The How Bonsai works.


How does Bonsai work?

The art of bonsai makes for a hobby that is appealing to naturalists, plant lovers and art lovers! It’s also the perfect hobby for that individual that likes to have something to focus on and make just right! The term bonsai in Japanese means ‘plant in tray’ and although it may seem that this hobby simply involves snipping away here and there, the hobby is actually a very involved process that needs wire shaping, root trimming, and pruning, pruning, pruning! Bonsai artists are those that love to care and maintain for their bonsai plant in order that they may be able to bring about a truly inspired creation of what they want to express. The bonsai artist however isn’t simply trying to transfer their vision into a natural work of art, they are also trying to capture the true essence and character of the plant within the small container that it sits in. So where does this hobby come from and what all does it involve? This article will look at the history of bonsai, what’s involved in the art of bonsai, and how to start your own bonsai tree!

The art of Bonsai is thought to be taken from the Chinese, where there were tomb drawings of small trees in plants found from the Tang dynasty. Some believe that the art goes back even as far as 206 BC in Chinese tradition. Over time, bonsai found its way to Japan, perhaps through cultural gifts or trade, and the Japanese perfected the art and made it what it is today. It is from the Japanese that the art of perfecting the shape and mastering the art of paying such close attention to such intricate detail can be attributed to the Japanese. It was also Japan that brought the art form to the Western world in the early 20th century. In 1878 at Paris’ World Exhibitions and then later in 1909 at the London Exhibition, many plants were auctioned off and had very high price tags attached, making the art of bonsai an instant trend and causing people to take note of this new hobby that was exploding onto the scene. It wasn’t however until after the Second World War that the supplies needed for bonsai became much cheaper and much more accessible and people then began not only taking up the art form but embellishing on it and truly making it their own. It is for this reason that often today in bonsai specimens one can see plants and shapes that would once be unheard of.

The beauty of nature cannot be overlooked when it comes to bonsai trees and the goal is to have them reflect what can be found in nature, such as the woodlands, as much as possible. This, combined with the artist’s vision can translate into a plant that looks new and fresh and is reminiscent of new birth; or the finished specimen can look like a plant that is older and weathered and has seen many of life’s harsh elements. The style of bonsai that is used is very important in achieving this unique combination of vision and nature as is the style of container used to hold it. One style can depict a bonsai that is tall and erect, while another style may show a bonsai as blowing in the wind. There are several different styles of bonsai that have been established and are generally followed by artists when they are choosing the style of bonsai that they would like to create. The different styles of bonsai are:
  • Upright: This is a very formal style of bonsai and incorporates a very balanced triangular look by grouping branches into threes and also involves trees with a single trunk.
  • Moyogi: This is an upright style that is less formal and although it will still have sleek and smooth lines, the designs within the branches can be a bit more intricate and detailed.
  • Slanting: This style of bonsai has branches and a trunk which lean at a forty-degree angle from the base of the tree. The first branch shoots in the opposite direction for balance and is done in the Shagan style.
  • Cascade: This type of bonsai looks like a plant that is hanging to the side of a cliff that is facing the wind. The key to this style of bonsai is the container which holds the plant. It needs to be deep and rich so that it may offset the imbalance of the plant which stays to one side of the container. Some cascading bonsais fall over the side of the container while some just come parallel to the rim of the pot.
  • Literati: This is a very interesting type of bonsai to both create and admire. It focuses on perception and is designed so that it appears as though one is looking at it from a distance below. This makes the bottom of the plant larger and the top of the plant smaller. This sense of height is also emphasized by the fact that literati bonsais also sit in small round or oval pots.
  • Broom: This style depicts a bonsai in the shape of a half crescent fanning out on top of a single trunk.
  • Landscape: This type of bonsai not only uses multiple bonsais but also rocks, moss, small ponds, to create a miniature landscape. This type of bonsai is quite difficult as it is all done in the same pot.
  • Root Over: This is also sometimes called On Rock because the artist uses the coiled plant to train it to go over, in, or around rocks for a very rugged look.
  • Multi-Form: This style uses many plants or one plant that looks like many coming from a single root. This is to make it appear like a forest or mini-glade.

Almost any plant or small shrub can be used to create bonsai although small plants with densely-packed leaves or needles are most preferable as they can help create the illusion of scale that is so important to bonsai but average and somewhat plain shrubs are easiest to maintain and so may be preferable to some, especially beginners. Bonsais that have roots slightly on top of the soil are also most preferable in bonsais as this conveys an image of an aged and weathered plant. Training the plant into a specific structure also begins with the roots and then moves up to the trunk, which can be trained and shaped with wiring. Trunks may be smooth and sleek or they can be gnarled and coiled however, they should always end in a small taper at the top.

Shaping the tree is one of the most basic fundamentals in bonsai artistry. The artist must have a very clear vision of what they want the finished product to look like and then, through a process involving careful wiring and pruning, recreate their vision so that it can work in both scale and proportion. This process can take a period of several years and sometimes, especially when the trees are deciduous, the leaves or needles must be completely removed. Wires can often be left where they are for approximately a year but they must be monitored closely to ensure that they are not scoring or damaging the branches that are still young and growing. The key to shaping a bonsai tree is that the overall look must convey balance and harmony. Each branch should be considered a vital part to the whole but no branch should at any time, completely obstruct another.

When it comes to buying bonsais, there are really two choices that you have: you can choose any plant or shrub that is appealing to you or you can go to a nursery or bonsai retailer and choose a plant that has already begun to be trained and shaped in classic bonsai style. When looking for a plant on your own to begin bonsai ‘from scratch’, you should take off any dead leaves or other foliage so that you can get a good look at the structure of the plant. Make sure that the foliage is workable and that you will be able to shape it. Also take into consideration that much of the foliage will be lost as you shape and prune so many look at the branches to ensure that you can train them and use them to create your final vision.

When purchasing a bonsai from a nursery or another retailer, always check to make sure that the plant is not diseased and that the roots have been exposed slightly above the soil. This gives it that aged appearance and will not only make shaping and pruning easier but will also add to the value of the bonsai. Also make sure that there are no insects around the plant and that the soil is quite moist and firmly packed around the roots. First stand up close and in front of the plant and make sure that the branches tend to move to the sides and back, rather than towards the front and that the plant in general appears to be healthy and vigorous. Also look at the trunk and make sure that it does not have any marks, as this could suggest that branches have been removed. Then stand back at a distance and look again to make sure that it looks just as healthy.

A Semi-Cascade Bonsai


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