Bonsai specialist embraces nature at a smaller scale

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In the mid-1980s, Jack Sustic found himself riding a bus through Seoul when he spotted some greenhouses.

He hopped off the bus and discovered the greenhouses were filled with bonsai trees, which he recognized from the movie “The Karate Kid.” For the rest of his stay in South Korea as a member of the U.S. Army, he continued to hang around the greenhouses on his days off.

“It piqued my interest, and little did I know that would lead me to where I am today,” said Sustic, the bonsai specialist at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.

Following his time in South Korea, Sustic transferred to Fort McClellan in Alabama, where he joined the Alabama Bonsai Society. With the society, he attended workshops with bonsai experts and learned different care and pruning techniques for growing and training the miniature trees.

Jack Sustic, the bonsai specialist at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, has his own extensive collection of more than 60 bonsai trees in his home. (Photo courtesy of Jack Sustic)
Jack Sustic, the bonsai specialist at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, has his own extensive collection of more than 60 bonsai trees in his home. (Photo courtesy of Jack Sustic)

Sustic received formal bonsai training in the United States and Japan. He went on to work at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum for 20 years until he retired in 2016.

Sustic now has his own extensive collection of more than 60 bonsai trees at his home. He finds that his year revolves around the seasons and how they impact his trees.

Daily maintenance in summer involves watering, pruning and checking for bugs and diseases. When the leaves start to fall in autumn, Sustic can assess how the branches have grown throughout the year and fix any that are sticking out at strange angles. Each winter, he puts away the trees to protect their roots during the cold months.

“It’s my favorite thing to see the trees evolve, mature every year,” he said. “Spring is very exciting. It’s my favorite time of year when I can start bringing the trees back out from winter storage.”

Sustic is always on the lookout to add to his collection. He finds new trees at auctions, collects them in the wild, and buys small shrubs and trees at local nurseries. 

About three years ago, Sustic noticed juniper trees growing outside his local post office. He walked into the post office, offered to clean up the site, and took the trees home where he started the process of sculpting them into bonsai trees.

“Once you start a tree, the plant has evolved, and it never ends there. You continue to have to work with them to keep their shape,” he said.

Under the watchful eye of a bonsai artist, the trees can live much longer than their counterparts in nature, with many bonsai reaching 200-300 years old.

His trees have been shown in many exhibitions, and in 2005 one of his trees was selected as the international winner of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation photo contest.

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“Taking something, like a plant that I dug up at the post office, and watching it mature and develop and then taking it to a show or exhibition and showing it — there’s a great sense of satisfaction taking it from Point A to Point B,” he said.

Along with his bonsai trees, Sustic keeps a growing collection of viewing stones. The Japanese art of stone appreciation, also called suiseki, is often paired with bonsai trees. Viewing stones are naturally shaped stones that have markings resembling landscapes. Sustic said the stones could feature patterns resembling mountain ranges, plateaus, waterfalls and clouds.

“Bonsai is the representation of nature in a smaller scale, and viewing stones are sort of along those same lines,” he said.

A member of several viewing stone organizations, Sustic searches for viewing stones in rivers and creates wooden bases to display them. His favorite place to find viewing stones is the Eel River in northern California, which has a wide variety of stones.

Sustic said he would encourage those interested in bonsai trees to watch videos online, research and join a local club. For those in the area, he recommends attending one of the Ann Arbor Bonsai Society’s monthly meetings. The group meets at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, where Sustic works and spends much of his free time.

“It is a big step to go from just having an interest and actually stepping into it and doing it. But if you’re interested in bonsai, then I encourage you to make that step and get into it,” he said.

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