Little trees get lots of love

Yellowknife as bonsai heaven

Dr. Ian Gilchrist is a bit like the many and varied bonsai trees he shuttles from one place to another in and around his Yellowknife home, seeking the optimal conditions for their well-being. At 78, the retired territorial chief medical health officer was born in Nova Scotia and spent much of his life in Angola, before transplanting his family north of 60, where they grew roots.

Gilchrist came to Yellowknife with his wife Joyce in 1989. He followed his father, a medical missionary in Africa, into medicine, but has always had a penchant for plants. His maternal grandfather was a florist and all the family was involved in farming. Gilchrist says he remembers being five years old and smelling the flowers in his grandparents’ greenhouse. He has been interested in growing things ever since.

He got his first taste of bonsai, which is a potted tree dwarfed by pruning, when his son made a bonsai tree while attending Trent University. Gilchrist now has 80 of the miniature trees that span the globe in origin, such as African baobabs and French lavender. He likes to try growing different plants and got some of his first seedlings from just throwing seeds from whatever he was eating into a pot of earth in the kitchen, where one day an orange tree blossomed. But some of the best bonsai come from right here.

Gilchrist says bonsai trees grow naturally in the Northwest Territories because of lack of soil on rocky ground so there is little space for roots to grow. He and his wife go out each week to tramp through the wilderness, looking for the perfect bonsai. Local plants that do well as bonsai are potentilla, a small flowering bush in the rose family, birch, dwarf willows that grow on the tundra, and evergreens, which “have the greatest age.” He transplants them and brings them into the house for the summer, then gets them through the winter by moving them into cold storage in the basement, or by replanting them outdoors.

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“All the bonsai go up to the greenhouse in summer,” says Gilchrist, “where the doors are open so they get fresh air and more light, and it’s easier to deal with all of them in one spot.”

Growing bonsai hasn’t always been easy. Gilchrist says they moved from a house with a cold basement to an apartment and the change in temperature caused all the plants to die. They bought their present home in 1998, “and one of the reasons we chose it was because of the big windows with wide ledges, and a cool garage on the bottom floor.”

A lot of his trees were grown from seed, to keep the cost down and to avoid pests. Sometimes plants bought from nurseries come with unwanted insects, such as aphids, so he quarantines any he buys until he is certain they don’t pose a threat to his existing plants. Other bonsai have come as gifts or donations, or transplanted from the wild.

Gilchrist says he enjoys “the technical challenge of growing different kinds of trees, discovering how plants differ from one another and how to care for them. It’s stimulating.”

Growing bonsai is “a Chinese and Japanese philosophy, very ancient,” says Gilchrist, where there is “satisfaction from growing in miniature natural phenomena.” He also cites “the beauty of the plants and enormous differences, the sense of reward,” as some of the benefits of his hobby. An “enormous amount (of bonsai) are scented so there is the sense of smell that is wonderful.”

Aromatic plants do well as bonsai, such as lavender, lantana and rosemary, and those that are herbs also contribute to food. As a physician, Gilchrist says he is also interested in the healing properties of some of the plants. It’s a “wonderful way to learn science – botany.

“Growing bonsai gives me peace – it’s contemplation of the tree indoors,” he says. “You get that experience outside.” He says a successful bonsai makes him fulfilled. “It rewards you if you reward it. It’s a sense of friendship.”

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