The art of cannabonsai
You can grow cannabis Bonsai-style!
In the earliest days of the pandemic, I remember incessantly scrolling through Instagram. As many people were doing, I was trying to distract myself from existential dread, using the internet as an escape. At some point, I was, like, 18 clicks deep and peering into the account of the fourth cousin once removed of some woman I met at a party many moons ago when my finger slipped onto the “Discover” tab and a truly gorgeous plant appeared.
“Oh!” I remember thinking. “Of course you can grow weed like a Bonsai tree.” I giggled, hit “follow,” and gleefully double-tapped whenever @cannabonsai_manny’s creations would appear in my feed.
Bonsai is a Japanese art form that blends different horticultural techniques with certain aesthetic practices to grow dwarfed trees in pots or containers. Though the practice originated in imperial China, students during the Kamakura period of Japanese history from 1185–1333 adapted some of the techniques and redeveloped them as part of Zen Buddhism tradition. The resulting practice is what’s more commonly known as Bonsai today.
Being a person who drives a Mini and is on her second wiener dog in life, I guess I have a penchant for dwarfed things. Pandemic-wise, it also blended two of my favorite lockdown items: pretty plants and weed. I knew I had to talk to Oyarce at some point. Eventually, we connected over the phone.
By day, Manny Oyarce is a gym teacher in Vancouver. He is lucky to live not only in a city with legal weed but also in a country where weed is federally legalized – something their neighbors directly to the south are still just dreaming about (more on that, below). He said some of the parents he teaches know about and support his hobby of growing cannabis plants in Bonsai-style. That’s a sign of how much has changed when it comes to mainstream cannabis acceptance. If he lived somewhere else, he could be jailed or run out of town.
We started our conversation by laughing about how everyone is “really into plants right now,” as I put it.
“I think thats part of the reason my account has done so well,” Oyarce, who has almost 96 thousand Instagram followers, tells me about the exponential growth his account has seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
Oyarce started experimenting with growing cannabis in Bonsai fashion about two years ago. Back then, he went to a 420 event in Vancouver, where he ended up with a bunch of seeds. He went home and poked around Reddit, trying to figure out what to do with them and seeking info on low-stress training (LST), which is a system of growing cannabis that requires tying down and bending the plant’s hardy stems to give its lower branches more access to light and therefore increase bud yields. He noticed that one Reddit man’s cannabis plant unintentionally looked like a Bonsai tree – it’s the same kind of manipulation and restraint process using tape and little ropes and wires — and he decided that it was exactly the look he was going for.
Oyarce also realized, to his benefit, that these seeds he came into were autoflower. Those not schooled in the finer points of growing weed, autoflower seeds, which are also known as “day-neutral,” allow the plant to automatically flower when it reaches a certain stage of maturity. This is in contrast to photoperiod, which requires a strict alternating schedule of dark and light to trigger flowering.
Autoflowers are considered to be a little easier to grow, seeing as they’re more forgiving with the light schedule. “You can treat them more like regular plants,” Oyarce says. “You just put the seed in and give it light.”
Oyarce planted a few — “they did okay,” he says — and he did more research, discovering what so many premium indoor growers know: cannabis plants, even autoflowers, can handle 24 hour light cycles. He tried that and found the extra light “beefed them up” enough so the buds developed this stacked, stocky look that reminded him of Bonsai (photoperiod plants, he says, “stretch out” a little more, and are less popular for Bonsai, though Oyarce says he knows some growers doing photoperiod Bonsai that are excellent).
After two rounds, Oyarce says he had the process down and he began photographing and posting his plants to Instagram. Since then, in the last two or so years, his account has exploded in size. Thanks to his success, he also wrote a book, called Cannabonsai: A Beginner's Guide and started selling starter kits.
“My goal is just to get everyone growing,” Oyarce says. “Even if they’re not cannabonsai-ing, everyone should just try to put a seed in soil. You might not end up with exactly what you want, but you learn so much from that first time.” As someone who is nursing her first cannabis crop in her backyard as I type, I have to say I understand the compulsion. It changes you! I now understand better why so many growers are evangelists for the practice in a way I couldn’t fully catch before I started, myself.
