This piece by Tony Green was originally published in Florida Bonsai magazine, and is reprinted here with permission.
When the fervor of bonsai took hold of me, I sought all the information I could find. I learned the history of bonsai. I subscribed to bonsai magazines. I watched videos about wiring and watering techniques. I researched substrate and light cycles. The learning materials I immersed myself in often displayed magnificent white pines, exquisite Japanese flowering quince, and majestic Rocky Mountain junipers. And slowly, another force grew inside me, nestled in right beside my bonsai fervor: zone envy—“an affliction whereby one desires to cultivate a species of plant outside their native zone.”
A plant hardiness zone is a standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive in their location. Zones are determined by the average annual minimum temperature in winter and are divided into ten-degree increments. I live in zone 10b— the southeast coast of Florida.
The magnificent trees I saw in my studies needed a dormancy period during the winter, requiring winter temperatures far below those found in my zone. While I was able to cultivate tropicals like bougainvillea, schefflera, and ficus where I lived, I yearned to work on the great variety of trees I was exposed to in my studies. It was this force that drove me to apply for an internship at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC in the spring of 2017.
The bonsai collection at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum is world-renowned. Comprised of over 400 trees, the collection includes bonsai from all over the world, many of which have been donated by famous artists and heads of state. Some of the most famous trees in the world are in this collection, including Goshin by John Naka and the Yamaki pine, rescued from Hiroshima and in training since 1625. Truly, it is one of the top bonsai collections in existence.
Ironically, when I arrived at the arboretum, the staff took great pride in showing me their collection of tropical trees. They had gone to extensive measures in their tropical greenhouses to mimic the warm, humid environment required for tropical trees to thrive—conditions I had always taken for granted in Florida. I realized that, apparently, zone envy afflicts bonsai practitioners no matter where they live.
My first responsibility was to properly clean the water basins and keep the hoses neatly put away. Next, I was instructed in proper watering and fertilization. Then, one day I was assigned a ficus which needed spring pruning “We have this ficus that needs pruning. Why don’t you give it a shot? You can ‘go hard,’” they told me.
Apparently, a “hard” prune on a ficus is defined differently in mid-Atlantic regions than it is in temperate Florida. My mentors looked at my finished work, mouths agape at my drastic “hard” styling of the tree. After that, they politely told me to “go easy” when it came to pruning. Once we overcame such communication hurdles, I was honored to be trusted to work on some of the most famous and valuable bonsai trees in the nation.
During my time there, I spent twelve hours a day, five days a week absorbing all the information I could about bonsai. I felt like a captive-bred fish finally released into a palatial lake, greedily absorbing all my new environment had to offer. I learned skills for maintaining various species, cultivars, and styles of bonsai. I gained understanding of how a tree’s age impacts the treatment and styling approach. I acquired new knowledge of extensive display techniques. Much of my time was spent interacting with public visitors to the museum, answering questions and educating people about the collection. Of course, I would not have taken away so much value from my experience if I had not been working with the knowledgeable, supportive staff I had guiding me through my journey.
At its heart, zone envy is a curiosity. It’s this curiosity that drove me out of zone 10b into zone 7a for more training and experience and allowed me to expand my horticultural knowledge. However, all people can utilize that native wonder, even within their own temperate zones. Everyone can test the limits of their zones, integrating species that are just on the edge or just outside of their temperate zone. It is this curiosity that takes us to places we never imagined and allows us to explore our creativity in ways we never knew were possible.