My Wyoming cottonwood saga began in the late 1990s in Casper, where I was nurturing all flavors of flowers in various pots scattered about the yard. Gardening is in my genes, thanks to Slovenian grandparents who grew vegetables and planted cottonwoods in front and back of their early 1900s house in Rock Springs — a house that I later occupied for 13 years before moving to Casper.
At the end of another short Wyoming growing season, I noticed a small shoot with a couple of leaves amongst the blossoms in one of my flower pots. Why not just see what happens, I thought.
In 1998, the next spring, the still-living potted cottonwood took its first trip, to Denver, where we had moved for my spouse’s temporary work assignment and needed greenery outside her apartment. New flowers, another year and the sprout grew.
A year later, we ferried it back to Casper, but not for long. Now a foot or so high with new bottom shoots trimmed, we soon loaded it into a truck, and moved to Socorro, New Mexico, our new home in an old Spanish village south of Albuquerque. But delays in relocating to our house meant it didn’t get to see the light of day or water for a couple months, as it was stuck in a storage container.
Finally, we closed on our house deal, movers arrived and out came the cottonwood bonsai, into the sunlight near our backyard patio. Years passed, and it grew upward and outward, soon becoming too top-heavy for the flower pot where it first took root. New Mexico’s spring wind gusts pushed it over.
Righted again and lodged against a wall, I figured it might be OK, and it was … for a while. But another near-death experience loomed, when we left on a hot May weekend for several days. When we returned, I was aghast. The tree had taken another tumble, and was now lying on the concrete, leaves turning dry and crispy. A goner, I thought.
Undaunted, I broke the old pot and transplanted the root ball into a larger one, adding compost for good measure. Amazingly, it recovered, flourishing, but a few years later, alas, disaster again. After another lengthy trip, we returned to yet another cracked pot, the drip water tube I had added now detached, the bonsai gasping.
Once again, I repotted, this time into a more stable and larger vessel, and trimmed, quite drastically I thought. It regrew, invigorated with new branches and larger leaves. For awhile, I called it “Zalmoxis” after a “dying-rising deity” who I had discovered while searching for a Balkan character related to my Slovenian family’s European region as inspiration for a costumed event. Zalmoxis, I learned, was a sort of religious con man who told followers that he could return after death. Legend says he then built an underground home in what is now Bulgaria and disappeared, staying there for three years only to emerge suddenly amongst startled now-believers.
My Zalmoxis meanwhile lived on, but its journeying was not over. Six years ago, we moved to Albuquerque, and hired Larry, our Socorro contractor, to move all my pots there, bonsai included. It was the heaviest, he said, maybe a couple hundred pounds. On the back of open-air trailer it went, its spring leaves waving in the breeze on the trip north.
Burly workers wrestled it into place in a side yard, where after a year or so, it began to acclimate. Then, it began dripping sap as tiny insects ravaged its leaves. Other strange-looking orange-back bugs swarmed the bark. I was about to hit ‘em all with a blast of vinegar and a hose jet when, luckily, Sarah, visiting from Colorado, stopped me. Those are ladybug larvae, she said, here to feast on the leaf insects!
One year later, a swarm of ladybugs hatched, ate the insects and the bonsai much improved, even through a New Mexico drought. And this year, health-wise, my Bonsai is downright awesome, a trim five feet, comfortably growing in a spiffy black-ceramic pot.
Now, two months-plus for us in self-isolation, in the midst of the viral crisis, the cottonwood offers new meaning. For me, it’s magic, an inspiration, a symbol of resilience and hope that survives each time life has turned upside down, upsetting plans.
So how long can a Casper cottonwood live in a pot? Well, it’s been at least a couple of decades now, thriving despite its brushes with disease and death. It’s a metaphor for our perilous times — despite turbulence, we will emerge stronger.
But will it bust out someday, longing for its long-lost canopy, plunging thirstily into the tempting Rio Grande silt? Last year, when I moved it slightly, a few inches, I found a root emerging from the water hole in the bottom of the pot. I sawed it off, like the bonsai branches above, but I’ll wager it’s still creeping out underneath.
I can sympathize. I’m still hoping for a future return to my own roots, to Slovenia, where my newly acquired citizenship will allow us to live, taking root where my grandparents lived and a country we have grown to love. It was our plan, pre-pandemic, and I’m optimistic it will materialize. My bonsai’s patient resilience offers inspiration.
Longtime Wyoming journalist Paul Krza has worked in local radio news, then as bureau reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune. In Casper, he was state editor and wrote weekly columns on Wyoming culture and politics.