Bonsai, Computer Science a Natural Fit for Colorado State University Professor Exhibiting at This Weekend’s Bonsai Show in Denver

Note to Reporters: Photos of Darrell Whitley are available with the news release at public is welcome to attend the American Bonsai Society/Bonsai Clubs International Convention, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. today through Sunday, June 24 at the Denver Marriott Tech Center, 4900 S. Syracuse St. Cost to attend is $10.

Some professors walk the halls to do their thinking. Darrell Whitley, a computer science professor and department chair at Colorado State University, trims trees in his office.

Of course, the trees are only about a foot or two tall.

For 20 years, Whitley has been active in Japanese bonsai, which is the art of trimming small trees for contemplative purposes and to remind one of trees in the mountains. The art form also includes stones that resemble landscape or mountain ranges.

Whitley isn’t just practicing – he’s good at bonsai: He has some 50 trees at home (he takes some of the trees out of his office for the summer), mostly upright ficus, pine, juniper and spruce trees, including some that are several hundred years old. Every tree takes a few minutes a day – watering or trimming, Whitley said.

A trip to a Japanese plantation in Florida in 1990 got him interested in the art.

“I was just floored when I saw 30 of these small trees and yet they had characteristics of the trees in the forest,” he said. “It’s not a lot of work, just constant. There is a lot of horticulture involved in reshaping branches, controlling the size of leaf growth, not to mention growing a plant in a pot three inches deep. The short pot is mean to create the illusion of a large tree.”

He submitted a stone to his local organization – the Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society – for the society’s show at the Denver Botanic Gardens over Father’s Day weekend. The stone won an award of excellence and will be shown this weekend at the American Bonsai Society/Bonsai Clubs International Convention at the Denver Marriott Tech Center. Cost to attend is $10. For more information, go to

The practice actually started in China, said Whitley.

“Most of the U.S. clubs got started by servicemen returning from World War II. It’s a small community in the United States,” Whitley said, noting that the most famous American who was involved in bonsai – John Naka – and his family helped start a bonsai society in Colorado.

Whitley says the creativity of bonsai fits naturally with his computer science background. For 25 years, his research has focused on simulated evolution – essentially taking engineering design problems and "breeding" solutions to optimize the best solutions. It’s a lot like breeding racehorses.

As a computer scientist, Whitley’s algorithms were used to design the turbine and jet engine for the Boeing 777. He continues to work with industry on satellite communications.

“A lot of people who are mathematical are also musical – there are regularities and patterns in mathematics and music,” said Whitley, who studied classical guitar as an undergraduate. And bonsai also relaxes him.

“For me, sometimes if I just need to clear my mind for a minute, I’ll stand up and grab my scissors and trim my trees. It gives me a mental break during the day.”