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A curious combination

Bonsai trees become living sculpture over a lifetime
By Glen Liford, Editor 5/26/2021


The bonsai lace leaf Japanese maple in the foreground was a gift to former Hawkins Farmers Co-op manager Tom Henard from his wife, Martha, on the couple’s third wedding anniversary 50 years ago.
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Tom Henard remembers well the occasion when he first started his bonsai hobby. His wife, Martha, gave him his first tree, an approximately 6-year-old lace leaf Japanese maple, as a gift for the couple’s third wedding anniversary some 50 years ago.

Today, the delicate red maple is not much larger than when he received it. And, due to Tom’s doting attention over the half-century since, it’s certainly smaller than the 6- to 8-feet tall and 8- to 12-feet wide size that a normal Japanese maple might have attained over its life.

“It was bought as a bonsai tree,” says Tom, who retired as manager of Hawkins Farmers Co-op in Rogersville after a 36-year Co-op career in 2008, and "re-retired" just this past May after continuing to work part time at the store. “But it was a nice one, and I wanted to get started in the hobby.”

Bonsai is a Japanese term that means "planted in a container," but the art form encompasses all the techniques to develop the miniaturized plants in a natural setting.

The beloved tree has been shaped through mindful pruning and intensive care, except for maybe the one time it was stepped on by one of Tom’s cows, which gave it the tabletop appearance that it has today.

“I just went with what I had left,” says Tom with a shrug.

The colorful tree is the centerpiece of a dozen or so bonsai trees prominently displayed around the patio at the Henards’ comfortable home on the banks of lazy Big Creek where Tom grew up. His parents moved to the property in 1939 or ‘40 when their farm — on the banks of the Holston River near Morristown — was among the many taken by the Tennessee Valley Authority for the development of Cherokee Lake. His collection contains several procumbens junipers that are 15- to 20-years old, a few maples, a Cunningham Sir Lancelotta, and even a novelty boxwood bonsai.

“Bonsai is a curious combination of horticulture and art,” says Tom. “I guess you would call it living art.”

The practice requires thoughtful visualization of the potential of a specimen. The chosen species do not have to be dwarf varieties, but rather are trained to maintain a small size through careful pruning, fertilization, and watering. 

“Pruning is everything, but you can also use wire to shape and train branches,” says Tom, who adds that for best results, roots are trimmed as well as branches. “You have to think ahead.”

Good prospects for bonsai are often found among the rejects at local nurseries or sometimes in nature. Tom says he looks for interesting lines, characteristics, or details some might perceive as defects in the plant to emphasize over time. 

“You go into a nursery and find the ugliest [tree] you can imagine, one that everyone else has forgotten about,” says Tom. “Usually that’s the prettiest one when you get it out and start trimming it up.”

While 50 years might seem like a long time to devote to such a project, Tom says some bonsai trees are as old as 800 years. Those specimens are held in arboretums and other places where they can be cared for by future generations. Tom says he intends to donate the precious red maple to a similar institution at some point.

“The kids and grandkids are not really interested in these,” he admits. “I’d like to make sure it is cared for and passed along.”

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