Bonsai! Dwarf Trees Make It Big

Think of typically Russian hobbies. Planting potatoes. Mushroom hunting. Bonsai, the art of meticulously growing dwarf trees.

If the latter seems out of place to you, you're not alone. Tamara Belousova, Moscow's patron of the ancient Japanese pastime of Bonsai, has heard it a million times.

"My Japanese colleagues ask me all the time, 'In Russia, you have such big trees and such wide, open spaces; why do you need Bonsai?,'" Belousova said in the Bonsai collection in the Moscow Botanical Gardens, a happy, if crowded, little ecosphere of buzzing bees, chirping frogs, fluttering butterflies and a carefully arranged display of dwarf maples, junipers and pines.

Why Bonsai? Belousova, a career biologist and the chairwoman of Moscow's burgeoning Bonsai club, can easily answer the question for herself.

"When I come down here, my problems go away and my head clears up," she said as she lovingly plucked at the branches of a dwarf apple tree. "I talk to them, they talk to me, and I feel an inner peace."

The Bonsai craze in Moscow has gone far beyond Belousova and her club's 100 members. Suddenly, Bonsai has become something that bankers and businessmen just have to have, like Mercedes 600SLs and vacations in Cyprus.

This wave of popularity is heady stuff for Bonsai, which was greeted with typical Soviet disregard for things new and foreign when the first collection made its Moscow debut as a gift from the Japanese embassy in 1976.

The collection was locked away out of the public view until the mid-1980s. It was only in 1989 when Belousova formed her club and began to fulfill her dream of studying Bonsai. This included a trip to the village in Japan from which Bonsai takes its name. There, Belousova said she witnessed Bonsai's legendary salutary effect on the art's leading practitioner, Kato Saburo.

When she had first met Saburo in Tokyo, he was a frail, wrinkled old man. When she later visited him in the village of Belousova, he was "lively, energetic, charming and unrecognizable."

"When he was near his creations, Kato Saburo was transformed, just like the legends say," Belousova said.

In Japan, Bonsai plants, which can live for a millennium, are passed down from generation to generation and are respected not only for their longevity, but also as a way of remembering those who cared for them in previous centuries.

The oldest Bonsai trees at the Moscow Botanical Gardens are 50 years old -- mere toddlers by Bonsai standards, but Belousova treats them with similar reverence. Asked to show her favorite plant, she said, "That's like asking me to show you my favorite child."

The child metaphor is a favorite among Bonsai growers. When raising children, they say, one neither watches the clock nor expects immediate results. The same is true of proper Bonsai care. Unfortunately, Belousova said, most Bonsai owners have little time to care for the delicate trees.

Most Bonsai require a humid environment of about 17 degrees Centigrade -- rare in Moscow's arid interiors. In Japan, Bonsai spends most of its time outdoors, but Moscow's harsh climate makes this nearly impossible. A Bonsai owner can never smoke near his Bonsai.

"Many of the plants have died," said Tamara Baidakova, who works at a shop at VDNKh that sells Bonsai imported from Holland at prices ranging from 200,000 to 300,000 rubles. "Word has gotten around that something is wrong with them."

In Belousova's tiny office stands a shriveled, yellowed, Bonsai Chinese Elm -- two weeks ago, the chairman of a Moscow bank purchased the tree after spying Bonsai in his deputy's office. After two weeks of overwatering the plant, he brought it to Belousova to see if she could resurrect it.

"It's dead," Belousova said flatly. "This will never be a mass phenomenon."