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The Art of Bonsai

An Ole Miss instructor grows a hobby and a few miniature plants into a business cultivating hundreds of tiny trees.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Robert Jordan

A conversation with Zach Adamz, an instructor of anthropology, geography and museology at the University of Mississippi, can easily turn to a subject he is as passionate about as he is knowledgeable: bonsai. When discussing the topic, he is quick to first replace a pair of long-held incorrect assumptions with facts.

First, the vowel o in bonsai has a long o sound, so it’s correctly pronounced bone-sigh. However, if you pronounce bonsai with a short o, you could be in the majority.

And secondly, Bonsai is not a species of small tree. The word bonsai is a Japanese term which, literally translated, means planted in a container. Just about any species of tree can be used as a bonsai and kept miniature and shaped through pruning, wiring and repotting.

Though the 37-year-old Adamz has the unique ability to talk about the art of bonsai much more than most, that hasn’t always been the case. Adamz and his wife, Lauren, met when both were students at Brigham Young University in Utah. A year into their marriage, Lauren made a suggestion to her husband.

“She said to me, ‘You need a hobby,’” Adamz said. “We moved around a lot for school, and there was a lot of apartment life during and after college. She said I needed something to occupy my time.”

At the time, Lauren was working at a garden center. Zach dropped by during lunch and his fate was sealed.

“I was just looking around and saw some bonsai trees,” he said. “It was related to nature and something I could do in an apartment. So, I started with one tree. One tree turned into five, and now I have over 300 trees.”

A true lover of nature, the native of east Tennessee found bonsai to be nature in miniature. There, for him, was the appeal.

“It’s not just a plant in a pot,” he said. “It looks like it’s been pulled straight out of the woods. There’s something about the scale of it all.”

Adamz was immediately drawn to the art and science of bonsai. Perhaps part of that can be credited to artistic genes. His father is an artist, his sister is a pointillist painter, and he has a brother who draws.

“There’s certainly an art to bonsai, as well as a science,” Adamz said.

Along with that first tree — a juniper — to start his hobby, Adamz also purchased a one-gallon pot and a book. “Bonsai 101 or something like that for $7.99,” he said.

His first attempt was a little less than stellar. So, he read more, watched a few YouTube videos.

“It took a lot of learning,” he said. “But some things came naturally, while other things came with practice. The beginning stages always kept me enthralled. The more I did, the more I liked it and the better I got.”

When Adamz was getting increasingly into bonsai, he’d look for plants everywhere. When neighbors relandscaped, there were plenty of plants placed on the street that might make a perfect bonsai. Maple starts plucked before mowing were plentiful. Adamz said he’s even been known to hop into dumpsters in search of plants.

“In the early days, everything went in a pot,” Adamz said. “We’d figure out what would miniature and what wouldn’t. Our 8 by 8 apartment balcony was overrun with bonsai in black plastic pots. I’d drill holes in the bottom and hope I could keep them from dripping on our neighbors below.”

Adamz apprenticed in 2019 at the Korea Bonsai Museum in Seoul, South Korea, where he qualified as a bonsai master. In 2023, he established the Magnolia State Bonsai Club. He is currently a Yoknapatawpha Arts Council 2024 CSA Artist. Adamz and his bonsai also have a booth at the Oxford Community Market.

When the Adamz family (Zach and Lauren now have four children) moved to Oxford three years ago, Zach considered turning his hobby into a business.

“I wondered if doing (bonsai) for work would take away the joy,” he said.

Then he unexpectedly sold one bonsai he’d worked on for three years. Let’s just say, the price someone paid for a single bonsai tipped the scales in the direction of going into the bonsai business. Adamz started learning more about what a business would entail. He had 600 trees and started selling, though he has 30 trees that make up his private collection that won’t be sold.

His business is called Ko Bo (both of the o vowels have a long sound), short for Komorebi Bonsai. Komorebi is a Japanese word that means the play of sunlight through leaves in a forest. And, yes, even though Ko Bo is a business, Adamz continues to enjoy what was once only a hobby. Rather than paint brushes and canvas, Adamz works with a turntable, pruning shears, an angle cutter, wire and bonsai scissors. Here’s how he describes the art of bonsai:

“With a nursery pot on the turntable, you spin it around and look at the branches in relationship to the tree. A bonsai artist acts as nature — how do I make it asymmetrical but balanced? What is the story of this tree? What will it be three to five years from now? I begin to clean, take out certain branches. Do I want the bonsai to have a masculine feel or a more feminine design?”

Bonsai has been a part of his life almost as long as he’s been married, which was a dozen years on April 1. The love of living things and nature in miniature has become a family affair, shared with son Franklin. 9; daughters, Mabel, 7; Edith, 5; Hazel, 10 months and, of course, his wife whose hobby suggestion started it all.

“It is all-encompassing,” Adamz said. “We do it as a family. Franklin has learned how to properly water the bonsai; Mabel loves to match the tree with a pot. They like to gather moss which helps keep the tree evenly moist. Slowly, by degrees, they all are finding things they like to do with bonsai.”

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