Oyarce’s Instagram and the subsequent book is how San Diego-based cannabonsai grower Patrick Kilcoyne got back into the practice after an accidental discovery made during his college years.
“When I was in college, I had a micro grow inside a few pieces of furniture – like a clothing dresser and a gutted-out computer — so I was working with minimal space. My first bonsai-style cannabis plant was a mother San Fernando Valley OG Kush that lived in the computer case,” Kilcoyne says.
“Fast forward about a decade since, where I didn't grow cannabis, and then the pandemic hit. I saw some of Manny Oyarce's art online, realized I had bonsai pots and autoflower seeds on hand, and I missed growing cannabis, so I decided to dive into cannabonsai,” Kilcoyne explains.
Kilcoyne says that this inspiration came at one of his most stressful periods during the lockdown and that it helped his mental health to be able to focus on this one project every day. Eventually, he started a YouTube series, called Zen Cannabonsai, in which he incorporated teachings on topics like object impermanence and wabi-sabi into his tutorials. It’s an “effort to connect the lessons I’ve learned from cannabonsai with greater life lessons,” he says.
One of those lessons Kilcoyne says he stresses, echoed earlier by Oyarce, is that the failures are a vital part of the process. “Some of us also like to push the plant to its limits, which sometimes leads to failures. I often stress that failures are part of the process,” he says. “We all have to learn from them and keep growing.”
Other lessons Kilcoyne has learned are more plant-oriented. Like, for example, that he enjoys the process of using photoperiod plants, which he agrees takes more planning and caring to nail down. Indica varieties, he also says, are better to work with, because they are easier to manipulate thanks to their more bush-like structure over hybrids and Sativa varieties.
“Still, for the autoflowers, the genetics are so wacky that I haven't really seen one strange perform better over another in regards to shape,” Kilcoyne says. “Smell, however, is another story. A question I get a lot is, ‘Does a cannabonsai smell less than a regular cannabis plant’ [since it has fewer buds]? I found that even on their small cannabonsai form that if the plant is happy and healthy, it can still stink up a room properly without a carbon filter,” he says.
Beyond those specificities, both growers credit the cannabis plant’s thick, malleable, and regenerative stalks, along with predictable node growth, which helps to shape it in Bonsai-style.
“It's also a super resilient plant in general. That being said, growing anything in a small pot with way less soil than it evolved to grow in is a challenge,” Kilcoyne says. It’s the reason he also recommends anyone starting out try autoflower. Since the life cycle is only about 70-90 days, fertilizing and maintaining healthy roots isn’t as hard to balance. “Since a good organic soil medium sustains the plant for about the first 30 days, all one needs to do from there is apply some flowering nutrients, water, shape, and enjoy their art,” he explains.
Cannabonsai artists, including Oyarce and Kilcoyne, have continued to progress in their art by setting up different challenges and incorporating other Bonsai-like elements. “Growing roots over rocks or plants in and around driftwood are really fun add-on challenges, but they do stress the plant to some extent. I love moss, so one thing I'm always balancing is keeping moss alive while also not overwatering the cannabis plant,” Kilcoyne says.
There is also special attention paid to the soil, of course. Kilcoyne says he starts with living soil that includes homemade earthworm castings made with fruit and vegetable scraps from his kitchen and clean reverse osmosis water from his local water shop. He then supplements with compost teas containing fish emulsion, blackstrap molasses, mycorrhizal fungi, and a host of other natural ingredients that feed the soil and the plant.
Ultimately, both growers stress that this is as much of a creative process as it is a gardening activity. Additionally, they are both grateful for the additional community it has brought both of them, particularly during a time when such connections run at a heavy premium. It goes far beyond the stoner crowd, too.
"I have a lot of people following me who don’t even smoke weed but message me saying they want to try [growing cannabis Bonsai-style],” Oyarce says. “Some people actually have! There’s this old lady who is so into it, she bought a starter kit, sends me so many messages, and she doesn’t even smoke! She gives it to her family members but just loves Bonsai,” he says.
