Ben Suzuki's bonsai students watched intently as he took the measure of a straggly potted juniper. He pruned it delicately for several minutes, then suddenly snipped off one of its principal branches.
With that daring cut, Suzuki began to shape the 15-inch-tall plant to resemble a full-size tree. The stub of the branch looked as though it had been stunted naturally, by lightning or disease.
The art of bonsai is "bringing great nature's beauty near you to enjoy," said Suzuki, a master teacher of bonsai and founder of the South Coast Bonsai Assn.
Bonsai is the ancient Chinese and Japanese art of growing plants in miniature. The word bonsai in Japanese means "tray culture," so to be a true bonsai a plant must be grown in a tray or pot rather than in the ground. Although bonsai traditionally is a family art taught by father to son, the Hawaii-born Suzuki said he did not become interested in bonsai until he was in his mid-20s.
Plant Struck a Chord
About 40 years ago, he recalled, he noticed a nondescript plant sitting behind his apartment building, and it struck a chord.
"That plant got me," he said. "It was just a plain plant in a one-gallon container, but all of a sudden it came to me that if I trained it, it might look good."
Suzuki has continued his study of bonsai culture over the years and has become the country's leading authority in forest-style bonsai--where a cluster of trees stands together--according to local association officials.
At his Montebello home, Suzuki has 51 trees in a bonsai forest that he calls "Jin Ryu," in tribute to the dragon of Japanese legend. It is the largest bonsai forest outside of Japan, officials said. Suzuki began work on the project in 1957, training each tree individually before it became part of the 63-inch-high bonsai forest.
Although some bonsai are as small as a thumbnail, Suzuki is noted for larger bonsai works that communicate strength and greatness, said Bob Takahashi, an association member who has studied with Suzuki for 10 years. Some of Suzuki's students have trained with him as long as 25 years, Takahashi said.
Suzuki, a graduate of Fukushima-Ken Ritsu Agricultural College in northern Japan, holds a lifetime teaching credential in ornamental horticulture from the state Department of Education.
In 1974, he received a medal for distinguished achievement in bonsai from the Dai Nippon Agricultural Assn. of Japan.
Suzuki is noted for quizzing his students as he demonstrates the proper techniques of pruning and wiring the trees into shape. At a recent class at the South Coast Botanic Gardens, when it came to a crucial cut, he asked his students where he should trim the small juniper. When they hesitated, he said, "If you don't know, I'll do it." He made a decisive cut and proceeded to wrap copper wire around the branches to train their future growth.
Among students were Chardonnay restaurant owner Harry Fieger, a Rolling Hills resident and self-described "Type-A" personality who turned to bonsai after he suffered a heart attack 10 years ago. Bonsai is a relaxing and absorbing hobby, he said, and his collection numbers about 200.
Another student was Lomita resident Thomas Meagher, a tool-and-die maker who began studying bonsai eight years ago. Bonsai is a lifelong occupation, he said, because each work keeps growing and changing. "These are pieces of living sculpture," he said. "They are always ready to be enjoyed but they are never finished."