Steve Schneider works on bonsai time. Which is slow, even in an institution devoted to the growing of trees.
Time, in the Arnold Arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Collection, is dictated not by the soundless flip of an iPhone’s digital minute or the breathy turn of an analog calendar page, but by the long evolution of one season into the next and the needs of the collection’s 43 breathtaking, miniature trees.
In the spring, there’s growth and pruning — root and branch — then rest during the idyllic days of summer. In autumn comes the color, the leaf drop, and the slow descent into winter’s drowsy dormancy.
For individual trees, marking time means different things. For the last four years, what’s mattered to a 167-year-old cherry tree is getting healthy.
Reduced to not much more than a fist-sized stump, it landed in the narrow, airy bonsai hospital, a wooden slat house with long tables along each side. Removed from its constricting ceramic pot and wrapped in an “air pot” of stiff plastic with holes punched in its circumference, the cherry — already more than twice as old as most of its full-sized relatives — rebounded. Today, it boasts a dozen young, whiplike branches, festooned with green leaves.
Now that it’s healthy, the cherry will soon undergo the heavy pruning that dwarfs the tree, and the training that gives it dramatic traditional form and that makes bonsai and penjing — the older Chinese practice — as much art as horticultural exercise.
Training can take years, as youthful, springy branches are wrapped in heavy-gauge wire and bent into place, where they grow and harden before additional pruning and new wire wraps go on new growth. The process for this one plant, from the start of rehabilitation to its return to public display, can be as much as 10 years. But Schneider is a patient man.