Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Saturday, March 11, 2017
Bonsai master devotes life to ancient art of tiny ornamental potted trees
Posted March 5, 2017 A bonsai master lives atop a Solebury hillside blanketed with trees stretching into the clouds.
Chase Rosade works on his living art
Visitors climb a long, twisted, upaved path that resembles the branches of living art in his collection.
The trip isn't designed for anyone in a hurry. Concentration, patience and observation are required.
The same qualities found in bonsai artists like Chase Rosade, who specialize in bonsai, (pronounced bone-sigh). It is the art of growing trees and shrubs in containers, where they are shaped to control their growth.
Rosade opened his namesake bonsai studio in 1970, turning a childhood love of trees into a career. That was the same year the Bucks County native first created an exhibit of bonsai for the Philadelphia Flower Show. Since then, his creations and live demonstrations have been a yearly staple at the show, which opens to the public March 11 in the Philadelphia Convention Center and runs through March 19.
At his Solebury home, which also serves as his studio, greenhouse and display garden, Rosade's bonsai collection fills the plate-glass windows. Outside, posted signs warn visitors that parking spaces are reserved for bonsai lovers. In the greenhouse abutting his studio, hundreds of bonsai are sheltered for the winter. Visitors feel like giants amid this forest of tiny trees, some no taller than 30-ounce water bottles.
There's a 40-year-old elm tree that stands less than 2 feet tall. A pint-size trident maple is 75 years old. One of the largest is a 4-foot-tall Ponderosa spruce that's about 250 years old. In the Colorado forest where it started its life, these trees can grow 100 feet tall with a canopy broaden enough to bridge the distance from home plate to first base, he said.
A prized tree is the Japanese maple that Rosade grew from seed. He potted the 2-inch shoot in 1958 when he was 24. In nature, these trees typically grow 1 foot a year for the first 50 years and can live for more than 100 years. His bonsai version is roughly the height of one that's less than three years old.
For a tree to become a bonsai requires heavily pruning its leaves, branches and roots to control its growth, Rosade said. The size of the bonsai depends on how it’s maintained. Wire is used to train branches to grow in the direction the artist chooses; Rosade describes it like braces used to straighten teeth.
It's not an art for the impatient, he said.
“There is nothing to make you hurry,” Rosade said. “And I’m not in any hurry.”
The word bonsai takes its name from two Chinese characters that mean tree planted in a shallow container or penjing. While the art is most closely associated with Japan, it’s China that has a longer documented history background with potted plants and horticultural practice, according to the Pennsylvania Bonsai Society.
The Japanese are credited with creating bonsai in the art form that is most familiar today, which is the recreation of the forms and characteristics of trees, bushes and other plants in miniature. Symmetry, balance and proportion are critical to good bonsai presentation. Branch placement, styling and the container are designed to convey symbolism and to promote the spiritual connection between man and nature.
In the small, tight-knit world of bonsai enthusiasts, Rosade is a legend with an international reputation for excellence. He is the expert that other national – and international – horticulture experts call when they need advice on all things bonsai. He's also a founding member of the Pennsylvania Bonsai Society, one of the oldest in the U.S., as well as the National Bonsai Foundation.
Rosade, who's 82, is credited with bringing bonsai into the mainstream in the United States, specifically on the East Coast, according to Mike Wigginton, president of the 60-member Pennsylvania Bonsai Society, and a former Rosade student.
“He has been tireless, almost, in his pursuit of bonsai,” Wigginton added, praising Rosade's mastery of the art. “You can tell it’s his passion.”
Rosade, whose father was an avid gardener, has been fascinated with trees and plants since childhood. He discovered bonsai at Philadelphia Flower Show when he was just 11.
“I just found these little plants in pots that looked like bigger trees fascinating,” he said. " 'Wow, someone can do that? How do they do it?' "
He earned his bachelor's degree in ornamental horticulture at Delaware Valley College, now University, in Doylestown Township. After graduation, Rosade traveled across Europe for nearly a year before landing in Nara, Japan. There, he met Kyozo Yoshida, a bonsai tree developer and grower. Rosade spent a year studying bonsai with Yoshida before returning to Bucks County.
A speech to a local Rotary Club led to a suggestion Rosade teach a class in bonsai growing. One class became a dozen classes, he said, and he's still teaching more than 50 years later, plus lecturing and judging bonsai contests around the world. He said he has bonsai students on five continents.
Royersford residents Jim and Linda Brant, who became interested in bonsai after seeing Rosade demonstrate the art at the Philadelphia Flower Show, have been students of Rosade for 40 years. They have more than 70 bonsai; their oldest tree is 30 years old.
Linda Brant said the bonsai master treats beginners and experts equally. “Also, he considers himself as still learning,” Jim Brant added.
Bob Mahler, 47, is another longtime student.
The Montgomery County man first met Rosade when he was 15 and his mother took him to the Philadelphia Flower Show. (“I was dragged there, most likely,” he joked). Like Rosade, Mahler was immediately intrigued that a plant could be grown in a pot for such a long time.
After his mother took a class at Rosade's studio, she volunteered her son to help him care for the plants. He spent time with Rosade a couple days a week after school, helping with repotting, watering, weeding, and pruning the dwarf trees.
Over time, Rosade filled a void, said Mahler, who lost his father at age 11. When he was 19, Mahler moved to Japan for a bonsai apprenticeship. He spent 11 years as the bonsai curator at the famed Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Today, he owns and operates his own bonsai studio in Lehigh County.
“Bonsai would not be where it is today without this guy,” Mahler said of Rosade. “If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be where I am today, and it started at the Philadelphia Flower show.”
The big show
Rosade still travels the world in pursuit of bonsai. He visited China in November and he'll attend the world bonsai meeting in April. For the moment, though, his energy is devoted to his upcoming exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show.
Among the 16 trees on display at the flower show will be a roughly 40-year-old spruce that Rosade tends. The tree stands less than 3 feet tall, a tiny mirror image of wild evergreen spruces.
This specimen is the only contribution from Rosade. Rather than show the usual eight to 20 trees he usually brings from his personal collection, he invited 15 other bonsai growers to show with him. They include former students and other East Coast bonsai masters.
“It’s nice to show what other people can do,” he said, noting the flower show is a good way to educate people about bonsai.
For example, no matter how small the bonsai tree, it produces normal size leaves, needles, blooms, and yes, fruit. The trick is regular pruning to encourage new growth, he said. Any tree or bush can be a bonsai. Some flowers, too, like chrysanthemums.
“You can grow it the way you want to grow it,” Rosade said. “It’s the challenge. It’s constantly changing and getting better.”
Lately, the bonsai master doesn’t spend as much time as he once did in the greenhouse. Still, he has no plans to retire. Every day, he said, something bonsai-related keeps him occupied.
The easiest way to kill most bonsai is bringing it indoors. Many of the popular bonsai varieties – like evergreens and juniper - live outdoors like their older – taller – siblings. During the growing season virtually all bonsai should live outside.
Formal: A single upright trunk that tapers toward the top
Informal: A single upright trunk with well balanced curves. The top usually bends toward the front.
Semi or full cascade: single arching or cascading trunk either severely slanted or extending below the container.
Group or forest: Usually trees of related species representing a miniature landscape.
Free form: A sparse single upright trunk – straight, slanted, or curved characterized by a tasteful, simple elegance.
Other bonsai styles: slanting, broom, windswept, multiple trunk (twin, triple, or clump), and rock planting (on, in, or over a rock). Deserving special classification based on size is the miniature (Shohin) bonsai (less than 10 inches).