Steven H. Zeisel

Exhibition brings lovers of bonsai art to Kannapolis

December 16, 2013
By Lisa Thornton
    “Most people think bonsai is a certain type of tree. It’s not, though,” said Dr. Steven Zeisel, who sponsored the exhibition. “Any tree can be a bonsai.”

The atrium of the David H. Murdock Core Laboratory building in Kannapolis looked like a thick, lush miniature forest on Dec. 7 and 8 as the first Winter Silhouette Bonsai Exhibition took place on the North Carolina Research Campus.

The exhibition was sponsored by Dr. Steven Zeisel, director of the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute, and supported by the North Carolina Research Campus and the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau. It was the Charlotte region’s first major bonsai show and the only one to have occurred here during the cooler months.

“People have asked me, ‘Why are you having a show with dead trees?’ ” said Zeigler, a bonsai enthusiast for the past decade. “But when the leaves fall off, you can see the intricate branches.”

Despite popular myth, bonsai are not a species of tree but rather are a style of growing and shaping any tree into a small-scale replica of a mature tree.

Elms, ficuses and junipers are the most common types of trees used, but any shrub will also work as long as it has woody stems to shape.

“The goal is to make it look like an old tree,” said Brad Russell, president of the Bonsai Society of the Carolinas.

The society meets each month at UNC Charlotte’s Botanical Gardens. Meetings often include workshops with some of the nation’s top bonsai enthusiasts. The club, which has a mix of new and seasoned bonsai hobbyists, will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.

The two-day winter exhibition attracted dozens of bonsai enthusiasts, including many from the Bonsai Society of the Carolinas, which brought some trees to display and others to sell or swap. Vendors were also set up to sell supplies for the hobby, from scissors and pliers to fertilizers and ceramic pots.

Bonsai Learning Center, with branches in both Mooresville and Cary, sold complete starter kits with tools, fertilizer, instructions, and even the trees and the pots to grow them in.

According to the Bonsai Empire, a website dedicated to bonsai tree care, 183 bonsai organizations exist in the United States. Enthusiasts come from all walks of life and are attracted to the hobby for a variety of reasons.

“I’m a scientist and physician, so I’m using the left side of my brain all day,” said Zeisel, who showed one of his bonsai scenes – a forest of leafless trees, all bent and swaying as if swept by decades of winter winds. “With bonsai, I get to use the right side of my brain.”

“I’m a really high-strung guy,” said Ken Buechele, a regional sales manager for a machine tool company in Charlotte, who brought trees to display and sell at the exhibition. “But this stuff, working on these trees – it just gets me to sit back, and it relaxes me.”

Buechele, who at one point owned and cultivated 200 bonsai trees, said it could take hours to wire the branches of a bonsai to get it to grow into the desired shape.

“You’re trying to get the balance all around the tree,” he said.

A finished bonsai tree, most agree, produces a calming effect.

“They’re very peaceful to look at,” said Buechele.

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