Hi, Bonsai

The Sarasota Region Is Home to a Dedicated Group of Bonsai Lovers

The art of creating these miniature trees isn't only for karate masters—but bonsai owners are obsessed with their craft.

By Kim Doleatto July 5, 2024

Chris Cosenza, president of the Sarasota-based Sho Fu Bonsai Society, with one of his bonsai trees.

The lock that’s always cracked with a hairpin. The slow walk away from a car engulfed in flames. The bonsai perched on a CEO’s desk on the 45th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, where he contemplates the perfect deal. Those are all cliches we see often in movies—especially the bonsai tree part, says bonsai expert Chris Cosenza.

Bonsai trees need light, the outdoors and lots of selfless attention. That’s what Cosenza, 53, knows. He's the president of the Sarasota-based Sho Fu Bonsai Society,  a club of enthusiasts who meet monthly to share their love of the art form. The society's upcoming show and exhibit will take place on Saturday, July 13, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at St. Mark's Church in Venice, and the public is invited to get up close and personal with the dwarf trees.

Cosenza says caring for the trees is a long-term relationship that's based on communication. “The trees talk to you," he says. "They show you whether they're suffering or thriving by the way they respond to a cut or a fertilizer. If you listen, you'll have healthy, happy trees."

“They’re like our kids: We feed them, inoculate and protect them and get a babysitter for them, and in the natural order of things, they'll outlive us,” he says.

Many Americans of a certain generation saw their first bonsai tree in the Karate Kid films, where it became a metaphor for the qualities karate requires: discipline, patience and practice.

While that's all true, Cosenza would like to dispel the popular myth that bonsai are a species of tree. The word bonsai simply means "tree in a container" in Japanese, and the tree can be one of a vast array of species that includes buttonwoods, ficus, Mediterranean olive, desmodium, Vietnamese bluebell, bald cypress, elms, citrus trees and more.

Ficus bonsai

And make no mistake: "tree in a container" may be a simple description, but taking care of one is a tall task.

To practice bonsai, you need to restrict the tree's roots and prune its branches. It's an art that's been around for centuries, since at least the Tang dynasty in China circa 700 A.D. The Japanese later redeveloped the craft.

Cosenza prunes a bonsai tree.

"Roughly 10 percent of the people who start [practicing bonsai] stick with it and do well," Cosenza says. “Clubs will get an influx of members, but some people drop out or kill their tree when they see the work it needs. Those who are successful are disciplined." Having a horticultural background can give you an edge, he says, but the art of bonsai is a little mysterious, too. "The trees respond to your character," he says.

A tree with two trunks in one pot is called twin trunks, or "mother-daughter." If the trees are thick and strong, they're referred to as male; if they're sinuous, they're female. Mame, pronounced, mah-may, is a very small tree, under 4 inches tall; a shohin tree can fit in your hand. The standard bonsai size is about 2 feet, but trees can grow as tall as 6 feet. As long as they're in a pot and being trained, however, they're bonsai.

Cosenza is the co-founder of Ante Up, a national poker-focused magazine that began publishing in 2008. Prior to that, he spent more than a dozen years as a designer and editor for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). He's since retired, and his hobbies are "the grandchildren and the trees," he says. He and his wife, Jeanne, care for about 150 bonsai. 

Cosenza's background in writing is perfect for bonsai—the practice gives the tree not just a new shape but a story. Every bonsai tree has one, he says. "Sometimes the tree and the way you design it convey a story," he explains. For bonsai practitioners, “styling” a tree means deciding which branches to cut and how to shape others using wire. Many bonsai trees evoke the feeling of something ancient and precious. 

Juniper bonsai

It can take decades or more to create the desired silhouette. "Bonsai is one of the only hobbies where you can buy time," Cosenza says. In that some people buy decades-old trees from a master and take credit for their work, and some competitors in Japan own trees they've never actually touched—instead, they pay a trainer to care for them and go home with a medal after competing in bonsai competitions. A friend of the Cosenzas cares for a red Japanese laceleaf maple by stripping off its leaves and placing it in the refrigerator in November for 120 days. When it's pulled out in February, it bursts to life.

