JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
If you've got a yen for tiny trees, Washington is the place to be this weekend. The fifth World Bonsai Convention is taking place at the Washington Hilton. Organizers say it's the biggest bonsai event ever. We sent NPR's Petra Mayer to have a look.
PETRA MAYER reporting:
Vendor Dave Kreutz(ph) has a booth overflowing with little trees: pines, junipers and azaleas. But before he let me buy one, he had to set me straight on the pronunciation.
Mr. DAVE KREUTZ (Vendor): Bonsai (pronounced bones-eye), bonsai (pronounced bones-eye), not bonsai (pronounced bahns-eye). Bonsai (pronounced bahns-eye) you yell when you're in a plane attacking Pearl Harbor. Bonsai (pronounced bones-eye) is how to pronounce it.
MAYER: Bonsai enthusiast Don George(ph) came from Indianapolis for the convention. He and his friend John Brownsdorfer(ph) are looking at something that seems to me like a pretty normal azalea in a pot.
Unidentified Man #1: It's a Satsuki azalea. It flowers in--about this time of year, about June each year, and it's an evergreen from Japan.
Unidentified Man #2: There you go.
Unidentified Man #1: If you're only going to have one specimen tree, it should be a Satsuki.
Unidentified Man #2: That's right.
MAYER: So what makes this a bonsai? It looks kind of like a normal-sized azalea, like I got in my yard.
Unidentified Man #2: A bonsai is two words put together; it's a tree in a pot. `Bon' is the tree, and `sai' is the pot. So like you say, this looks like a tree in your yard. And in the tree in your yard, when the tree gets bigger, you put it into a bigger pot. But in bonsai, we don't. We trim the roots back and keep it in the small pot, which makes it much different than a regular tree in a pot.
Unidentified Man #1: That tree's probably twice as old as you are.
MAYER: The Hilton's windowless basement ballrooms smell like a forest, green and cool. There are almost 900 people here and easily twice that many trees.
Dr. TOM ELIAS (Director, National Arboretum): And they're from every continent except Antarctica. And there's no trees there.
MAYER: Dr. Tom Elias is the director of the National Arboretum, and he's one of the convention organizers. He says he keeps about half a dozen bonsai at home, but he's no match for convention goer Anne Herb(ph).
How many trees do you have at home?
Ms. ANNE HERB (Conventiongoer): I can't say that in front of my husband. It's probably 2 to 300. Bonsai, it's an art. It's why anybody paints or sculpts or creates pottery. We sculpt with trees. We enjoy watching them develop and bloom, and they're our children.
MAYER: Bonsai seem to require almost as much care as children: watering, pruning, careful climate control, even wire braces to shape their branches, which look almost as painful as the braces you might have on your teeth.
Mr. FRANK THOMAS (President, Potomac Bonsai Association): There's no torture involved. These trees are--they are pampered. They are very well cared for. And as far as the wiring's concerned, that's strictly a training device. It trains the branch to grow where you want it in an artistic manner.
MAYER: That's Frank Thomas, the president of the Potomac Bonsai Association. He's here with the club's vice president, Jane Ashley.
Ms. JANE ASHLEY (Vice President, Potomac Bonsai Association): There's another thing: We try to think of it as if we are the wind or sun coming on one side of the tree only. It's peace and beauty to me; it's a meditation form. And you can't approach a tree with scissors in your hand and be angry or frustrated or have a crush of time. You can't just say, `Oh, I'm going to spend 10 minutes on this.'
MAYER: Creating a bonsai really does take a lifetime--or several. One famous bonsai at the National Arboretum was first potted in Japan in 1626. Petra Mayer, NPR News, Washington.