Ed Trout is a story teller, but instead of putting words on paper, he uses trees to weave his tales. Bonsai trees to be exact.
Through its trunks, roots, branches and foliage, each tree relates a story that the bonsai creator pulls from nature as well as his imagination.
“Just about anything you can think of you can express through bonsai,” says Trout, 67, who lives in Pembroke Pines.
This ancient art is credited to the Chinese and Japanese who developed certain rules and aesthetics that to this day influence its practice.
For example, a plant’s greenery may be artistically weeping, literati (a free-form shape that is said to have originated with monks who did calligraphy) or windswept, to name just a few styles of bonsai. The trunk might stand tall, have a bend or lean over the edge of the shallow pot, forming a cascade of greenery.
Trout’s “garden” is filled with bonsai that include ficus nerifolia, Chinese coolie cap, magnolia, Fukien tea, rain tree, lantana, bald cypress, Japanese black pine, buttonwood and even native live oak. But none measures more than about 3 feet high, and some will fit in the palm of your hand.
He emphasizes that bonsai trees are not dwarf species that just naturally stay small. Instead they are the usual landscape plants that have their foliage and roots lovingly trimmed and tended to maintain their diminutive size.
In fact, if you stop caring for a bonsai tree, it will revert to be like any other plant in your garden, he says.
For Trout, who finds his hobby relaxing, bonsai is a mixture of 50 percent horticulture and 50 percent art. “The most important part of bonsai is the horticulture,” he says. Like any backyard gardener, you need to understand how water, sun, salt, fertilizer, diseases and pests affect your plants.
And you have to know how a plant grows before you can shape it, he explains. It’s a lesson he learned early in his hobby.
He bought his first bonsai tree, a Japanese white five-needle pine, about 40 years ago for $75. “That was a lot of money back then,” he says. But Trout didn’t know it is a temperate-zone tree that doesn’t grow in Florida.
“I proceeded to build a nice display area for it in the backyard and then sat back to watch it die,” says Trout who, when not tending trees, is vice president of operations for Warren Technology, a heating, ventilating, and air conditioning company.
Since then, he has mastered horticulture, joined a number of local bonsai societies to learn from others and worked on thousands of trees.
“It’s one of those hobbies where you always want to do something different with a tree. You can’t work on the same tree every day so you need to maintain them in different stages of growth,” he says.
Before Hurricane Wilma and other storms hit South Florida in 2005, Trout’s collection numbered about 100 bonsai trees. But each time a storm threatened, he had to move his collection indoors for a couple of days, then return it to the backyard. With some of his plants weighing 200 pounds, that wasn’t easy.
Luckily he devised a way to bring them in by himself by slipping them off their 30-inch-high cement-block stands onto the hood of his riding mower and depositing them in his garage.
“After that year, I began to think maybe this wasn’t so good for my back,” he says. He sold many of his trees to a local bonsai nursery as well as to art collectors. Today about 50 specimens remain under his care.
As we wander past the carefully trimmed trees that line his paver patio, Trout points to an Australian pine that stands about three feet tall and looks like a shaggy green Muppet character.
Seeing it needs some work, he unrolls his green pouch of tools. Using clippers, scissors, curved brushes, wire cutters, splitters, concave and knob cutters, a tree saw and other specialized tools, he takes about 20 minutes to turn the plant from unruly to bonsai.
“You can’t call it a bonsai until you put a bit of yourself into it,” he says after giving it a real haircut.
As he nips and tucks, he looks at the tree’s overall shape and considers how its trunk tapers. He makes sure the branches alternate left to right as they ascend the trunk, and he’s pleased that the lower ones curve like arms reaching out in welcome. He is also concerned about the proportion of height to width and the signs of struggle.
Age and struggle are personified in jin, or dead branches. In the wild these are created by something like wind or lightning. In bonsai, it means stripping the bark from a branch and letting nature take its course.
Shari is dead wood on the trunk of a tree. It’s naturally caused by something like a branch falling and being ripped from the trunk or a lightning strike. In bonsai, it’s made by carving the bark. But the true skill of bonsai is to make these manmade touches look natural.
He points out a burl at the base of the trunk that also depicts a struggle. “If you go to Homestead and see these trees in nature, many of them have similar burls,” he explains.
Then he takes a moment to consider how to shape the top of his bonsai tree. “The apex of a tree is like the last chapter or page of a book,” he says. “It’s the last part of the tree that you see. If you are going to tell a story, you have to have something believable at the top,” he adds.
On this tree, the trunk widens at the top, which is problematic. But by clipping existing branches, Trout, who has worked this tree for about five years, believes it will soon sprout a branch that will hide the bulge at the top.
“Sometimes when you are trimming, you just have to close your eyes, clip and not worry,” he says.
Elsewhere among his many bonsai, what looks like a tiny banyon tree complete with buttress roots is actually a ficus nerifolia. It began with thread-like aerial roots projecting from its lower branches. Trout stuck them into tubes of Vermiculite.
“You could let the roots grow themselves, but in bonsai you are trying to manipulate nature while making your tree look natural,” he says. When he removed the plastic tubes, he had solid-looking roots connecting the lower branches to the earth.
Next, we come upon a shimpaku juniper with wires wrapped around its branches. These allow Trout to direct their growth, a common technique in bonsai. Because this is a relatively young plant, its branches tend to grow skyward. The wires allow him to bend them towards the earth so they look like they are pulled down by age and the weight of the limbs.
Of course, these are growing plants so he regularly has to remove the wires to prevent them from gouging the thickening branches. However, if the wire does cut into a branch, it’s not necessarily bad.
“When the branches grow out they will look a little gnarly, which adds age and character to the plant,” Trout explains.
Next up is a grouping of three bald cypress trees growing formally upright, as they would in the swamp. As in nature, where the lower branches don’t get any sun, they die so the greenery is at the top of each trunk.
As Trout moves among his bonsai he points out a bit of jin he created here, a trimmed branch that changed the landscape there or a pad of greenery of which he is particularly proud. Working with live plants, bonsai is an ongoing process.
“Although bonsai is an art form, it’s not a static art form. It’s always changing,” Trout says.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.