Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

A Yen for Bonsai

A day trip to Bonsai Gros-Bec, Quebec’s largest Bonsai nursery

Still a bit dizzy from the rides and thump-thump rhythms of that late-summer all-nighter at La Ronde, I crunch my feet along the roadside gravel and breathe in the fragrant forest air. Cowering in among the wisps of grass below tall trees, the wilting leaves of wild strawberry plants are empty of fruit. Flushed with old age, they listen to the tired sounds of a lone insect. I have to think of Jean de La Fontaine’s fable La cigale et la fourmi: it won’t be long now before the cicada must end its song.

Framed by weathered pines and lichen-covered rock, a single stone lantern marks the entrance to my destination. I ascend the path toward a clearing. Arranged around a solid loghouse and several greenhouses, the minimalist beauty of groomed nature comes into view. Diminutive bonsai trees thrive in minimalist splendour here, set against the buildings’ coarse logs and natural woodland.

In 1993, Robert Smith and Suzanne Piché left careers at the CBC to turn their attentions toward the creation of Bonsai Gros-Bec, Quebec’s largest bonsai nursery, garden and school. Sitting on sixteen-and-a-half acres of ancient granite rock face and forested land overlooking Marchand Lake, this enchanted garden lies on the outskirts of St-Alphonse-Rodriguez, less than an hour’s drive northeast of Montreal.

“The art of bonsai”, Smith begins, “is about mimicking nature on a miniature scale. The training of roots and careful pruning allow for the transformation of plants into living sculptures that are never finished.”

Smith began studying his craft by taking classes with a number of bonsai masters at the Botanical Gardens in Montreal in 1991. He and Piché are also founding members of the Société de bonsai & penjing de Lanaudière, which currently numbers over 120 members in Quebec and in Ottawa. Furthermore, in co-operation with Italian bonsai grandmaster Michele Adolfo, this year has seen the establishment of an advanced on-site course in bonsai studies. For a more downscale sampling of the art, Suzanne and Robert offer one-day bonsai workshops once a month, after which participants get to take home their own potted starter bonsai.

Piché looks up from her pruning and points to a sun-lit shelf inside the atelier, holding several potted specimens. “Those belong to friends who are away on a trip so we put up their plants hotel-style,” she laughs. On another shelf, some frail-looking trees reveal that the room also serves as a bonsai hospital.

On my guided tour through the garden, Smith explains the various aspects of bonsai care. “The roots must never freeze, so we have to bury the containers holding native species in sand or double-pot them. The tropical varieties, including Japanese maples, have to be taken inside for the winter. Working with bonsai,” he adds with a spark of enthusiasm in his eye, “is a constant effort to ensure a balance of art within its environment, of creating and maintaining harmony. It is a very therapeutic activity.”

While some of the native potted trees resemble little patches of realistic woodland, complete with dead miniature trunks placed among healthy dwarf birches, many of the imported varieties are trained into triangular shapes. “There are several different aesthetics, but the triangle shape is a basic principle that recreates a sense of solidity and grounding. Even our land, bounded as it is by the lake and the woods, adheres to this principle with its triangular dimensions.”

Bordering an outcrop of rock and overlooking the garden below, the “cold greenhouse” is a semi-outdoor winter shelter for Smith’s native species. He lifts up a tree to reveal the frost-repellent practice of double-potting in sandy soil. “You know”, he confides to me as he tenderly replaces the tree, “the one thing I admire most about bonsai is that they have mastered a mystery that is beyond us: they know the secret of longevity. As long as their roots stay healthy, they keep on living for hundreds of years.”

With an ornamental sapling bonsai in my hand, I turn my back on the enchanted world of Bonsai Gros-Bec. Among the dying strawberries, my eye falls upon the fresh imprint of a wolf’s paw. The quick shudder that runs up my spine is echoed by the chill that rustles above, through the leaves still clinging to the trees. The north winds have started their whispers.

Click here for location maps and details on workshops at Bonsai Gros-Bec.

Michael Varga is a Montreal writer with regular footholds in Germany and Southeast Asia.