Kilcoyne said it even bridged a gap between him and his grandma, who once told him, “I love the plants you grow. I don't understand about the marijuana part, but they're just so beautiful.” He thinks that conversation was a great example of how something like cannabonsai can bring a new perspective to people. That, he hopes, can open new doors for legal cannabis. After all, it’s just a plant.
“Millions of people from older generations were lied to by the US Government about this plant and only associate it with negative stereotypes fed to them via carefully crafted propaganda,” Kilcoyne says. “Art like cannabonsai allows someone to form a different viewpoint on this amazing plant and see it as a part of nature rather than a drug that causes ‘reefer madness.’”
What’s the deal with Schumer’s “federal legalization bill?”
Unless you’re living under a rock (apologies to any rock dwellers who may be reading), you might have heard that there’s a so-called federal cannabis legalization draft bill floating around Congress that was introduced by New York Senator Chuck Schumer.
Policy-related discussions, especially federally oriented ones, are complicated. So, I turned to an expert to break it down. Shaleen Title wears more hats at one time than most people could ever hope to gather in a lifetime, but some resume highlights of hers include being the inaugural Massachusetts cannabis commissioner, a drug policy attorney, and a current fellow at the Ohio State University Law School Drug Enforcement & Policy Center. She has also recently co-founded the Parabola Center, which is a people-oriented policy think tank of sorts.
I asked Title to analyze Senator Schumer’s draft bill, expecting that most people won’t read the nitty-gritty, and here’s what she had to say.
What is the Parabola Center?
It’s an experimental crowdfunded policy project to represent people, not corporations. We started it in order to fill in the gap between conceptual recommendations and actual written laws and regulations, where movements often get left out. When it comes to drug policy and especially cannabis policy, there are virtually unlimited corporate resources for writing laws and regulations that reflect for-profit interests, but very few for people, especially consumers, patients, and workers. We often get contacted by legislators who truly want to work for the people and need policy expertise, and this project is a formal mechanism for us to be available to help. You can see an example of our work at parabolacenter.com.
What are the main takeaways from this draft — are things headed in the right direction?
The big takeaway is that the movement has the power right now, not the corporations, but it's up to us to use it. I think leaders in Congress rightfully see cannabis legalization as a way to show credibility and gain loyalty by making a dramatic change that the people want. And they’re doing it in a transparent, inclusive way by inviting public feedback. My advice to the public is, if you don’t participate in that process, then you don’t have the right to complain later if it doesn’t look how you wanted it to look. Take advantage of the opportunity!
What is your opinion on the regulatory organizations (like the FDA) that were chosen to regulate the industry?
I think that it’s a very good start to transfer authority from the DEA to virtually any other agency. And there is surely a role for the FDA and the TTB to use specialized experience. But, in Parabola Center’s opinion, if the federal government is serious about repairing the harms of the war on drugs AND building an industry that looks different from other industries that are dominated by a few rich corporations, it needs to take the time and effort to develop competence to do that because it's never been done before. I think there is likely a major role for the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. Regardless of which agencies end up in charge, experience so far from the states will be valuable to them and I hope it will help them avoid learning some hard lessons we’ve learned at the state level.
How does this bill bear similarity to tobacco and/or alcohol regulations?
One useful addition not in the MORE Act is the prohibition on inducements, corporate bribery, and pay-to-play schemes that you find in alcohol regulations. We can find beer from huge manufacturers and from very small craft brewers, and that’s due to both conscious consumer preferences and these types of regulations. It’s a great start and ripe to be expanded.
With regard to tobacco regulations, Sen. Schumer said previously that he doesn’t want to allow Big Tobacco to swoop in and take over, so I think the senators will be receptive to more ideas in that regard. Parabola Center’s view is that we should replace the part excluding people with certain criminal offenses from the cannabis industry with the exclusion of corporations that are guilty of certain crimes like lying to the public and causing massive public health damage, like Big Tobacco companies.
How viable or not are the interstate commerce provisions?
There are a lot of ways to do it equitably, but I think there is a strong argument to be made for slowing down interstate commerce and taking it gradually. No one can predict what the market will look like once interstate commerce is allowed, and we don’t want to end up in a situation where it’s too late to change it.
