When my amateur attempts at the art weren't working, I went to YouTube star Nigel Saunders
- by Harley RustadHarley Rustad Photography by Jackie Dives
Updated 10:03, Mar. 31, 2020 | Published 16:08, Oct. 2, 2018This article was published over a year ago. Some information may no longer be current.
Nigel Saunders's YouTube channel The Bonsai Zone has received more than 13 millions views.
Nigel Saunders stands in the middle of a jungle. Around him grow ancient-looking trees with gnarled trunks, dense canopies, and lichen-covered branches. One rises out of a rock temple, its roots hugging the crumbling grey stones. But Saunders isn’t looking up at the trees; he’s looking down. Saunders is practising bonsai, the art of cultivating miniature trees in pots. He grabs a spray bottle and goes around his sunroom to give each bonsai a delicate mist of water.
“This is my Ficus microcarpa,” he says, kneeling down to spray one that’s sitting on a wooden table. “Check out its aerial roots.” I squat beside him. The tree, maybe a foot-and-a-half tall, has dark-green leaves the shape of spearheads. Roots dangle from its branches, poised to plant themselves in the moist soil of its oval pot. It was Saunders’s first bonsai, the one that sparked his passion twenty-six years ago. He has been caring for it ever since it was a two-inch sprout that he noticed peeking out from under a poinsettia that his office had received one Christmas. “I thought the tree deserved its own pot,” he says.
His Ficus microcarpa, also known as a Chinese banyan, is part of a carefully curated collection that has expanded to around 180 bonsai. Saunders is growing a cluster of western red cedars, native to Canada’s rainy West Coast, and kapok trees, commonly found in equatorial forests. He has an apple tree that unfurls white blossoms every spring and a spiky pine from the Austrian mountains. Conifer and tropical, evergreen and deciduous, fruiting and flowering, Saunders has thriving trees from around the world leaf to leaf and needle to needle in his suburban solarium.
Saunders shuffles around the cramped room while offering the Latin names for each of his plants and punctuating brief descriptions with spritzes from his bottle. He mists a radiator-style space heater at the base of one wall, causing steam to fill the room and the humidity to spike like a sauna. “And here’s my famous lemon tree,” he tells me, beaming with pride. Saunders points to a spindly trunk with glossy, emerald leaves. It has 1.5 million views on YouTube.
He may grow little trees, but Saunders is no typical bonsai practitioner. The art, best known for meticulously shaped specimens kept in pristine botanical gardens, seems a far cry from the scene in Saunders’s crowded solarium, its walls covered in a reflective material that looks like repurposed space blankets. His outdoor garden and greenhouse are not much better, featuring trees in broken pots sitting on makeshift plywood work benches. Saunders is, nonetheless, an expert of the craft. He is also creator and host of one of the most popular bonsai YouTube channels in the world, which he uses to bring this high art to the modern masses.
For four years, Saunders had been my bonsai master, despite us never having met. I studied his video tutorials on planting and potting and pruning and created a bonsai of my own. But I couldn’t help but think that I was failing: my tree looked nothing like the intricately and elegantly styled versions that were before me. I had tried to bring the nature that I loved indoors, to capture a sliver of the wild and make it my own. Instead of a quiet and contemplative pastime, however, I found myself tumbling into a miniature world packed with anxiety and stress.
Bonsai is not a species of tree but a form almost any tree can be forced to take. The word (pronounced BONE-sigh) is a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word pensai, which means a plant in a container. After originating in China more than 1,000 years ago, bonsai was reportedly brought by Buddhist monks to Japan, where it became popular with the country’s elites. “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing,” reads the tenth-century story Utsubo monogatari (The Tale of the Hollow Tree), the oldest full piece of fiction from Japan. “It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.”
Those shapes include formal and informal upright, slant, windswept, and multitrunk. Some trees are intended to appear as forest groves and others to cascade below the level of the pot, as if dangling off a cliff. Some even flower or fruit with marble-size oranges or pomegranates drooping from miniature branches. To be close to a bonsai is to glimpse the minutiae of nature.