The Love of a Landscaper

By Leah Davis Christopher

Bonsai tree 1

After over 20 years of passionate landscaping, a donor gave 22 magnificent bonsai trees to the College of Life Sciences. The landscaper came from an unlikely background—he was a famous LDS actor, director, and theater and film professor in BYU’s College of Fine Arts and Communications.

The late Ivan Crosland graduated with his master’s degree from BYU in 1963 and returned as a faculty member in 1971, directing students and playing roles in many productions, including an audience favorite: King Lear. Off stage, Mr. Crosland played a role in another production, one less prone to elicit applause, one far more solitary: landscaping.

“He had worked in a very creative field, in acting. In my opinion, working with his trees was therapy for him,” says his wife, Helene Crosland. Inspired by the Utah wilderness and mountains, Mr. Crosland created a backyard oasis for his friends and family. Illness and subsequent early retirement in 1995 led him to narrow his landscaping passion to the delicate art of bonsai trees.

Bonsai trees—a name that refers not to the species, but to the method of pruning—are decorative dwarf trees. Mr. Crosland meticulously cared for many different species of trees, shaping the trunks with wire, swirling them into beautiful patterns, and arching some branches back into the ground to replicate the beauty he observed in nature. He trimmed leaves and branches and carefully monitored amounts of light, water, heat, humidity, air circulation, and fertilizer in order to control the trees’ growth. As Mr. Crosland cared for his tiny living sculptures, his collection grew to over 100 bonsai trees.

An Idea Sprouts

As his health declined in 2014, Mr. Crosland hired a BYU landscape management student, Blake Pumphrey—who graduated in April 2015—to help with his yard. Pumphrey worked with the Croslands to move the tropical bonsai trees indoors in the winter to protect them and back outdoors in the spring. When Mr. Crosland became physically unable to attend to the the bonsai trees, Pumphrey says, “he wanted to see [his bonsai trees] taken to a good place and asked if BYU would want them.”

In late 2014, through LDS Philanthropies, three of Mr. Crosland’s indoor bonsai trees found a home in the recently completed Life Sciences Building.

The Plans Grow

In January 2015, the Croslands received a letter from the College of Life Sciences, inviting them to visit the trees in their new environment. Along with three of their five children—Leslie Merkley, Roger Crosland, and Richard Crosland—they made what would be Mr. Crosland’s last trip to BYU. They saw the trees and met with former Life Sciences dean Rodney Brown, floral design director Norah Hunter, and LDS Philanthropies representative Jim Welsh. “At the end of that meeting,” Mr. Welsh recalls, “Ivan said, ‘I want the rest of my bonsai trees at BYU.’”

Bonsai tree 2

But two weeks after the visit, Mr. Crosland was admitted to the hospital. He passed away March 26, 2015. Ms. Hunter arranged to have several of Mr. Crosland’s most beloved trees displayed at the viewing and funeral services. “It was a gesture our family will be forever grateful for,” says Mrs. Crosland. Support for the family also poured in online, where his obituary was posted : high school classmates, students of Mr. Crosland’s from BYU, neighbors, ward members, and others described him as a dedicated father, an encouraging teacher, and a joyful person, as well as a talented landscaper who shared his flower arrangements in his LDS chapel and the former Provo Tabernacle.

The Love Spreads

Mr. Crosland’s last request was not forgotten. In November 2015, students in one of Ms. Hunter’s classes relocated 19 of his outdoor bonsai trees to BYU. Since the trees’ arrival, students have learned to care for some of them, a “very tedious” process, says Athena Kefalas, a former TA of Ms. Hunter’s. The collection—which includes miniature junipers and ficus trees with fragile, interwoven roots and twisted trunks—will be moved from the LSB greenhouse to the patio outdoors in the warmer months.

BYU students and faculty will continue to care for and enjoy the bonsai trees, thanks to the Croslands. “They are two very, very generous people who weren’t even associated with the College of Life Sciences, but with their passion for trees, we were able to connect them,” says Mr. Welsh.

The trees—worth over $25,000 in total—represent years of Ivan Crosland’s patient effort. His impact extends beyond the donation, as he inspired many through his love for God’s creations. In a brief memoir, Matthew Charles Crosland pays tribute to his father, Ivan:

“As his eyes pored over every single surface of those trees, his hands transferred his intentions, carrying his energy deep into the roots and out through every needle and leaf . . . His creation will vibrate and radiate with the time and attention that was paid it, and that time and attention will continue on long after the creator is gone.”