Tiny trees take spotlight at Atlanta Botanical Garden

Michael Stoddard has 9-year-old trees in his back yard that you could cut down with a steak knife, trees that are only inches tall. He is a member of the Atlanta Bonsai Society, whose members will show off years of their work at an annual spring show at the Atlanta Botanical Garden this weekend.

“We have a club that started in 1963, and our first show was in 1964,” Stoddard said, “But we have trees that are older. We have people who have purchased trees that may be 60 or 70 years old. We have some unbelievable trees.”

But even the society’s oldest trees are sprouts compared to the oldest bonsai.

Japan gave the Hiroshima Pine to the U.S. as a gift. The tree was first planted and cared for in Hiroshima in 1625. It survived the atomic bomb blast that leveled that city during World War II.

Before the upcoming show, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution threw three questions at Stoddard about the 1,000-year-old art of raising tiny trees in 281-year-old Georgia.

Q: I’ve often thought I would like to own a bonsai tree, but it seems time-consuming and difficult. Is that right?

A: It's like having a pet. It takes some continuous attention to them in terms of making sure they get enough water, light, fertilizer. Because what you are doing is growing a tree in a pot. Like any tree, they can be affected by bugs or drought, or too much heat. So it does take paying attention to the tree or the trees, and one of the things we do is take lessons and learn and gradually discover how to enjoy and be successful with our trees. And it is quite rewarding to keep them healthy and see them break out into leaves every springtime.

Q: What is the attraction to growing bonsai?

A: It's partly an art form, and any art form involves creativity. So the idea here is it's an art form that is mixed with horticulture because you have to keep the tree alive. You can have the most beautifully styled tree in the world, and if it dies you don't have much. Keeping the tree alive is about 95 percent of it … But there is something to trying to develop a tree so that you say, 'I saw a tree like that on Kennesaw Mountain,' or a 'I have a boxwood that looks like a live oak down in Savannah.' The aim generally speaking is to have a tree that looks like an old tree that has weathered all that nature can throw at it.

Q: How is Georgia’s climate for growing and maintaining bonsai?

A: There are challenges. Some trees are not suitable for our climate … We are sort of in the middle of a temperate zone and have a very wide range of trees that will grow here, but ones that like Canada or Minnesota (such as firs and spruces) don't like it here. I have had a lot of success with Japanese maples of many different cultivars. Boxwoods and the Japanese pines do very well here.

Trees at the Atlanta Bonsai Society Spring Show will be on view at the Atlanta Botanical Garden at 1345 Piedmont Avenue NE, Atlanta, Saturday and Sunday. Adults $18.95, children 3-12 $12.95. Price includes general garden entrance, hours are 9 a.m.-7 p.m., but the exhibit will be closed during judging 8-9 a.m. Saturday.