Local man has made it big with miniature plants

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

When Herb Gustafson was 9, he didn’t have a lot of clout on the playground.

When the other kids chose teams for games, he was the last to be selected – and then often after captains negotiated for a sweeter deal if they were to pick him. So he found other interests.

“I went introvert, completely,” Gustafson, now 61, remembers.

His school had a wetland area and “in a funk” he would go there and dig up little plants, carrying them home in his lunch box and cultivating them in little containers he found around the house – tumblers, tea cups, that sort of thing.

“I invented bonsai,” he said.

As he later discovered, Gustafson didn’t actually originate the art of growing miniature plants, but he became a self-taught expert at it, so much so that he’s written 19 books on bonsai, which have been published in more than 30 languages, and is recognized around the world as one of the leading bonsai artists.

Gustafson was born in Moline, Ill., in 1946, into a musical family. His father was a “perpetual student” and they moved around a lot, he said.

After he was born, “as soon as my mother was able to travel, we left,” he said.

His father finally earned a doctorate in music at Florida State University and landed his first job, at the University of Oregon, in 1955.

Gustafson learned how to play French horn, guitar, piano and recorder and took “quite a few” voice lessons but his focus was on his bonsai, though he had no idea that it had a name.

“I was very systematic and I kept good notes,” he said. “I had a notebook full of how much you could dwarf a leaf, a seed, a fruit. I did this for years. That was how I got started. I got fascinated with the whole idea that there is a sort of hierarchy in botany. You can dwarf a leaf by 1/100th of its size, a fruit a quarter of its normal size, but you can only dwarf a seed half its size. And when it’s planted and sprouted, it’s a full-sized plant.”

Gustafson attended UO, nearly completing a degree in general science before he was drafted and served from 1966 to 1971 during the Vietnam War. There he became disabled from exposure to Agent Orange and Napalm, developing peripheral neuropathy, which affects his ability to walk and play musical instruments.

Back in the United States, he entered dental school, completing two years before he decided he wasn’t cut out to be a dentist, he said.

“I got down in the mouth over it,” Gustafson said. “I found I enjoyed laboratory work, research.” He finally quit dental school in 1975 and returned to horticulture.

One day, he said, he learned that there were others doing the same types of things he was.

“Someone, I don’t remember whom, said to me, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?'” Gustafson recalled. “I said, ‘No,’ and they said, ‘You’re doing bonsai. People have been doing this for centuries.'”

Gustafson headed for the library where he discovered a wealth of information.

“I was disappointed to learn I hadn’t invented this, but on the other hand, holy cow, look at how much I could learn,” he said.

He learned some Japanese and traveled to Japan and China, where he studied bonsai horticulture for six years.

In 1975 he got a job working for the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center as a biochemist and received a grant to study monkeys in Madagascar. As a way to augment his small income from the grant, he started doing writing and photography for the World Wildlife Fund and Defenders of Wildlife, as well as the National Geographic Society.

“I’m well-published,” Gustafson said, noting that he looked up his name on Google recently and found thousands of pages of his work there.

Through the National Geographic Society, Gustafson was sent to Japan by the World Wildlife Fund to do a story on urban Japanese macaque monkeys that were causing problems in parks as they proliferated in Nara, once the capital city of Japan. When he got there, he stayed.

“I said ‘There’s bonsai all around me here,'” Gustafson said. “I stayed six years. I had a ball.”

He studied with six of the top Japanese bonsai masters, one of them Kenji Morada, who was responible for the emperor’s private bonsai collection and the imperial palace garden.

To support himself, he taught English.

“The Japanese were eager to learn English and I was happy to do that,” he said. “My big cash cow in Japan was reading English books into a tape recorder so teachers could teach proper English to their students. They liked my Midwestern accent. They said I didn’t have a Boston accent or a southern drawl.

“What a nice way to make money.”

Through a complicated series of circumstances and mutual acquaintances, Gustafson was invited to work in Emperor Hirohito’s private garden himself, making at least six trips there, he said.

“I had to wear a coolie hat so people couldn’t see that I was a white guy,” he said.

He did get to meet the emperor, a marine biology enthusiast, who invited Gustafson to play chess and Go (a Japanese game similar to tic-tac-toe) with him.

“He spoke excellent English,” Gustafson said. “It was a weird experience to perhaps work with the architect of World War II. It was quite an experience.”

Returning to Eugene in 1981, Gustafson went into the bonsai business. He sold plants at four locations in the general Eugene area – 3,000 of them at his own nursery located next to the Lane Community College Cottage Grove campus.

He taught classes at LCC, Portland Community College and the University of Oregon, and started to write books on bonsai, finishing his first in 1989.

One of his works is the only bonsai manual written by a Caucasian that has been translated into Japanese, he said.

During those years when Gustafson was involved in bonsai, photography and writing, he stayed connected to his musical roots.

The Gustafson clan includes many accomplished musicians, including a younger cousin, David Gustafson, who teaches voice at Lane Community College and performs across the United States and internationally. Another cousin is a professional violist. His father retired as dean of the School of Music at the University of Oregon. His mother sang, played the piano and the jazz double-bass, Herb Gustafson said.

“We had a family get-together one Christmas and someone said ‘Let’s sit down and sing something,'” he said. “Dad sat down at the piano and asked, ‘What do you want to sing?’ Someone said ‘Bach’s “B-minor Mass.”‘

“Dad asked ‘Do you have the music?’


“So we sang Bach’s “B-minor Mass” in four parts. It took us 3 1/2 hours to finish it. We did this for fun.”

Gustafson, who has a resonant bass voice, has performed in more than 50 operas and more than 100 musicals himself, mainly in Eugene, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco.

“I grew up with “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific” and “Carousel,” he said. “The best sort of stuff.”

He said one of his big moments was when he was involved in the premiere of a Tchaikovsky manuscript that had been discovered in 1989 by a Portland musicologist. Gustafson performed the three-part piece with orchestra in Russian at Carnegie Hall in New York.

“That was a biggie,” he said.

He’s also performed in “Carmen” with Robert Shaw in Atlanta and sang with Richard Wagner at the Hollywood Bowl in Southern California and at Cambridge with John Rutter.

After retiring from the bonsai nursery business, after his health began failing, he continued to write, “cranking out these books and was able to make a living doing that.”

When he was 62 Gustafson was able to retire completely and September of 2007 moved to Sweet Home, deciding that it offered the best options for him and his wife-to-be, Joyce.

“I searched on the Internet for something we could afford on a fixed income,” he said. “I discovered the Sweet Home community, the least expensive place to live within 100 miles of I-5 from the Canadian border to the Mexican border.

“This is the best place to live, for heaven’s sake.”

Upon arriving in Sweet Home in September of 2007, he visited Fir Lawn Lutheran Church and asked if they had a choir.

“(Church member) Alice Grovom said, ‘No, but we’d like to.'”

So he started a choir, which had 14 members at its peak but has dwindled due to attrition in recent months, he said.

He and Joyce were married June 21, 2008.

“She’s a June bride,” Gustafson joked.

In retirement, he hasn’t slowed down much. He’s working on a novel, which he says will be an adventure-romance set in Africa. He’s also working to organize and digitize many of the photos he’s taken on his trips over the years.

“I’ve always felt that if you’re given talent by the Creator, then you have to give it back or it’s an insult to the Man above who gave you that talent,” Gustafson said. “I also find that if I want to die in two years, all I have to do is buy a TV, a remote control, and a La-Z-Boy.

“I plan to live 30 years.”