As someone who loves bonsai, my favourite treat is to visit Heron’s Bonsai in Surrey. It is an amazing place with beautiful bonsai in every conceivable shape, size and price. From small starter trees for just a few pounds to large mature specimens, some of them hundreds of years old and costing a small fortune.
I could walk around Herons for hours, and usually do, for Peter Chan, the owner, has his own personal collection there. Peter has won many ‘gold’s’ at Chelsea and teaches the art of bonsai. This is how I met him. He was the guest speaker at our local bonsai club in London, and by the time he had finished pruning and training an ordinary garden centre shrub into an impressive bonsai, I was well and truly hooked.
My own collection is pretty eclectic. I have some wonderful specimens; some have been presents from my family, and some I have grown from seed. Others I have trained, as Peter showed me, from bushes I have found in my travels.
Going to Heron’s is potentially a very dangerous thing for me to do, for there will always be something I cannot live without.
These days, I am governed by the space I have available, so I tell myself I will just ‘window shop’.
Doesn’t always work, of course.
Six years ago, on such a visit, I had been content to settle for some potting compost and was about to leave, when on the floor near the checkout, I saw a rather shabby looking plant with straggly branches and wilting leaves. It was about six inches tall and unrecognisable and didn’t look as though it would live to see tomorrow.
As I picked it up, Peter looked over at me, eyebrows raised. I must have had a question written all over my face too, for he just smiled and said I could have it. He must have thought the poor thing was beyond hope.
As I have always been a champion of dying houseplants, I took it home and began to cherish it. Turned out it was an azalea, and for several months there was no sign of improvement. A few new leaves and some that fell off. Not very encouraging.
Then three weeks before Christmas, something strange started to happen. White buds appeared. In no time at all, the pathetic little branches were covered in beautiful, double white flowers. Unusual for an azalea, I discovered, they usually had single flowers and they never bloom at Christmas time.
All the next year I tended it with care, mindful of the display that might come again. I repotted it, carefully fertilised and watered it, but nothing I did seemed to make any difference. It just didn’t grow. I had heard of slow- growing, but this was ridiculous!
But another Christmas loomed and more white buds appeared.
I was puzzled. How could such a spindly specimen bloom so abundantly in the middle of winter?
So, in my bonsai collection, among all the healthy, vigorously growing trees, in pride of place is the white azalea. Eight years have passed and it hasn’t grown much, but it blooms in December without fail . The leaves look healthier though, so it isn’t dying any more.
It’s just my little magic tree…