Good Life

Happy Valley Bonsai Club is rooted in ancient traditions

Ross Adams, left, and Roy Bohn inspect a Japanese black pine bonsai. The Happy Valley Bonsai Club met, March 15, 2015 at the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania.
Ross Adams, left, and Roy Bohn inspect a Japanese black pine bonsai. The Happy Valley Bonsai Club met, March 15, 2015 at the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania. CDT photo

Although the tradition of bonsai has been around for centuries, the local club devoted to the art is still in training, to borrow a term from the horticulture specialty.

The Happy Valley Bonsai Club, which formed about a year ago, started with five people from the area who had a shared interest in the Far East art of designing and cultivating miniature trees. The founding members knew each other from various bonsai events and activities, which had all been held pretty far from home.

“There isn’t a bonsai society, club or studio within 90 miles of here,” said member and meeting coordinator Ross Adams, a State College resident who has studied bonsai for more than 25 years. “We really wanted a local outlet, a local situation where we could get together periodically and talk about bonsai, get ideas from one another and just develop our skills and share it with the public, too.”

Such clubs are all over the world. That’s because, when it comes to bonsai, a grower needs more than just a green thumb.

“I think most people and the general public think of bonsai as, you buy a tree and put it on a shelf in your office. That’s not what bonsai is really about,” said club member Ann Taylor-Schmidt, who lives in Philipsburg. “It’s really about the tending of the tree and the progress over the years to get it to where you want it.”

With bonsai, a Japanese practice with ancient roots in China, trees or shrubs are grown (usually outdoors) in small containers and shaped skillfully over time, with the goal of creating a miniature imitation of nature. Young trees are “in training” anywhere from two to five years, during which time they need to be periodically repotted to keep them as bonsai, Adams said. Then there’s styling, which may involve pruning, wiring or any number of other techniques that range in difficultly and sophistication.

Adams sees bonsai as a combination of art and science — the art of design and style and the science of horticulture.

“People sometimes think that when they buy a bonsai they’re buying the finished painting, when in fact they’re buying paint and an easel, and nothing’s going to happen unless you apply that paint and work that, and that’s true for the life of the bonsai,” he said. “It’s never a finished project.”

For longtime bonsai enthusiasts like Roy Bohn, of Milesburg, the Happy Valley Bonsai Club helps keep a beloved hobby alive by associating with others who share the interest. But the club isn’t just for experts, and Bohn said he enjoys meeting and speaking with bonsai newcomers.

“It gives me an opportunity to share my learning experiences with other people, because the only way you can learn bonsai around here would be to read books,” Bohn said.

Ann Taylor-Schmidt has been active with bonsai for about a year, with a few trees in progress, and said the meetings have been invaluable as she continues to learn.

“It’s been very good for me because I get to see these people who have been working on bonsai for 20 or 30 years at least, and I get to watch how they do it and get up close and ask questions,” she said.

All meetings are open to the public. At one early meeting, Adams said, a local woman brought in a bushy juniper that had been indoors for a few years and a member worked with her on repotting and training the plant.

“If somebody has a tree they want to bring in and talk to us about, we’re available,” Adams said.

For others who are interested in getting a first bonsai or learning more about the art, Adams recommends taking a class where trees are provided and where skills of developing the tree and the art of designing it are taught. There aren’t any local classes, but Adams hopes that one day the Happy Valley Bonsai Club can fill that void.

“Long term, I’d like to see — this is probably beyond my life but so are my trees — us have a situation like … the North Carolina Arboretum, like the Chicago Arboretum has, like Phipps (Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh) has — a permanent bonsai collection in central Pa., because that can even attract a real bonsai professional to be here as a curator and to give classes and things. But we’re a long way from that,” he said.

For more information on the club and upcoming meetings, contact Adams at