What's the fastest growing hobby in Britain? Bonsai art

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The art of bonsai has been practised in Japan for at least a thousand years, and probably for longer in China. For Europeans, however, accounts of Lilliputian trees growing out of shallow pots remained firmly in the realm of travellers' legends until late in the last century, when Japan's long isolation ended. For artistic hostesses in Bloomsbury and Chelsea, bonsai trees then became some of the most desirable of status symbols, more in keeping with Chinoiserie and fine bone china than an aspidistra. Unfortunately, such exotic imports seldom lasted long. Confined to draughty drawing-rooms, they soon became expensive kindling for the fire.

Now, however, bonsai is becoming a well-established art in Britain. And, according to Cath Hughes, administrator of the Federation of British Bonsai Societies, it is the fastest-growing hobby in the country. Since 1982, when the federation was established, the number of societies has grown from 15 to 77, and this weekend up to 2,000 enthusiasts are expected to converge on Swindon for the National Bonsai Exhibition at the Grange Drive Community Centre.

A star attraction at the show will be a tiny, venerable juniper being presented to the British National Collection by the people of Omiya, a village that though now absorbed into suburban Tokyo is still, for bonsai growers worldwide, what Dresden is to porcelain collectors.

The qualities that make a perfect bonsai are, aside from health, a natural form and structure with branches, twigs and leaves in proportion to the trunk. The pot and setting in which the bonsai sits should also be in harmony.

Starting with a stump that may be cut from any hedgerow sapling, the grower will over the years slowly trim the tree to shape. Roots must be checked and pruned, twigs bent and bedded back into the trunk to grow as branches in a pleasing pattern. Young leaves may be stripped to sprout again as scaled-down foliage. The stump itself may be carved to shape, or split to give the look of gnarled age.

The Imperial Collection in Japan includes some bonsai trees that been growing for 700 years and are valued at more than a quarter of a million pounds apiece. Even in this country a good example of a home-grown tree may be worth several thousand pounds and bonsai-theft is making its own small contribution to the crime statistics. Now growers photograph prize specimens and electronic tagging is being introduced.

In Japan, many fear that bonsai may become a dying art, a quaint tradition practised only by the elderly. Young Japanese are no longer willing to spend years of apprenticeship under a Master, learning how to water trees before they are considered worthy even to sweep the gravel round their roots.

For enthusiasts in Britain, bonsai is an enjoyable obsession, combining skill and creativity with a child-like joy in miniature perfection. Growers such as Peter Adams and Dan Barton are now among the world's foremost practitioners. Perhaps the day may come when England's bare suburban lawns disappear beneath a knee-high canopy of Scots Pine, oaks and elms.

The National Bonsai Exhibition takes place at Grange Drive Community Centre, Stratton St Margaret, Swindon, on Saturday 22 June (11am-6pm) and Sunday 23 June (10am-5pm). Federation of British Bonsai Societies 0121-378 4837