Is the tax portion prohibitive to stamping out the legacy market?
This is a great question because there needs to be enough tax revenue to pay for all of the important provisions, especially the restorative justice provisions, but I tend to agree with the opinion that the proposed tax rate on top of the existing tax rates may simply be too high for consumers when they already have a tax-free alternative in the form of the legacy market. There’s an important balance to be found there and it will take some work and back-and-forth.
What could this bill achieve criminal justice-wise?
Other organizations like Last Prisoner Project are better equipped to address this in detail [editor’s note: here is LPP’s analysis], but one important addition as a former regulator: I want to warn that the industry is heavily lobbying for increased enforcement and crackdowns on the legacy market. I was unsuccessfully lobbied to basically create a law enforcement arm of cannabis regulators, often with inherently racist phrases like “we have clean and safe operations and are working to do it right.”
I think policymakers who aren't informed otherwise might be swayed by that, and it’s vital for people in the movement to be ready to vehemently denounce those arguments and make clear that crackdowns are premature until there is a pathway for underground operators to transition to the legal market (not yet viable in most states).
What is your take on the equity aspect of this draft and its provisions?
I love the proactive measures, but I think current and former state regulators like myself have a duty to clearly explain how it can be changed to take the lessons we’ve learned into account. Specifically, I’m very worried about the patchwork, almost impossible-to-navigate interstate commerce system this set up – that ALWAYS hurts smaller and marginalized businesses. And I’m worried about the order of operations, where we’re not taking into account the massive headway that bigger companies make while even the best regulators struggle to implement equity provisions. That's happened in virtually every state that has tried in good faith to prioritize equity. How much worse will that get if Amazon and Philip Morris get involved?
How can the everyday person get involved?
The senators put out a summary that anyone can read and respond to by emailing Cannabis_Reform@finance.senate.gov by September 1. If you support the Parabola Center’s vision of a fair and equitable marketplace that prevents corporate consolidation, you can become a patron at https://www.patreon.com/parabolacenter.
Anything we missed you want to add or that is vital to understanding what's happening? Is this bill likely to pass down the line?
If you’re rightfully questioning how likely this is to pass anytime soon, please understand how vital it is for you to submit your feedback anyway! Once the discussion draft is turned into a bill and introduced, it will become the status quo. Every provision in it will be referred to as something that was written based on public feedback, and there will be inertia and reluctance to revisit it. There’s never as good of an opportunity to get something right as there is the first time when it’s being written from scratch.
Think of it this way – how likely are the senators to take your consideration into account now, when they have to research and write something, versus in the future, when they would have to be proactively convinced to take time away from other priorities in order to make a change? And remember that whatever is in the introduced bill is likely to be diluted by other members of Congress who are less interested in consumer and patient rights, so the starting point needs to be as strong as possible. Right now the movement has the power – use it and keep it!
Insider’s Yeji Jesse Lee makes additional points about the draft, writing that descheduling cannabis, as the bill would do, would nullify 280E for cannabis companies, as well as give them access to stock exchanges & mainstream bankers. The large federal tax on top of state and local taxes, however, would place an additional burden on consumers.
President Joe Biden, for his part, is still being a bitch about the whole thing.
Things I have recently written or appeared in or whatever
I filled in for this week’s Environment Report at Voice of San Diego. I was told I could write about weed, so I did, and I wrote about how cannabis cultivation is finally coming to the unincorporated areas of San Diego County (which includes all the agricultural areas). There are, predictably, big challenges ahead, but those in the know think it can be done.
For Uproxx I wrote about my latest favorite weed gummies.
Doug Mack asked me to chime in for his snacks newsletter, where he wrote about weed brownies. It’s a great piece.
Lindsay MaHarry and I debuted episode 4 of the Unrolling Series, aka the Blunt Episode. We got way too stoned.
I was a guest on Jimmy Young’s “In The Weeds” podcast on Pro Cannabis Media, where I also contribute a short weekly California weed news report.
Thanks for reading and extra special thanks to paying subscribers and this week’s sponsor! Please send it to a friend, especially a millennial plant-loving friend, if you think they’d like reading it. See you in two weeks.