For Kelly Knowlton, an art appraiser and bonsai newbie in Englewood, bonsai achievement is simpler.  “Nothing is dying right now, so that's good!" she says. Knowlton, 54, has approximately 20 trees that she waters twice a day; she also spends about half an hour inspecting them daily to mitigate pests and measure their health. She attends a study group called Brutally Honest Bonsai, along with the Cosenzas, to ponder wire and trim choices for her trees.

"You can dip your toe or dive in," Knowlton says. "In my limited experience, the people who are into bonsai are super kind and inclusive, and love to pass along what they know." 

She's the third generation in her husband’s family to take up the hobby and propagated a tree from her in-laws' very first tree, which they nurtured for more than 30 years. Knowlton's father-in-law, Michael Knowlton, recently passed away; the upcoming Sho Fu Bonsai Society exhibit on July 13 will exhibit some of his finest bonsai. 

Michael Knowlton with a bonsai

One year into her bonsai hobby, Knowlton says her love of the craft is growing. She has a Vietnamese bluebell that smells like grape soda when it blooms, and just purchased a bald cypress from Nate Murray, a.k.a. @the bootbonsai, in Louisiana, who plucks his trees from the forest. (Murray's is one of hundreds of bonsai-based accounts on Instagram.) 

An essential irony of bonsai is that although people may sign on to the hobby for its meditative qualities, caring for the trees, consulting and teaching classes is a lot of work. Nearly all bonsai practitioners work daily, since even one day off could result in a dead tree.

Fort Lauderdale-based Ed Trout, 78, has been practicing bonsai for 52 years. His trees have been selected for JAL World Bonsai Contest's Top 100 numerous times, and he's authored articles for several bonsai publications. He's also traveled the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean lecturing and teaching at bonsai conventions, and he's been asked to exhibit trees at EPCOT's Flower and Garden Festival every year since 1994.

"To think that millions of people look at my creation is a humbling experience," Trout says. 

He caught the bonsai bug in 1972 after he took his kids to the grand opening of Disney World in Orlando. On the way home, he took a detour after seeing a sign that read "Sarasota Bonsai Gardens," where he bought two books and a bonsai tree for $175 (that works out to a not-insignificant $1,300 today, with inflation). "The tree proceeded to die, or I killed it," Trout confesses. He began researching what happened and found out that he'd purchased a Japanese white pine, which can't grow in this temperature zone and requires winter weather to thrive. 

Undeterred, Trout and his wife Betty now have more than 150 trees in their townhouse garden, born of combining their two collections after they got married three years ago. ("We have too many," Trout admits.) His oldest is a buttonwood that's at least 50 years old; most are at least 10 years old, but "unless you plant the seed [yourself], it's hard to tell their age," he says.  

When Trout started out, there was no Internet. Most of his information came from the encyclopedia and word of mouth. He's seen bonsai gain huge popularity in the digital age.

"There were 21 Florida clubs back then when I started," he recalls. "[That number] has quadrupled since then."

Thinking of taking up the craft? "I always tell my students that the size of bonsai is proportional to the age of your back," Trout says. "You have to pick them up and handle them a lot." Plus, he continues, "You have to sacrifice to achieve." That can mean making drastic cuts. "Some people can't bear to do that when they've spent $300 on a tree, but to train it, you have to," he says.

His advice for newbies is to start with a ficus tree. And while specialized pots that house bonsai include antique Japanese ceramics that can cost thousands of dollars, "plastic for starters works just fine for training trees," he says.

Like both Knowlton and Cosenza, Trout talks to his trees. "They talk to you to let you know if they're happy or not," he says. "Listening is key." It's good life advice, too.

The Sho Fu Bonsai Society show and exhibit takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at St. Mark’s Church, 508 Riviera St., Venice. Click here to learn more. A collaboration with Selby Gardens is also home to an onsite permanent bonsai exhibit.

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