The Japanese art – Bonsai

Bonsai in Japanese means the plant in a pot. Once a luxury for the privileged people or garden centers of specialists, these tiny artistic trees were uncommon curiosities or botanical freaks due to the fine aesthetic design and artistic conception. Not until now, indoor miniature landscaping has been gaining popularity as modern green, which also bring back this ancient art to the general public for everybody who is into this art. Because of the association with Zen aesthetics, the ancient philosophy as early as 500 years ago, it’s believed that a special spiritual benefit can be achieved from the innate peace and tranquillity that represented in a bonsai. Just like yoga and tai chi, bonsai the art of the plant has a calming influence on the mind and spirit. which help to relieve the stresses and build self-discipline, the purpose of life, resilience, and respect for self-improvement.

The art of a bonsai has a rich and colorful history. Firstly practiced by ancient Chinese, who have been growing ornamental plants for thousands of years, parallel with the development of making ceramics as far back as BC 1000. The Japanese started around the 12th century, initially learned from the Chinese but has been developed independently and continuously for several hundred years. The Chinese bonsai, on the other hand, as the collapse of the emperor system and movement of social revolution, some of the traditional practices of bonsai has been interrupted. Zen Buddhism is the major influence on Japanese culture. The Japanese bonsais are quite different as compared to Chinese bonsais. Both are “addicted” to bonsai but the Japanese are more to popular relief. In the US, the art of making bonsai has mushroomed during the second half of the 20th century. The differences between European and American styles are quite distinct as the European is more traditional and the Americans have the tendency of searching for freedom and independence. Each culture has learned to express its own identity through the shape, pattern, uniqueness, and beauty of these miniature trees. Making a bonsai involves growing trees but the implications are much more than that, they are reflected by the lifestyle, aesthetic sense as well as attitude and philosophy towards nature of the creator.

Bonsai is certainly beautiful to look at, but beauty is just the first impression to catch attention and the real meaning is always subtle and abstract within a context. For instance, the image of an ancient tree clinging to a rock and struggling to survive against all the challenges is an inspiration for Chinese sages and scholars. Unlike other artistic projects like painting, a bonsai is a never-finished project since the living organism continues to grow and change according to the environment and horticultural maintenance. Perfection is always transitory and beauty is only monetary. Making and creating a bonsai is a challenge as enthusiasts continuously striving for aesthetic and horticultural excellence. The exact enchantment of bonsai is the way of life as growing bonsai is a never-ending quest for perfection.

What exactly is a bonsai? Although the word bonsai means plant in a pot, but not every tree growing in a pot qualifies as a bonsai. It must be grown in a container with a miniature and distinctive artistic shape. It can be bigger than indoor bonsai which often used in outdoor landscaping, or as small as a thumb size. Generally, it’s a small-scale replica in a pot of a fully grown tree that you might see in nature, the size and aesthetic appearance controlled by regular and strictly pruning, pinching, and shaping, watering and feeding.

The location to display bonsai should suit the shape of the plant with a sufficient light source. Bonsais could be placed outdoor or indoors. For outdoor bonsai, you must know if the species and genotype of the plant grow well in the climate of your area. Outdoor bonsais including coniferous bonsais which are gymnosperms that have needle-like leaves, broadleaves bonsais, and flowering bonsais. The most popular outdoor coniferous bonsais are Pinus sp. (pine tree), Juniperus sp. (juniper), Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar), Chamaecyparis (cypress), Picea sp. (spruce), and Cedrus sp. (cedar). Conifers are a very popular species to be a bonsai due to their evergreen property and the woody structure that represent an “aged” miniature tree. Sometimes they produce cones that added a bonus to the overall beauty of a bonsai.

Most outdoor broadleaves bonsai are deciduous species, which are integral to the natural landscape of the temperate regions that provide an endless cycle of rich imagery throughout the year. The maple tree is the greatest example as it displays different seasonal colors of the leaves throughout the year. Ginkgo biloba is another interesting tree that shows the transition of green to yellow leaves in autumn. Outdoor flowering bonsai is a great choice for those living in a non-temperate area. The colors and fragrances of the flowering bonsai are truly amazing, although the flowering period may vary. Bougainvillea sp. is one of the easiest bonsai for a beginner that produces different colors but also suits as indoor bonsai. Some flowering bonsai may also produce edible fruits, which is an attractive bonus for some people. Plants that bear fruits like Malus sp. (crab apple). With experience, trees like mulberry, lemon tree, lime tree, and fig (Ficus carica) can be trained and shaped as bonsai, enjoying the beauty while harvesting the fruits from the bonsai!

Indoor bonsai is less influenced by environmental factors which may cause the plant to die from root rot when there is a rainy season. However, they are less likely to thrive due to the unnatural indoor environment. Similar to houseplants, indoor bonsai tend to be tropical and subtropical species that will survive in a house. Some Mediterranean and a few temperate species can also be adapted to grow indoors with extra care on lighting and temperature control. Ficus (Ficus rumphii and Ficus microcarpa) are the most popular due to its strong adaptability of growing indoor and producing aerial roots that is attractive. Some succulent plants like Crassula ovata, Jade plant, and Adenium (desert rose) can be made into bonsai as well!

A valuable bonsai may take years or even decades to create. There is a bonsai business in Japan whereby the owner has thousands of valuable bonsais that are inherited from his grandparents. Because some of the bonsais take years to form the mature woody structure and shape. Some of them can be expensive, as pricy as a luxury car. How a bonsai is priced? Well, apart from the species, time, style, and other materials, a bonsai is valued on the art made by the bonsai master. A tree takes years to grow into the size and shape that is designed by a master but overall, the beauty of the plant is the determining factor for its value which overrides all other factors mentioned. Nowadays, bonsai is widely popular around the world and being cooperated into modern landscaping like aquascape, terrarium, and landscaping. Having a bonsai in the house is not just spiritual but also part of the FengShui, which is the Chinese geomancy that claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment.

