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The Loving Bonsai

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A bonsai tree

Few things in life can compare to the awe one feels in the presence of a bonsai, the gently angled trunk, the perfectly formed limbs, its impossibly diminutive size. The word 'bonsai' is derived from of two Japanese words: bon, meaning shallow container or tray, and sai a plant or planting. Together they imply the marriage of artistic expression and naturalistic effect, as opposed to any old house plant.

The 'Short' History of Bonsai

The art of bonsai actually originated in China, yet has been practised in Japan since the 8th Century. Some believe the practice of planting trees in urns for ornamental purposes began in India. Zen Buddhism has played an important role in the evolution of bonsai as an art form. Zen promotes artistic creation as an extension of one's self. The care involved in creating and shaping a bonsai is considered a form of meditation in and of itself. Today, the art of Bonsai is practised all over the world.

The Creation of Bonsai

Some people misunderstand the bonsai as being a mutation or unnatural dwarfing of a normal-sized tree. However, bonsai cultivation is no more unnatural than a topiary1 or an espalier2. The goal of bonsai is to recreate nature in miniature. There are many good books on the subject that offer practical advice for beginners. There are also bonsai clubs and societies in many areas, where expert advice can be had for the asking.

The selection of your specimen is very important, and you should know what to look for in the saplings, though ready made bonsai can be purchased at most nurseries. Just remember, any woody plant can be transformed into a bonsai, so find one whose shape reflects your personality. Taking trees from the wild is prohibited in some areas. In any case, young nursery-grown plants are much easier to work with. It can be especially rewarding to grow plants from seed or cuttings. In this way, unusual and exotic specimens can be grown quite inexpensively.

Trim your bonsai gently, removing sick or dying limbs. Snap off dead branches, rather than cutting them, to create the more natural look of branches broken by heavy snowfall. Pinch off leaves and needles to thin dense clusters. Use copper wires wrapped around the trunk and limbs to angle them into a more naturalistic position. Be creative; there are endless possibilities.

The most popular styles are:

  • Informal Upright (twisting trunk)
  • Formal Upright (straight trunk)
  • Slanting (slanting to one side)
  • Semi-cascade (bending over the rim of the pot)
  • Cascade (bending lower than the base of the pot)
  • Literati or Bunjin (unnatural formation, as portrayed in Japanese watercolour painting)
  • Broom (top branches sculpted into a dome)
  • Saikei (arranged as a landscape)
  • Styling on Rock (growing the roots around a stone)
  • Multiple Trunk (twin, triplet, or clumps of trunks, happening naturally in some species)
  • Group Planting (multiple species clumped like a miniature forest)

Bonsai Essentials

A decorative container is very important to your design. The pot, tray, or dish style should reflect the feel of the bonsai, being both practical and aesthetically pleasing. When selecting a container, most will fall into these basic categories:

  • Mame pots are the smallest.

  • Oval pots are the best for landscapes in shallow pools.

  • Drum pots are most suited for heavier trees.

  • Round pots are good for upright plantings.

  • Cascade containers are especially made for cascading bonsai.

  • Rectangular pots, though less popular today, are still a good choice for a sturdy pine or hearty baobab.

Whichever you choose, your pot should not be glazed on the inside and there should be at least one hole to provide adequate drainage through the bottom. More than one hole is preferable, because this allows you to anchor your new bonsai by wiring the roots to the bottom of the pot.

Bonsai tools are very complex, very expensive, and very sharp. Consult a book on bonsai before purchasing anything. Each tool has a specific purpose, from trimming foliage to cutting back the root mass. But it is possible to get by with a sharp knife, a pair of scissors, and a chopstick for repotting.

Some consideration should also be given to the soil in which your bonsai is expected to grow. There is a wide selection of commercial bonsai soils available. Good drainage is of paramount importance. Soil should also be clean and free of pests, disease organisms, and seeds. It is not advisable to use a bucket of soil from the garden. The peace of mind gained in a small bag of bonsai soil from a garden centre is well worth the investment

Some Plants for Bonsai

Virtually any woody plant can be grown as a bonsai, some with greater success than others. Relatively fast growing plants, such as English Ivy (Hedera helix) offer a good way to learn the basics without a huge investment in time or money. It is very easy to grow oranges or grapefruit trees from seeds collected from the fruit as you eat it. These can be cultivated as bonsai. Plants to avoid are the ones with big compound leaves, such as Chestnuts (Aesculus spp), Walnuts (Juglans spp), or Ash (Fraxinus spp).

All plants native to the temperate regions of the world require a period of dormancy, so some thought should be given to a suitable shelter for your bonsai in the winter months, such as a cold greenhouse or unheated garage. Light is not important to a dormant plant, but adequate moisture is. Don't forget about your bonsai and let it dry out.

Some popular choices:

  • Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
  • Cotoneaster
  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
  • Junipers
  • Star Magnolias (Magnolia stellata)
  • Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergiana)
  • Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrata)

Message in a Bonsai

This letter was sent to one Researcher after he described the non-wiring method of training his newest bonsai, a three-year old Chinese Juniper, which he had received from his mother as a going away present.

I would like to ask you to reconsider disciplining your Bonsai. Proper discipline is a form of love in the highest degree. To ignore something when it needs to be corrected, pruned, formed, and lovingly structured by your touch is not the wisest way. A Bonsai is a treasure. I think it was very appropriate as a going away gift for college. Your mother wants you to think of her and realise that as she nurtured you, it is now up to you to take on the task yourself. If you should decide to take up the endeavour of helping this Bonsai become the best it can be, and all that it was meant to be, I think you will come to understand. It will take time. Let's hope you can make this Bonsai as beautiful as you want to be yourself. Sometimes it takes a bit of wire, or a bit of string, to control a growth of a branch in the wrong direction. The Japanese understood the beauty of self-discipline and created this lovely living art form. You are one also, you were created and disciplined by your parents up until you leave their roof and go off to college. It will be up to you how you grow now.

Final Thoughts

Always remember, patience is a virtue, and the formation of a proper bonsai specimen may take years and years of love. Display your little tree with pride in a traditional Tokonoma alcove or in the centre of a table, so others can view your work. A bonsai will fill your life with deeper meaning in the knowledge of caring for another living thing.

1Topiary is the horticultural practice of clipping plants into geometric shapes or sculpting them into forms that resemble animals. Many consider it a lost art; others consider it an eccentric waste of time that is better left carefully hidden to avoid tempting younger gardeners.2Espalier is a method of training woody plants to grow on a vertical plane, usually along a fence or wall, rather like horticultural bondage and discipline. It is most commonly used to gain a large yield of fruit in limited space. The term is also used to describe plants trained in this manner. Training doesn't imply that plants learn to grow as espalier in the sense that some children can be taught to do things.

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