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Today's topic: kids corner

More than 1,600 years ago, the Chinese people began to grow trees in pots. These tiny trees were called bonsai, taken from the words bon meaning pot and sai (tree).

Bonsai trees can be as small as 3 inches (called mame bonsai) or as tall as 28 to 30 inches. Some bonsai are known to be over 100 years old. They are imitations of nature that you can pick up and take with you. Today, and for the next three weeks, we'll learn how to create a bonsai. Younger children can do it with parental help, while older children might want to try it on their own.

Bonsai come in as many shapes as trees in nature. Some basic shapes are illustrated today because they are probably the easiest to do.

Take time to look at the trees outside. See how some, like pines, grow straight and tall in a formal, upright position. Others cling to cliffs and cascade down the side. Still others offer an umbrella shape or look like a large ball, or might even remind you of a broom. Some slant, some twist, some have branches that sweep the ground. Creating a bonsai should be an effort to imitate what you see in the outdoors.

Many plants make nice bonsai, but a good choice will have small leaves and a pleasing shape and may flower or fruit. Creeping junipers make fine cascades, while azaleas and ficus plants are pleasing as umbrella or spherical shapes. Small needled pines, cypress and spruce work well in any of the upright styles.

A plant that makes an excellent bonsai is called serissa or tree of a thousand stars. It has small green leaves, often edged with white and small white flowers that bloom almost constantly. For the first 12 children that call me at 344-1266, I have starter plants of serissa and care instructions that may be picked up in the Inverness office by 4:30 p.m. Friday.

Pots are also important. For most bonsai, you will need a shallow- or medium-depth pot, but for cascading bonsai a medium to deep pot works best. Check local nurseries or crafts stores for this type of pot. Red Rose in Ocala carries them.

For next week, you will need to gather a small plant, sharp scissors, a pot with at least one drain hole, a small piece of plastic canvas or screening and a good grade of potting soil. A small, sturdy stick such as a chopstick also will be helpful. We'll begin by trimming and transplanting our plant. On March 15, you'll learn more about shaping and pruning your plant, and on March 22, we'll discuss wiring.

Try to visit your library this week and look at bonsai books to learn more about what we'll be doing this month.