Palm in Hand

For the members of the Bonsai Society of Miami, size matters. Rather than dwell on the large, this assortment of tree lovers think diminutive is the desired scale -- at least where miniature potted trees are concerned. Nevertheless the eight-year-old group (formed when the Bonsai Club of Miami and the Bonsai Society of Dade County merged) still holds out hope that a large crowd will show up at Fairchild Tropical Garden this Saturday and Sunday for Bonsai at the Garden, its annual show and sale.

That is when hundreds of aficionados of the ancient art of cultivating small, gnarled trees will gather to compare their creations and demonstrate how to successfully grow and groom a masterpiece. For the mere price of admission to the garden, bonsai masters will work alongside hobbyists, exchanging tips on pruning, feeding, and keeping their little tree happy.

For those seeking something new and exciting to occupy spare time, be prepared: We're not talking about an extremely physical pursuit like lambada lessons. Instead look forward to calmly learning about the age-old art that displays a certain mastery over nature. Bonsai -- which loosely means tree in pot -- finds its roots in China, where nearly 2000 years ago master growers figured out how to manipulate small-scale versions of big trees by rigorously shaping and restraining them with wires. Introduced in Japan during the late 700s and refined considerably thereafter, the craft has been practiced in America since the late 1940s, gaining momentum around the time when soldiers returning from World War II made kung fu, Chungking, and sundry things Asian and Polynesian popular.

South Florida is one of the best places in the country to dabble in bonsai-growing because of the great variety of hearty trees flourishing in the area. Bonsai Society board member Sue Vrana-Brogan recommends the mighty ficus tree for bonsai beginners. "The ficus is fantastic," she says. "They are fast-growing, very forgiving, and you can abuse them a little." (So you thought growing bonsai was a tranquil, passive activity? As with all good things, there is always potential for abuse.) Still South Florida's Bahama berry, juniper, as well as bougainvillea and buttonwood trees are prime for bonsai training. Want a really big challenge? Try bonsai-ing a regal and immense royal palm. Not impossible, Vrana-Brogan claims, but not likely either.

Regardless of success rates, bonsai-growing is full of lessons. Like landscape or still-life painting, it teaches the enthusiast to look closely at nature and to carefully emulate it. Ultimately, Vrana-Brogan says, it can instruct people to respect the earth and the environment by showing off all the tiny, detailed wonders of the world.