How to create a bonsai? Keeping and maintaining a bonsai is not just about gardening, but also art and spirituality combine with horticultural techniques. There are several ways to start up. First, collect the ideal plant and necessary substrates from a reputable nursery or specialist bonsai center. Collection from the wild also possible but the shape is much difficult to be reshaped and the condition of the plant may not be healthy. The plant must be free of pests and diseases, also the professional advice from a bonsai specialist is always useful. Apart from buying the starting plant, one can grow the tree from seeds. Conventional asexual propagation such as cutting and air-layering can be performed on the mother tree. However, not all trees can be propagated through cutting, propagating yourself are relatively inexpensive with little special equipment and horticultural attention. The disadvantages are slow-growing and the results may not look like a bonsai after months of waiting. Other accessories including ceramic pots, soil, tools, slow-release fertilizer, and pest or disease control solutions. Akadama which is known as “red jade soil” is unique and highly recommended as it is granular in shape that provides excellent aeration for the roots. The container must be shallow whereby the root of a bonsai is trimmed to stimulate the development of the lateral root and reduce the growth and preventing the tree from growing too tall.

The next step will be shaping, pruning, and pinching the plant into a bonsai, which is the artificial creative process. A yamadori (means collected from the mountain in Japanese) which is the bonsai collected from the wild requires shaping and wiring as well. There are two basic types of shaping, structural and refinement. The former is the initial hard pruning for an untrained tree to create the approximate structure. The refinement shaping is to enhance and fine-tuning the ultimate appearance. Regular light pruning and pinching are necessary to keep the bonsai small and neat. The tools to accomplish the task including a twig- and branch-cutter, garden secateurs or pruners, wire of different sizes, and a pair of pliers for cutting the wire after shaping as well as Japanese cut paste. Tools for more advanced growers are concave branch cutter, twig-pruning scissors, root-pruning scissors, and the root hook or rake.

The pruning and shaping should follow the physiology of the plants. Other than being creative and aesthetic, it’s important to keep the plant stay healthy to allow the light source to penetrate the lower canopy, improve air circulation, and keep the pests and diseases to a minimum. Pinching is frequently conducted to remove the growing tips of new shoots throughout the growing season to maintain the overall shape. Leaf pruning is carried out occasionally through partial or total defoliation, normally on a dehydrated tree, and introduces the light into the twig structure. Pruning and shaping are better to be done in spring or midsummer when the tree is in growth and the wounds will heal more easily.

Similar to the use of a brace for shaping the teeth, the bonsai styles need to be wired to achieve a particular shape using hard materials such as annealed or softened iron, aluminum, and copper wires. Aluminum wire is the easiest to handle and recommended for beginners. Copper is mostly used by professional masters to train coniferous bonsai as it holds better and less obtrusive. It comes with different diameters or thicknesses in which thinner wire is used to wire smaller branches, while the thicker wire for wiring the thicker stem or trunk. Always test the stiffness of the branches before coiling the wire onto it. The wire is usually anchor and coiled onto the parent branch or otherwise it will not be taut enough to bend the branch. Some bonsai growers purposely leave the shaping wires permanently embedded in the trunk or branch to make it swell and thicken. Unwiring can be done by cutting the wire off with cutters once the branches are fully shaped. Alternatively, clamps can also be used for making curvature of the stem or branch.

Watering must be controlled properly for bonsai as underwatering is as bad as overwatering. Feeding the bonsais with fertilizer usually requires calculation according to the size, species, and root development. Slow-release fertilizer is preferred to avoid excessive nutrients that might dehydrate the roots. Repotting of bonsai is needed but not as frequent as compared to that of houseplants, mostly only when the roots fill the pot. Tools like rake, chopstick, and sanitized scissors are useful to trim the roots. Trees that are sick or in poor health condition should not be repotted as they are more susceptible to pathogens.

Deadwood bonsai techniques are methods that create, shape, and preserve dead wood on a living bonsai tree which could enhance the illusion of age and the portrayal of austerity. The deadwood effect on a branch is known as jin, whereas a striped trunk effect is called shari. The authentic white-bleached effect by applying lime sulfur or bleach to dry the deadwood. Jins and sharis can be made at any time of the year but it is better to be conducted in late summer when the sap is rising. Besides, Japanese cut paste must be applied after shaping, pruning, pinching, wiring, as well as jins and sharis, to make sure the wounds heal faster and to prevent the attack from pathogens.

There are several interesting bonsai styles, which are: Broom style bonsai (Hokidachi), formal upright bonsai style (Chokkan), informal upright bonsai style (Moyogi), slanting bonsai style (Shakkan), cascade bonsai style (Kengai), semi-cascade bonsai style (Han-kengai), literati bonsai style (Bunjingi), windswept bonsai style (Fukinagashi), double trunk style bonsai (Sokan), multi-trunk bonsai style (Kabudachi), forest bonsai style (Yose-ue), growing on a rock bonsai style (Seki-joju), growing in a rock bonsai style (Ishisuki), and raft bonsai style (Ikadabuki). These styles are references from bonsai shows, not necessary as a template to follow. As a form of art, there is no fixed style. It’s up to the growers to create a bonsai of their own style, it could be a super-mini bonsai that about a finger size or up to big bonsai that is taller than a human.

Further reading:

Peter Chan. Choosing and growing Bonsai. (2007). Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.

Terutoshi Iwai. Miniature Bonsai The complete Guide to Super-Mini Bonsai. (2014). Tuttle publishing.