I have never been good at keeping houseplants. I’m most successful with forgiving plants that don’t need much water or attention, like the snake plant that lives on our kitchen table. Every few weeks I remember to soak it in the kitchen sink, give it a good misting, and then leave it be until the next time I remember. It never seems to mind.
All that is about to change. For a combined birthday-Mother’s Day gift this year, Al surprised me with a trip to a bonsai greenhouse last month. I walked around all the many different bonsai trees for sale, but didn’t see one that really struck my fancy. Speaking with one of the staff, however, we found out that I could take a workshop and start my own.
Of all the suitable species, I was most taken by a tree with very delicate, compound leaves that looked like tiny water droplets. This, we learned, was a Brazilian Rain Tree. The greenhouse had an exquisite specimen that turned out to be 75 years old. Something to aspire to, certainly. They were getting a new shipment in mid-June, so I signed up for a workshop on Father’s Day. Al was happy to come along and watch.
Meanwhile, I bought a book about bonsai to learn more. And discovered how much care is actually involved. Bonsai need daily watering and lots of attention. It’s a bit daunting for someone with a purple thumb. But I’m intrigued by the artistry that’s involved to train a tree, in miniature, into a living sculpture that honors nature.
So, on Sunday, we went to the workshop. I found a little Brazilian Rain Tree and a pretty terracotta pot, and following our teacher’s instructions, set to work.
You must first set up the pot with wires and a piece of mesh in the bottom—the wires are used to hold the bonsai roots in the shallow pot. Then you add a layer of very porous bonsai soil. Next comes removing the tree from its pot. You have to clear part of the topsoil to reveal some of the roots—this is essential to bonsai aesthetics—then poke away soil that is entwined with about two-thirds of the lower root system, and trim back the longest roots.
Then you place the tree in the pot and spread out the remaining root system, twist the wires in place to stabilize the tree, and fill the rest of the pot with more topsoil. My teacher had to help me with some of this, because my hands aren’t quite strong enough. But I did much of the prep.
Then came some pruning (Brazilian Rain Trees have thorns) and learning how to clip away deadwood. The next-to-last step involved wrapping a bendable wire around the trunk and up one branch that we bent into a curving upright stance—to train it as an apex for the tree’s eventual shape. Most of this I was able to do myself.
Now it was time to soak it with water, essential for my little tree’s survival. And it was done. I was really pleased with the result. And hoping I wouldn’t kill it.
Back home, all afternoon and evening, I kept checking the soil to see if it needed more water. Then I started to worry, because its leaves were no longer open to the light, but seemed to be drooping. Fortunately, a quick bit of Internet research revealed that Brazilian Rain Trees close their leaves in diminished light and at night, and open them in the day. So far, so good.
And so, I begin my adventure as a bonsai gardener. I understand this can become quite an addictive pastime. Already I feel a special relationship to my little tree and look forward to tending it and watching it grow. With persistence and some luck, maybe I’ll turn my purple thumb green, after all.