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Little Trees Tell Their Stories

Learn about America's largest bonsai collection and the curator who manages it.

By Fred Brown, Scripps Howard News Service

Arthur Joura doesn't look like a bonsai master. He's built more along the lines of a leading man role in a little theater's local drama: tall, slim, handsome, speaks with resounding authority and commands attention wherever he goes.

Joura is bonsai curator of the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville. His credentials tell it all: School of Visual Arts and The Art Student's League in New York City, bonsai education from the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, and the last student of Japanese-born and classically trained Yuji Yoshimura, father of American Bonsai, before he died in 1997.

Today, Joura manages the bonsai collection, probably the largest of its kind in America and certainly the finest collection in the Southeast, at the stunning North Carolina Arboretum, affiliated with the University of North Carolina. Over the past decade, Joura has built the bonsai program, which originated with a donation of 100 bonsai from a family in Butner, N.C., into a nationally recognized collection and the arboretum's strongest component.

Gina Spangler, left, and her daughter, Emily, 8, visit the bonsai collection at the North Carolina Arboretum near Asheville. The collection of over 100 bonsai plants is the largest in the Southeast. The large bonsai is a tray landscape representation of Mount Mitchell, created by bonsai curator Arthur Joura. (SHNS photo by Paul Efird / Knoxville News Sentinel)

The arboretum, which began in 1986, is home to the richest biodiversity in the world, has 65 acres of cultivated gardens, 10 miles of hiking and biking trails and a greenhouse system developed by Dutch horticultural scientists that is state-of-the-art and then some. The greenhouse - actually several barn-shaped, full-windowed buildings - runs on autopilot and is kept cool and crisp by an air-water system that makes air conditioning seem like the Gobi Desert.

Joura says the arboretum has never had to purchase any of its bonsai. He isn't certain of the ages of the trees, but that isn't the important element for the maestro of the little world. It is the art, the statement, the individuality of the tree, its shape and what it conveys to the observer. It is all very Zen-like.

"These trees can live hundreds of years. Bonsai is thousands of years old," says Joura. "The trees we have could be from 20 to 70 years old. Some older. Who knows?" As if to say, "you are missing the important stuff here. Look, take in the environment of the little world, understand what it means."

A two-foot plant in a ceramic bowl could be a 20-foot tall tree in the wild. He has reduced such plants as the native American elm, witch alder, red maple, Virginia pine and American hornbeam to mere inches of their wild selves.

The greenhouse is also home to glorious tropical bonsai: willow leaf ficus (Ficus nerriifolia), paper flower (Bougainvillea glabra) and coontie (Zamia pumila). Of course, the collection also has much more traditional trees, the ones most everyone has seen in the local garden shops: Japanese maple, Chinese elm, Japanese white pine, Japanese black pine and Satsuki azalea.

Some of the azaleas, which he has miniaturized to look like a tree instead of a shrub, bloom in magnificent profusion. They have been reduced in size so the roots, which are trained to spread wide instead of deep, fit in a bowl barely big enough to hold a foot of dirt.

Bonsai, Joura says, is all about wires, stunting and training a limb to go the way you want it to go. He wraps coils of wire around tiny limbs. Other tree limbs have braces. Some are pulled and harnessed with pieces of small rubber patches to prevent damage.

"We don't stop a plant from growing," he says with a smile. "We just don't let it grow as much as it wants to."

In some larger arrangements, several of the diminutive trees join other elements to create entire settings, representing a full forest, or a forest scene. Sand and pebbles are used to simulate water.

"This is life going on," Joura says, "but life is in constant change from one form to another. We are losing the spruce and fir forest, but something else is coming up in its place. Here, we can see a little piece of the earth, and by watching a little piece, we get an idea of the whole. It is an old universal idea. In any one thing, you have the whole mystery of life."

Joura, whose classes in bonsai at the arboretum are always packed with students, says the idea of bonsai is to tell a story. "How did this tree come to look this way? Why? What happened to it? I have always loved trees, and what we are doing is using little trees to create the look of bigger trees."

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