The Art of Bonsai Trees

The ancient art of bonsai is alive and well in metro Detroit. Our writer set out to get his first tree — and not kill it — with some help from local experts.
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Telly’s Greenhouse sells a variety of bonsai trees and also features a “bonsai hospital” for ailing trees. The greenhouse also offers bonsai classes. // Photograph by Scott Atkinson.

I introduced myself to Ray Zeno as a serial killer.

We were in the back of Telly’s Greenhouse, where he sat working at an old folding table among a forest of potted trees — bonsai. Directly to his right was the bonsai hospital, full of brown recovering trees, which I wish I’d known existed during all the years I’ve spent killing little trees.

No plants are safe around me, or at least in my care. Our house is full of plants my wife,
Kristie, tends to — jade plants, money trees, cacti, succulents, and flowers I should know the name of by now. I only water them if asked, and Kristie has learned that it’s better not to ask. In high school, I killed a cactus, learning that the desert plants do need at least some water as it shriveled and died, turning into its own spiky and neglected tombstone.

And yet, like anyone who has seen The Karate Kid too many times, I am drawn to bonsai, some of the most difficult domesticated plants to look after. After killing several over the years, I saw my buddy Dave on Facebook start his own bonsai practice. Just the sight of those beautiful little trees would have brought me peace if I hadn’t been immediately jealous. I was also curious where he was learning all this — as it turns out, metro Detroit has a small but thriving bonsai enthusiast community.

And so Dave brought me to Telly’s, one of his favorite bonsai spots, and that’s where we met bonsai artist Ray Zeno.

Recently retired, Zeno, 70, is 10 years into his bonsai … obsession? He didn’t call it that, but after I introduced myself and Dave, I quickly became the third wheel on their impromptu bonsai date. They talked about their trees and varieties, the different styles they played with and aspired to try. “I like maples,” I offered once, and then I decided it was better just to listen.

Bonsai, literally translated, means “planting in pot.” The art dates back thousands of years — as do some still-living bonsai. It is a special kind of plant-tending in that it involves not only attention but patience. A good bonsai is not grown in a year, or even five. While we talked, Zeno took a pair of shears to a gorgeous jasmine tree, about 3 feet tall and valued at $6,000. It was 60 years old.

Photograph by Scott Atkinson

When it blooms, he said, the scent is just incredible. I asked him when it would bloom. He shrugged, grinned. “Bonsai bloom when they’re happy,” he said.

That was the kind of Miyagi-like wisdom we were after. I opted for a tree that cost $15 and a pot that cost $20. The tree was a bushy little juniper that Dave recommended because of its long main trunk, allowing more options for shaping it with wire. That was great — I was looking forward to that part of it, the trimming and shaping of the tree. Part of the art of bonsai is growing the small trees in different shapes that mimic nature (though some opt for less-natural looks).

But I also wanted to keep the damn thing alive.

Zeno gave me the fundamentals: Line the bottom of the pot with gravel, then plant the tree in a special bonsai soil (I’d never known about that), and keep it watered — watered the right way.

Keep the dirt moist, but not too wet. Not too dry, either.

We drove to a nearby park, where Dave talked me through the basics of potting, styling, and trimming a tree. I did my best, finishing up at home before showing Kristie and putting
it on the railing of our back porch (another pro tip: Most bonsai need to be outside; they are trees, after all).

“You know,” Kristie said the next morning, as we sipped our coffee, “it was cold last night. You probably should have brought that bonsai in for the night.”

The Finer Points of Dirt

Bonsai artist Ray Zeno stands beside a 60-year-old jasmine bonsai, among several other trees. Properly cared for, some bonsai can live hundreds of years. // Photograph by Scott Atkinson.

My next trip with Dave was to the Bonsai House in Westland.

We entered through the back, via an outdoor walkway lined with empty bonsai pots (shallower than a typical flowerpot) on one side and little trees in various stages of growth on the other. Beyond that was a small outdoor nursery of potted trees at various levels of maturity — little ficus and maple trees still growing into their full size, junipers in different styles, a redwood 3 feet tall.

Inside we met Preeya Siy, who had opened the shop 35 years ago when her bonsai hobby had reached a point where she could no longer store all the trees she was raising at home. One day, she and her husband drove by a small house for sale in Westland and later bought it, had it rezoned for commercial use, and filled it with her trees. The Bonsai House, Michigan’s first bonsai shop, she says, was born.

She had first encountered bonsai trees when visiting her grandfather in China (she grew up in Thailand). She remembered watching him tend to the trees at night, looking at them with a flashlight, which left her wondering just what in the heck he was doing. He was looking for insects, she learned, which did not make bonsai any more appealing (“I just [thought], ‘He’s funny,’” she says).

Dave and I scoured the shelves outside for trees that caught our eye before I went back inside to chat with Siy. When he joined me inside, he had another ficus with a giant, gnarled root system he said I needed to buy — and added that I needed to appreciate what a wonderful person he was for allowing me, instead of him, to have this tree. He dubbed himself its godfather. Siy looked at me and said, “That tree will grow for 4,000 years.” I did not say that I was hoping at least for one.

While we talked with Siy, I told Dave this was the time to ask questions, when he could use the journalist’s license to be nosy. I thought I was doing him a great favor. Here we were, in Michigan’s original bonsai shop, talking to an expert about her life. Surely, there was some deep and probing question he wanted to ask.

There is a brief note in my notebook in which I recorded the moment. It reads: “I tell Dave to ask questions — he asks about f—ing soil.”

As they discussed the finer points of dirt, I began to figure out what this was all about, what it took for bonsai to thrive: obsession.

Gardening is hard enough, but growing bonsai is something else entirely. Trees are not meant for pots, the way animals in the zoo are not meant for cages, and it’s up to people to fill the gaps, to look after them and give them a life they deserve.

Maybe, I thought, these trees were doomed. Maybe my ficus belonged with his godfather.

While they talked, I went outside to pick a pot for my ficus. I looked through the different styles — glazed, plain, rectangular, oval. I set the ficus, currently in a plastic planter, inside a pot and tried to imagine it at home there, how it might look potted and wired, how it might look a year from now — or 10.

I brushed my hands over the frail limbs, pushing them into the shape Siy had recommended when we showed her the tree. From her chair behind her desk, she spotted me though the open door, pointed, and turned to Dave.

“Scott is hooked now,” she said.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe these trees have a chance after all.

Where to Go in Metro Detroit for Bonsai Trees

Preeya Siy, owner of the Bonsai House in Inkster, started her business about 35 years ago, after she’d collected so many bonsai she said she needed to open a shop to hold them all. // Photograph by Scott Atkinson

When it comes to growing and caring for your own bonsai, you need somewhere to buy your tree but also people to help you along the way. Here are the three places I found in starting my bonsai journey.

The Flower Market

The last place Dave wanted to take me, and still on my list to visit, is The Flower Market. Located in Monroe, it is Michigan’s largest bonsai garden and offers a variety of bonsai classes and workshops. 8930 S. Custer Road, Monroe; 734-269-2660; flowermarketdundee.com.

Bonsai House

According to its owner, this is the oldest bonsai shop in Michigan. It has a friendly atmosphere and helpful staff. 8653 N. Inkster Road, Westland; 734-421-3434; facebook.com/bonsaihousemi.

Telly’s Greenhouse

With a bonsai hospital for struggling trees and classes ranging from beginning to advanced, this is a great spot to start, and continue, your bonsai journey.
3301 John R Road, Troy; 248-689-8735; tellys.com/tellys-bonsai.


This story is from the August 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.