HOW BONSAI WORKS
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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
- 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
- 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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