Tiny Trees, Enormous Passion

Published On December 27, 2015 | By Melissa Epifano |

Members of the Eugene Bonsai Society find relaxation in caring for the trees.

Words by Melissa Epifano, Photos by Elinor Manoogian-O’Dell

A man with a warm smile stands at the head of the room. A white ponytail hangs behind him and silver, wire-framed glasses rest on his face. The crowd, no more than 30 people, sits listening in folding chairs. While it gives the vibe of a city hall meeting, one detail makes this gathering different.

Lining the walls on tables behind them are small trees, twisting and curving but never reaching more than a couple of feet. Some have bright orange leaves, mirroring their larger deciduous counterparts that stand in the cold outside. Others have thin needles that fan out like a peacock’s feathers. Despite their small stature, many trees in this room are over 20 years old. These trees are living examples of the art of bonsai — the passion that brings these people together.

The man at the head of the room is Bill Kohler, president of the Eugene Bonsai Society. The group started in 1981, when its founding members created a place where those with a passion for bonsai can come together.

One example is Dean Burkhart, a soft-spoken man who has spent most of his life interested in the art form. Growing up in a small town in Iowa, he learned about horticulture and plants by living on a farm. His first encounter with bonsai was at the Iowa State Fair where he came across a man selling and displaying them. After purchasing one, the rest was history for Burkhart, who now owns over 98 bonsai trees.

He and his wife, Karen, spend much of their time tending to trees and preparing for shows. Residing in Oregon for 12 years now, their backyard has rows upon rows of the intricate plants, resembling a tiny orchard. On the table near the glass sliding door sits an azalea that Burkhart says will bloom with flowers. Past a short stepping stone path is a small greenhouse, holding “companion plants” — extra-tiny plants that serve as a complementary accessory at shows.

“We chose this one,” he says, pointing at a small rounded shrub, “because each of the previous trunks on that tree outside match the shape of this plant.”

(Elinor O'Dell/Ethos)

(Elinor O’Dell/Ethos)

Several other tiny plants stand in line next to the shrub. Though small, they boast ages anywhere from 20 to 30 years old.

Burkhart finds bonsai to be relaxing.

“You work with the tree and learn how to style it,” he says. “It’s not something that you have to do in a hurry or stress about getting done.”

Soothing as it can be, tending to a bonsai is a dedicated labor of love.

“It’s a living art form that’s constantly in development. They’re like children, every tree is an individual and their soil takes water differently,” says President Kohler. “You learn to feel what they need and what they want.”

Kohler also finds that the art of bonsai keeps his parents with him. His first experience with bonsai was in the seventh grade, when he stumbled upon the local bonsai club in Corvallis, Oregon, displaying trees at the library. He expressed his interest in the tiny trees and, not long after, Kohler’s father gave him his very first wild pear tree. Kohler’s parents also became involved in bonsai, an interest they could all share.

“I still have one tree of theirs left,” he says, “It got sick this summer and a lot of foliage died off — it’s going to be a different tree if it survives. But I want to keep it alive because that’s the only live thing I have left that’s directly from my folks. And they’ve been gone for several years so that’s their life. It’s kind of a connection for me,” says Kohler.

It’s stories as sentimental as Kohler’s and passions as deep as Burkart’s that bring members to the Eugene Bonsai Society. The enormous amount of dedication and love bonsai artists put into their work reflect the beauty of their small, intricate pieces of art. Some find relaxation; some find sanctuary and escape in the art. Others look at it as a bonding experience, or even just a fun project. Eugene has a variety of groups and clubs, but the Eugene Bonsai Society offers a beautiful form of art that can be found right in your backyard.

If you’d like to get involved with the Eugene Bonsai Society, they can be reached at eugenebonsai.org. Or come to their meetings on the first Thursday of every month (except January, August, and December).

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