Thiruvananthapuram’s big love for bonsai
Enthusiasts of bonsai explain why and how small is beautiful. A three-day National Bonsai Convention begins in the city today
Thirty years ago, Beena Vincent was struck by the beauty of a small Ficus benjamina ‘Jacqueline’ growing at a friend’s place in Sreekaryam. Fascinated, she cut a stem of the plant and potted it at her residence in Poojappura. The “experiment” proved a success, sparking an avid passion. “I still have the tree at my house, my first bonsai,” says Beena.
Beena is among a thriving brigade of bonsai enthusiasts in the city who have been nurturing a passion for the art of growing miniaturised plants. Taken up as a pastime or to adorn the surroundings with a creation of their own, their green fingers feed their passion for the Japanese tradition that has found favour around the world. Today, bonsai enthusiasts from India will congregate in the city for a three-day National Bonsai Convention, organised under the aegis of Kerala Bonsai Association (KBA).
It’s an “art” and bonsai does not mean plants whose growth is sped up or stunted. “It’s a misconception that bonsais are plants or trees that grow quickly as they are miniatures. The truth is, a bonsai takes the same amount of time to grow as it would otherwise do in a natural environment,” asserts Jaya Nair, Secretary of KBA. She started nurturing miniature plants 25 years ago after being inspired by an exhibition at Kanakakkunnu.
Today, over 100 bonsai plants, including about 20 varieties of Ficus varieties, beautify her home at a government quarters at Vellayambalam. “Ficus species are quite resilient and need relatively less water and sunlight as well and are otherwise just like their real-size cousins,” believes Jaya.
In most bonsais, especially trees, their horizontal taproots are cut to prevent them from outgrowing the container, and secondary roots growing sideways are pruned. “The roots adapt to the pots and the basic principles followed in bonsai culture are pretty much the same as practised in horticulture,” says D Ravindran, who runs Nikki Bonsai Garden in Padmanabhapuram near Thuckalay, perhaps the largest such bonsai garden in South India.
An international consultant with World Bonsai Friendship Federation, Ravindran left a career in law to pursue his passion. His collection comprises over 1,000 plants, a good portion of which are “rescued” bonsais salvaged from around wells, abandoned buildings or stray saplings growing between wall cracks. “All trees cannot be made into bonsais. They should have an ability for natural adaptation,” he says, calling the art both “a process of adoption and adaptation.”
If Joshy Mathew, a retired government official, enjoys a “rewarding post-retirement work” tending to his plants flourishing on the terrace of his house at Nanthancode, for homemakers like Dolly Joseph, bonsai garden has been an integral part of her life for decades. “My house stands on about 2.5 cents and I’m afforded limited space. So I decided to make my terrace my garden,” says Joshy, who grows over 40 bonsai plants, mainly Indian varieties like ficus and tamarind, in shallow cement pots. “One cardinal reason is these trees have a longer life,” he adds.
Dolly, however, loves to nurture fruit trees for bonsais. With over 200 plants, among them fruit trees such as Surinam cherry, West Indian cherry and a number of tamarind trees, she has converted her vast terrace near Vazhuthacaud into a bonsai garden.
“Recently, I harvested half a kg of consumable tamarind from a single bonsai tree,” she says with pride. Tending to her bonsai collection has become an everyday morning ritual for Dolly.
“At 7 am, I enter the terrace to water the plants and return after 9 pm. I’m busy again from 4 pm till about 6.30 pm with trimming, pruning, re-potting, fertilising or weeding out,” she says. Apart from fruit varieties, Dolly also has Gmelina, Ficus ‘Jacquline’, Ficus Retusa, Ficus Nuda to name a few.
Non-resident Indian Prabhu Narayan frequently shuttles between Kuwait and the city. Being an avid gardener, the techie’s solution to “be in touch” with his plants is to maintain a garden in both places.
“It all started when I was 15 and was visiting a relative in Palode. I saw a little tree growing on a rock and the sight sparked an interest in bonsai,” says Prabhu, who keeps over 100 bonsais “of different shapes, sizes and styles” in Ambalathara.
Then there are those like Asha Kumar, a doctor, for whom bonsai means beyond the mere aesthetic. “Care of bonsais in particular and my garden in general is like meditation. I’m out on my garden at 6 am and spend about two hours tending to my plants. That’s how I prepare myself for the day ahead,” says Asha, who grows over 50 bonsai plants that includes a few varieties of koovalam or Bael.
In modern cities, where space is often at a premium, perhaps bonsai gardens and plants are the way to add some greenery in concrete jungles.
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