. “When working on your trees, you’re not thinking about anything; you’re focused on just gardening. It shuts off that internal dialogue and gives your brain a chance to relax.”

“That’s one of the reasons why I got into bonsai,” O’Donnell said. “I wanted a certain ambiance – a restfulness and natural beauty – as the background for my life. I never imagined how involved it was.”

Chadd, who grows about 4,000 trees at his bonsai nursery, knows full well. He’s been studying bonsai for 42 years.

Bonsai can be an expensive hobby – if you buy trees with decades of work already invested into their growth. These older trees can cost $250 or more apiece. On the other hand, bonsai artists may start by taking relatively inexpensive small landscape shrubs, such as junipers or cypresses, then gently and patiently shape them into smaller form.

“People always have the same questions when they see bonsai,” Chadd said. “First they ask, ‘Is it real?’ Of course they’re not fake trees. They’re not dead. Then, they ask, ‘How old is it?’ Some bonsai are hundreds of years old; some are quite young.

“Then they always ask, ‘How much does it cost?’ Well, some trees are quite valuable, but they took many, many years to get to this point. If you’re purchasing bonsai, you’re buying time.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

Bonsai convention and show

Where: DoubleTree Hotel, 2001 Point West Way, Sacramento

When: Thursday-Nov. 2; public show hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and Nov. 1.

Admission: Show and vendors are free; seminars, workshops and meals range from $80 (one day) to $289 (full registration)

Information: www.gsbfconvention.org, (530) 622-9681


▪ “The Bonsai Bible” by Peter Chan (Octopus Books, 322 pages, $14.99): This handy paperback is packed with photos and inspiration. Learn basic steps and browse more than 180 species of trees and shrubs in bonsai form.

▪ Sacramento Bonsai Club: This group is recognized as the oldest bonsai club in the United States. It meets year round at the Sacramento Buddhist Church, 2401 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento. Next meeting is 7 p.m. Nov. 10 featuring bonsai expert Sam Adina. For details, visit www.sacramentobonsaiclub.com.

▪ American Bonsai Club of Sacramento: A stalwart of local bonsai, this club meets at 7 p.m. the fourth Tuesday of each month at Shepard Garden and Arts Center, 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento. Next meeting is at 7 p.m. Thursday with a triple demonstration of three trees styled simultaneously. Details: abasbonsai.org.

▪ Satsuki Aikokai Sacramento Bonsai Club: This group is devoted to blooming bonsai, particularly azaleas. It meets the third Monday of each month at Shepard Garden and Arts Center. Details: satsukiaikokaisacramentobonsaiclub.yolasite.com.

▪ Bonsai Sekiyu Kai: Known as “the plant and stone lovers club,” this group meets the third Thursday of each month at the Sacramento Buddhist Church, 2401 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento. Details: bonsaisekiyukai.wordpress.com.

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