The phrase “bonsai tree” brings to mind small, twisted trees from the Far East, but bonsai is actually the combination of art and horticulture, working with a tree to coax it into a desired shape and form.
“Bonsai is the technique of what you do to a tree, not a particular kind of a tree,” Brussel Martin of Brussel’s Bonsai says. “Bonsai is something that you do with it, not what it is. You apply bonsai techniques to particular plants, and it will respond and reward you with a nice tree.”
Brussel’s Bonsai is the largest bonsai nursery in the U.S., shipping trees all over the country. Located in Olive Branch since 2004, the nursery features a nearly 200,000-square-foot climate-controlled greenhouse and an 18,000-square-foot shipping and production building.
“Actually, 99.9% of our orders are shipped,” Martin says. “The week of Mother’s Day, we sent out 50,000 orders. If you go on the internet and buy from Amazon, 1-800-Flowers, etc., they’re probably from us.”
What originally started as a hobby eventually became a profitable business.
“My father went out to California in the early ’50s and brought back about half a dozen bonsai,” Martin says. “It just stuck and I started doing it as a hobby. I opened my nursery right after high school, and here I am 50 years later.”
Techniques to obtain a desired bonsai shape include trimming, pinching and wiring for the initial shape. “Some trees naturally have interesting growth habits and some you have to put a curve in the trunk when they’re young,” Martin says. “Most of the time you’re curving the trunk, then you’re letting the branches grow out.”
It can take two to three years before trees are old enough to handle bonsai techniques, except for the trunk. “You can usually only manipulate a branch that’s no bigger than your little finger,” Martin says.
To create the interesting shape that bonsai are known for, limbs are wired for about six months, then removed. This process continues throughout the tree’s life.
“You get a nice, full-looking tree in three to five years. It’s work a little, then wait. Work a little, wait. You’re trying to make them look like a big tree,” Martin says. “Most bonsais that you see have probably had techniques done to them five to 10 years at least before they look impressive enough.”
Bonsai trees are categorized as indoor or outdoor. “Indoor bonsai are best for people who like to keep their trees inside,” Martin says. “These include ficus, jade and Hawaiian umbrellas. They’re kind of tropical plants. They can’t freeze, but we suggest putting them outside in the summer because everything grows better outside.”
Outdoor varieties include evergreen and deciduous varieties, such as junipers, maples, pines, elms and azaleas. “These trees need to have a seasonal change,” Martin says. “They need the four seasons to go dormant. Most people that have really nice bonsai collections usually have hardy bonsai.”
Southern climes prove advantageous to production. “Because it’s a growing plant and you only get one shot at the growing season, you’re trying to get the most out of it,” Martin says. “The good thing about this part of the country is we have a long growing season. I can grow in three years what takes my competition in New England twice as long.”
Brussel’s Bonsai hosts its annual Rendezvous Weekend every Memorial Day weekend. “It’s like a convention,” Martin says. “We bring in guest artists, have demonstrations and workshops, and feed everyone for three days.”
General registration covers all the demonstrations and workshops, and for a separate fee you can participate in a workshop and end up with a tree. “It’s a very casual event,” Martin says. “We barbecue, have all the beer and soda pop you can drink. It’s the best bang for the buck in the bonsai community.”
The nursery also has a preview sale in late winter/early spring and an open house in September.
For beginners, Martin suggests an indoor variety such as ficus, ponytail palm or jade.
“Most of what we grow indoors are pretty durable because of the fact that whoever’s getting them, their thumb may not be real green,” he says. “I always tell them, start with a tree that’s almost bulletproof, just get your feet wet, understand what it is, and you’ll get the hang of it. It’s not rocket science or I wouldn’t be doing it. I like to educate and I want people to be successful.”