A Bonsai Garden Grows in Whitefish

Jerry Meislik, an expert in the field of potted trees, shares his knowledge about the ancient art

By Molly Priddy

WHITEFISH – Up on Big Mountain, in a room overlooking the many ski runs and buildings of Whitefish Mountain Resort, lies a tiny jungle of tropical trees. The scent of figs, water jasmine and kumquats delights the senses, and the extra light provided by overhead lamps gives a comforting sense of equatorial sunshine.

Jerry Meislik’s greenhouse is dedicated solely to bonsai trees, which he has been cultivating, trimming and growing seriously since 1977. In that time, he’s become a teacher and expert in the ways of the bonsai.

In his professional life, Meislik was an ophthalmologist, a career dedicated to tiny margins and extensive detail. It’s no different with the bonsais he creates; it’s all about attention to detail and having the patience for the changes he hopes to see in his trees.

“I’m constantly fiddling with stuff,” Meislik said, standing amid his 60 or so bonsais.

He picks one up, and goes at its branches and leaves with what looks to an outsider like a severe clipping session, snipping off greenery at a rapid pace. But soon the method to the shear madness appears, and a lovely, miniature work of living art develops.

“There’s basically a beautiful movement there,” he says about a thin kumquat trunk he’s just maneuvered into a new shape.

Meislik has written books on the art of bonsai cultivation, and serves as a consultant for the bonsai garden at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As Meislik chats about photography – another of his passions – with a visitor, his wife, Rhona, explains how he became so involved with the tiny trees.

He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and visited the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. He was entranced by the bonsai collection there, and attempted to grow his own as a teenager.

It wasn’t until he was older and saw some ficus bonsai in Florida that the passion really took hold. Some of the trees in his current greenhouse have been under his care and attention for decades, and he can tell you how each one was planted.

His interest and expertise in bonsais came full circle when he was asked to contribute to the book “Growing Bonsai Indoors” for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

His other book, “Ficus: The Exotic Bonsai,” is an in-depth report on how to care for these unique trees.

When the Meisliks moved to Montana full time in 2000, Jerry experimented with many species of native trees, trying to see if they could be successful bonsais.

“In theory, you could take pretty much any plant and turn it into a bonsai,” he said.

Of all that he tried, there were a few that refused to live a full life in a pot; the larch would only survive for about five years before dying.

So he’s largely stuck with the tropical trees, usually a fig variety, but the kumquats grow a perfectly small fruit, giving the trees perfect, miniature dimensions.

Some of his trees, including a 50-year-old small-leaf fig, have been in national and regional bonsai shows, and the Meisliks teach classes to anyone interested in the art. Jerry recently returned from teaching a bonsai class in Ann Arbor, Michigan and used to have a regular class at Flathead Valley Community College.

It takes focus and patience – “a lot of patience,” Rhona Meislik said – but the trees truly become live art.

“You can be pretty creative, and if you do it right, the trees don’t mind and actually live a long, long time,” Meislik said.

For more information on Jerry Meislik, visit his website at www.bonsaihunk.us.