5 Star Stories: Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery, the largest of its kind in the US

Updated: Aug. 4, 2020 at 10:51 PM CDT
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OLIVE BRANCH, Miss. (WMC) - For many of you, the thought of bonsai trees probably brings to mind images of Mr. Miyagi from the movie “Karate Kid” tending to his tiny trees. But, in our search for the many wonderful places and things the Mid-South has to offer, we came across a real-life Bonsai Master, just across the state line in Mississippi.

Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery, the largest bonsai nursery in the United States, is certainly worthy of a 5 Star Story.

Bonsai is an ancient Asian art form, a cultivation technique to produce small trees grown in shallow containers that mimic the shape and size of full-sized trees. They are, oftentimes, passed down in families from one generation to the next -- some of them living hundreds of years.

According to Brussel Martin, the founder and Co-owner of Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery in Olive Branch, Mississippi --

“Bonsai is a combination of art and nature,” said Martin. “Bonsai’s are healthy trees. A lot of folks think you crammed it in a pot and, you know you don’t fertilize it and it stays stunted. No. It’s growing and becoming a bigger tree and you’re trimming it to keep it small.”

Martin’s fascination with bonsai started as a child about 60 years ago when his father, an architect returned from a trip to California and brought back some bonsai trees. What started out for him as a hobby eventually grew into a massive state-of-the-art facility with climate-controlled greenhouses designed specifically for growing and selling different varieties of bonsai trees, from small to majestic, young to very old.

“Well, I’ve got some here that are probably 200 years old,” he said. “We have some junipers at my business partner’s house, McNeal McDonald, that are 600 years old. And that’s a tree that was collected out of the mountains in Japan, trained, so it was probably trained for the past 100 years.”

Martin refined his skill under the tutelage of bonsai masters and renowned artists. Now, decades later, his annual buying trips take him to Asia where he can find the best quality trees.

“There’s very few trees in the United States you can collect and make a bonsai, but there’s a few: Rocky Mountain juniper, Ponderosa pine, Ball Cypress,” said Martin. “Most of the older, nicer bonsai I buy out of Japan and China and some out of Korea.”

But, Martin says most of the nicer, finished looking bonsai come out of Japan.

“They’ve refined it more, it originated out of China probably 2000 years ago. But the Japanese picked it up a couple of 100 years ago and refined it,” he said.

Regardless of where the tree comes from, Martin says bonsai can be a relaxing way to convene with nature, but adds, it’s not for everyone because it requires a lot of patience.

“But, it’s a process that they age over time. So you do a little bit, you wait, you water,” he explained.

In addition to the tens of thousands of bonsai trees in the nursery, a new venture has begun there that was also born out of hobby -- Maritn’s business partner is a beekeeper.

McDonald, also dabbled in beekeeping as a kid, but recently went all-in, adding 70 beehives at the nursery -- his COVID-19 project, so to speak.

“It’s very relaxing,” said McDonald. “When I go out and work in my beehives, you know, I can just feel any stress I have go away.”

He adds that there’s something very tangible about beekeeping.

“There’s maybe not instant gratification but a puzzle every time you open up a hive, you know? What’s happening in the hive and why,” said McDonald.

One thing that is happening in the hive is honey and it’s now on sale with the bonsai trees at the nursery and online. Interestingly enough, both the beekeeping and bonsai most likely originated in China thousands of years ago and are now both making a mark in Mississippi on Center Hill Road.

Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery does most of its business online, but you’re welcome to stop in and shop around in person. You can even see some of Brussel’s bonsai trees on exhibit this weekend, Aug. 1-2 at Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis.

As for the bees, our crew learned from experience that they’re very “inquisitive” so you might want to keep your distance.

The nursery also hosts an annual gathering of bonsai enthusiasts, teachers and students from around the world every Memorial Day weekend. This year’s Bonsai, Barbeque and Beer celebration was canceled because of COVID-19.

If you’d like more information about next year’s event, would like to learn more about bonsai trees or sign up for a free newsletter click on the link:

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