Introducing the Ancient Art of Bonsai.
Traditional bonsai: Indoor trees, wiring and methodClick thumbnail to view full-size
Bonsai was begun thousands of years ago in the Orient.
A Taste to Inspire You
This miniaturization of huge trees is an ancient art in China and Japan. It has been linked to intellectual and religious philosophies and is a difficult art form to do well.
The controversy continues about where bonsai originated, the vote seems to favor China, although the art developed over thousands of years from its beginnings and really took hold in Japan in what were the middle ages in Europe where it was the province of the upper castes.
Bonsai became generally practiced by the ordinary people of Japan in the nineteenth century. Europe marveled over the art upon its introduction at the Paris World Fair in 1878 and even more so in the next exhibition in 1889 where throngs marveled over miniature cedars, some well over 100 years old! One of the advantages of bonsai is that you are creating a work of art, a tree, that may live hundreds of years and be handed down from generation to generation. Conversely, one needs patience because many bonsai trees will not reach their full potential during the life of their creators, unless they begin very young: this suggest that bonsai was and is better served as a family hobby and one passed on to the children as a bonsai tree, unlike mere man, may well gain value as it ages and its wrought, convoluted character begins to emerge as it does in ancient trees in the forest.
The late Victorians in Britain gave a resounding welcome to the bonsai introduced at the Universal Exhibition in 1909. Perhaps no other people, apart from those in the East, loved and cared for their manicured gardens more than the British; and like Japan, a similarly sized country, space was at a premium in England.
Flattered by the international attention given to their traditional and humble art, Tokyo put on an exhibition of bonsai in 1914 which has become an annual event ever since and to which true devotees of the art will need to visit one day. One can only ponder a national character which can produce the Samurai on one hand, some of the bravest and cruel warriors the world has ever known, on to the Kamikaze pilots of the last World War, yet promote and encourage a national art form that requires the skill, patience and gentleness of the saintly.
Most bonsai in the West is created from the seed; by grafting or by layering. It was not so in ancient Japan and China where the ideal plant was sought in the forests, accompanied by meditation and philosophical thought, both of the physical and metaphysical kind.
As bonsai, overall, is not created like a hedge or a pruned tree, by cutting and clipping, but rather by preserving the tree’s original, unique shape and genetic direction, finding just the right tree was a loving but arduous and time-consuming task for the ancient Orientals. Their mandate was not to change what nature intended for its tree, except in changing the size it would become at maturity.
Many species of tree lends itself for the bonsai enthusiast’s art. But the Japanese have produced and catalogued 18 certain types at least, which have become the official “pedigree” of bonsai trees. (The name “bonsai,” incidentally, means “to plant in a basin”).
These recognized types cover trees with a single trunk, to those with several trunks, or other types of configuration. There are a few further types which cover the planting of trees in groups.
As is pretty general with complex subjects in Hubpages, it is not possible to cover the subject extensively, but serves to illuminate rather better than most online descriptions, and to whet the appetite for readers interested enough to buy a book on the subject which will show graphics of the various official bonsai types.
When contemplating getting into bonsai growing, remember that bonsai was and still is really for outside gardeners although you can buy suitable seeds and cuttings, etc., today for inside growth. The greatest boon to the bonsai business world-wide has been the internet where many thousands of providers at all levels now advertise. Bonsai, even mature trees, due to their miniaturization can be mailed or sent by courier to most places and such competition has kept prices down allowing anyone to start at some level. This is especially useful in 2010 where collecting live trees from the woods yourself, especially in the UK, may be illegal, (nearly everything is that threatens the establishment’s hold on this poor, beleaguered island’s meager natural resources…my advice is poach a damn seedling!).
So how do you stop a 100 foot cypress or oak growing as nature intended?
First, prepare a compost of equal amounts peat loam and sand. This is available in garden shops and is good for most trees, except heathland varieties which need a more acidic mix. Sieve well and take out stones, pebbles and clumps. After planting and several repottings, the tree can be considered for a bonsai after the second year’s germination. Some growers allow the plant to spend its first year as a garden plant, watching carefully to see growth is not abnormal and the seedling is free from fungus, etc. Your future champ can also be grown from grafting, cutting, or from layering - where the cutting grows while still attached to the parent plant: (see book on subject as is complicated).
Educating your bonsai. If you do have a chance to secure a young tree from the wild, there are big advantages as you can start training the tree immediately - in fact, you must. And you will also be using the ancient method practiced by the monks and other bonsai masters. Don’t forget while you are securing your treeling in the woods to make sure you get all the roots as well.
You will need to assemble some simple tools. These are bud clippers, ordinary scissors, long and short blade, strong construction, some clipper style branch cutters and, eventually, a folding saw, as branches thicken.
You will need to prune both branches and roots to create your bonsai. In many cases, the tap-root will need pruning to restrict upward growth. Much of your pruning effort will be by hand as you pinch-off buds, leaves and small twigs, etc. Again, you will need a book on bonsai to cover all this treatment; already, this hub article is running away with me. It will pay to have photos of the original trees as you are pruning for shape and species, as well as the traditional and official bonsai graphics shown in any comprehensive book.
Wiring is used to brace, bend and form the branches and incline or thicken the trunk. Brass copper and steel wire are used and the skill is using the wire to get the required shape and direction of the main elements of the tree without marking it. Wiring will need regular checking and replacing. Some enthusiasts have used natural bark, fiber and vines in place of wire if they are available, saying they think using wire - a fairly modern addition - contrary to the ethos of bonsai.
The object of bonsai devotees is to possess examples that faithfully copy the original tree and are aged naturally or artificially. The latter is the art of “jin,” which, when I looked in the mirror this morning, some spite filled spirit must be inflicting on me. Jin is a technique which will leave a branch, the trunk, or part of them, the look and feel of dead wood that has been gnarled and aged by the passage of time. It is achieved by peeling the bark and rubbing the bared wood with a fine sandpaper. Then, it is treated with a dilute solution of citric acid until the correct look is achieved. Care must be used to ensure the wood is not burned and abraded too deeply.
Bonsai require potting in the correct Chinese or Japanese influence designed pots for authenticity. Suppliers have these as well as a full range of tools available on many internet sites as well as full instructions and literature to begin. Cover drainage holes with fine mesh rather than gravel or stones as is normal with indoor plants. This is to stop the special potting soil from washing away and to keep out creatures such as the woodlouse from entering the pot.
Root pruning is done during repotting, which is why bonsai trees are repotted regularly. As this is also complex, your bonsai book is the place for advice.
Special watering and fertilizing techniques are used on bonsai trees; traditionalists will stay away from synthetic fertilizers, but they can be used with caution.
Conifers, deciduous, or ornamental shrubs and trees can be used to create bonsai. Maple is an example of a species particularly well suited to bonsai because of its small leaves: beeches, hornbeams and elms are also popular. Conifers are hardy and quick growing and well suited.
Some species suited to the indoor hobbyist are Japanese Camellia, Ficus, Gardenia, Podocarpus and Thousand Star Tree which captivated me by its entrancing name alone.
I recommend “Introducing Bonsai,” by Christian Pessy, to novices wishing to get into this art. Amazon has many other titles.