It all started with a bonsai tree that Jim Osborne’s parents gave him and his wife back in 1989. The couple had just bought their first home, and Osborne’s parents thought the little juniper made a perfect housewarming gift.
“I loved it,” Osborne said. “I put it on the coffee table and within a month, I had killed it.”
Rather than give up, Osborne decided to learn everything he could about the art of bonsai and the needs of the trees. Twenty-five years later, he is an active member and former president of the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society, founded by Vaughn Banting in 1972. The society will host its annual bonsai auction next weekend in Kenner.
“We get a lot of bonsai enthusiasts from out of town at the auction every year,” Osborne explained. “They come from places all over Louisiana that have clubs or societies, including Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and Acadiana. There’s a club on the Mississippi Gulf Coast whose members come and one in Alabama.”
Bidders at the upcoming auction will get two hours to view the offerings after the doors open at 4 p.m., and live bidding begins at 6 p.m.
“We usually have about 100 bonsai and about 100 trees that are works in progress and still in growing containers,” Osborne said. “Most of the trees are donated by members and a few are from masters who visit the society and put on workshops for us.”
Osbrone said it can be emotionally wrenching to part with a bonsai that he has carefully tended for years, even for a good cause.
“But at some point you have gone as far as you can go with the tree and it’s time for someone else to enjoy it. Or maybe you’re like me and have 50 trees in your collection when 30 would make more sense,” he said. “Quite honestly, it becomes an addiction.”
It wasn’t until Osborne had been practicing his art for more than 10 years that he discovered the local Bonsai Society and started learning from others.
“The people are incredible — everyone wants to help each other out,” he said. “We have one member who just graduated from high school and another who is a World War II veteran in his late 80s.”
Bonsai can be created from a myriad of shrubs and trees, including crape myrtles, bald cypress, junipers, azaleas, buttonwood and ficus. Osborne says it’s important to study a plant and decide what shape may suit it best.
There are five general categories of trees (formal upright, semi-formal upright, slanted, cascading, and semi-cascading) and dozens of variations in each category. When a tree is ready to move from a growing container to a bonsai pot, matching a tree to a pot is as much an art form as creating the bonsai itself, Osborne said.
“In Japan, of course, bonsai are so highly prized that corporations like Sony will spend $1 million for a tree and keep it in a nursery year round, maintained by a master,” he said. “The tree will only be displayed to the public at special events a few times a year.”
American trees don’t fetch as much, he said, although “Twister” — a bald cypress tended by NOLA Bonsai owner Guy Guidry — at one time held the record for the highest price paid for an American bonsai at more than $30,000.
But Osborne said bidders don’t have to worry about prices like that at the upcoming auction.
“Most go for somewhere between $200 and $500, and we have a bargain table,” Osborne said. “Our auctioneer keeps things so lively that he manages to get husbands and wives bidding against each other for the same tree.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter, @rstephaniebruno.