The Tiny Bonsai Trees of Montreal Are the Best in the West—and That's Certainly Not Going Out on a Limb
04/22/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
The sparkling wine flowed freely at the $1 million exhibition, but nobody got tipsy enough to empty a glass into the potted plants. That was fortunate, since the potted plants were the $1 million exhibition. They were among the world's finest examples of bonsai, the dwarf trees prized by the Orient and procured by the Montreal Botanical Garden after months of delicate negotiations. Specimens were offered to the United States, but appropriate facilities weren't available so Canada got them first. "I think when the U.S. learned this they were mad," said Pierre Bourque, director of the garden. The Montreal bonsai collection, he added, became "the most important outside Asia" once the 30 trees, shipped by air from Hong Kong and quarantined for six months, were added to trees from Shanghai and Japan acquired a few years ago.
At the opening of the exhibition last month, more than a thousand guests munched fried wontons as they waited in a line that stretched from the moon-shaped door of the Chinese greenhouse, into the cool cactus greenhouse, through the sultry begonia greenhouse and finally to the main greenhouse, where a Chinese cultural group performed a ritual dance. There were so many people crowded around the small plants, you could hardly see the trees for the florists.
Bonsai are artistic miniatures created from trees that would grow to normal heights in the wilderness. Lumberjacks would not be impressed, since the whole $1 million Montreal collection wouldn't yield enough timber to build a dollhouse. The best-known bonsai are those of Japan, famous for their elegance and gracefully stylized beauty. The Hong Kong bonsai are more angular and gnarled, expressing strength not in keeping with their delicate names—Buddhist Pine, Fukien Tea, Chinese Elm and Orange Jasmine.
The art of growing bonsai started 1,700 years ago in China, but these 30 specimens are from a school of bonsai—the Lingnan School—that evolved only about 100 years ago. Inspiration came from scholarly painters who rejected society and fled to the mountains to live in huts. Bonsai from the Lingnan School should be seen in a natural manner and displayed in a dignified setting.
The trees presented to Montreal were grown by Wu Yee-Sun, 79, who left China in the 1930s—taking his bonsai with him—and prospered in Hong Kong as a banker. He now has a collection of nearly 400 trees and employs three full-time gardeners at his mountainside home above the city. Wu donated some of his trees to Canada, some to Taiwan and some will eventually find a home at the U.S. National Arboretum, although they aren't expected to go on display until late 1986.
Giving away these valuable plants, the best of which are worth $50,000 in their antique pots (or more than $1,000 an inch), is not as simple as it sounds. Both the U.S. and Canada have laws stating that live plants coming across the border must be bare-rooted and fumigated. The Montreal Botanical Garden lobbied for special government dispensation so Wu's trees, some of which are more than 100 years old, could be quarantined instead.
"I spoke to Mr. Wu about this," said David Easterbrook, 34, a member of the botanical garden staff and president of the Montreal Bonsai Society. "He said, 'These are my children.' "
Wu has 13 other children, including eight sons. Traditionally the growing of bonsai is a male hobby, although women, as you might expect, sometimes get stuck with the watering. None of Wu's sons showed much interest in maintaining his collection, so he began seeking new homes for the trees. "I sat next to one of his sons at a dinner," Easterbrook said. "He told me he didn't like to get his fingernails dirty."
Lest the sons be judged too harshly, the growing of bonsai is more of a calling than a hobby. In degree of difficulty, Easterbrook places it somewhere between raising pets and rearing children. "With a cat, you can open a can of food and dump it on the floor," he said. During the growing season, the plants must be watered two or three times a day and new shoots pinched back frequently. It seems unnatural that a tree can live for several hundred years, then die from two days of neglect, but such is the case with bonsai. They are less like mighty oaks than cranky grandparents.
When Wu's bonsai arrived in Montreal the responsibility of caring for them fell to Easterbrook, who had studied Japanese methods of styling bonsai for 14 years but knew nothing about the Lingnan School. "I was completely at a loss to know what to prune," he said. It was his good fortune, to say nothing of that of the trees, that an acquaintance of Wu's, Cheung Sau-Jean, 63, also a bonsai expert, had recently emigrated to Montreal. Wu telephoned Cheung and asked him to look in on the collection.
Cheung, the founding president of the Hong Kong Artistic Pot Plant Association, went to the botanical garden daily to advise and assist Easterbrook, even explaining how pruning should begin on a date prescribed by the Chinese calendar.
When he lived in crowded Hong Kong, Cheung raised his bonsai in the New Territories, the outlying lands of the British crown colony. He arose every morning at 5 a.m., hopped a train and rode out to water them. When he left for Canada, Cheung could not take his bonsai with him, a grave loss for a man who had been growing them for 40 years.
Easterbrook noticed that Cheung was coming to the botanical garden even more than he had to and presented him with a gift of a bonsai for his home.
"I could see," he said, "that Mr. Cheung was at a loss without a tree to look after."