There are not many bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) artists in the Midwest, but Forest Parker Mark Karczewski is one of the best-known in the Chicago area. He is a second-generation bonsai artist, who has been practicing his art for 24 years, mastering the skills to create designs with his miniature trees. He can spend a whole day just working on one of his “pets.” Karczewski’s creativity also carries over to the graphic design company he operates out of his home. 

Karczewski’s passion for bonsai trees came from his father. His dad was a meat cutter who surprised him with some small trees when he was a teenager. He did not see the appeal then. However, when his mother died, his dad gave him his trees. Karczewski knew nothing about bonsais. He learned the hard way, killing several the very first year. 

The tiny trees are very delicate. 

“A bonsai has to be watered twice a day in summer,” Karczewski said. “They don’t tolerate temperature changes and need specific light.” 

Since most people kill their bonsai within a week, he actually did pretty well. His dad’s last tree has survived 45 years, and will probably continue to thrive.

After his early losses, Karczewski decided to take classes and workshops to improve his skills. Even after all of this instruction, he confessed, “The more I learn, the more I learn I don’t know.” 

Bonsai is not very popular in the U.S. but it has deep roots in Japan. The art was developed by the Japanese in the 11th century, during the Kamakura period. However, its origin is much older. Greece, Babylonia, Persia and India, all shared the technique of transporting and growing trees artificially. 

Even before them, the Egyptians were using portable plants 4,000 years ago. “They needed to transport medicinal plants over long distances,” Karczewski said, “and the doctors decided to put those herbs into pots.” 

It was the Chinese who first put plants and trees in a pot for a simple aesthetic purpose. (Bonsai means “tree in a pot.”) Later on, the Japanese took this art to a whole other level.

Japanese bonsai trees are divided into three categories: Mame is the smallest tree and can be held in one hand. Komono require two hands, while Ômono, the tallest tree needs two people, or four hands. 

“For practical purposes, most people choose the smaller size,” Karczewski noted. “The aim is to make a young tree look like an old one.” When people view his bonsais, their first question is “How old is it?” Karczewski answers with a question, “How old does it look?”

Everything about the tree symbolizes something: the roots represent the connection with the earth, the branches build the character of the tree. The first branch represents man. The top needs to be rounded and represents heaven. The shape of the tree itself, “Bows to you when looked at from the right angle,” he said.

Fortunately for designers, artists and gardeners, the tree can be shaped with the help of wires, until the branches set, which can take anywhere from a few months to two years. Of course, a whole set of tools is needed to keep these “pets” healthy and fit. Karczewski has a satchel containing different types and sizes of clippers and wrenches. Some look like dentist tools.

Every tree can become a bonsai, as long as the leaves and branches are trimmed sufficiently. However, every species needs very special care, especially during winter. There are three main types: tropical, which need light all winter; semi-hardy, which require a temperature of at least 44 degrees Fahrenheit; and hardy, which survive under the snow, but cannot handle direct exposure to extreme cold. In addition, many types of fungi and insects are deadly enemies of this pet. Those need to be taken care of immediately.

Bonsai can quickly become a very expensive hobby. In Japan, where millions of people practice this traditional art, most bids quickly reach $10,000 per tree. 

“Some have been sold for half a million,” Karczewski said. The emperor’s collection includes bonsais that are several hundred years old. 

For those wishing to go deeper into this subject, Kimura is considered the modern rock star of bonsai. His books contain hundreds of incredible designs. Most of the trees took several years to reach their optimal size and shape. 

Karczewski recommends that beginners take some classes. “Without training,” he warned, “Ninety-nine percent of the trees will die in the first year.” 

Secondly, they should buy trees from reputable sources, such as the Hidden Gardens, “the best shop in the Chicago area for bonsai.” Karczewski teaches courses there about his favorite trees. The classes start in spring, and for $20 he helps bonsai enthusiasts to get their pet “to the next level.” 

He warns that “the pots are probably the most expensive part.” Young bonsai trees start in a small plastic training pot. As they grow, the owner will have to purchase a larger pot at a show or online. Pots come in different shapes and sizes, glazed or unglazed.

The future of bonsai looks brighter than ever. This hobby is skyrocketing in other countries. They can also be seen in TV series like White Collar and Suits. While these trees are extremely fragile and need a lot of care, more and more people appreciate their symbolic and historic characteristics. For Karczewski, the main appeal is the quiet serenity he feels while working on his trees. 

Those who are interested in this fascinating hobby can visit Karczewski’s website at www.mybonsaiheaven.com, the American Bonsai Society at www.absbonsai.org, or the Bonsai Club International at www.bonsai-bci.com. Many workshops are organized all around the Midwest to improve skills.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball...