The Timeless Art of Bonsai

     There may be more ancient horticultural pursuits than the art of bonsai, but not many. Bonsai is the technique of training trees to grow in small pots, dwarfing and diminutizing them to create miniature versions of nature. And in so doing, technique is transformed into art. In the hands of a master, bonsai becomes great art, timeless, subtly changing and evolving, weaving beauty with reflective quality. For bonsai is not merely a little tree. It is vision, the ability to see what could be, artistically translated into a three-dimensional, four-season echo of the natural world.

     Bonsai comes from two Chinese words that quite literally mean "tray grow," or potted tree. The Chinese claim the origination of the practice, but it was the Japanese who really laid seige to the concept and turned it into their own, even adopting the same word into their language. The Japanese hold bonsai such a high art because rather than feeling nature to be diminished by miniaturization, they consider it much more intensified, a crystalization process that holds within it the grace and beauty and mystery of life itself.

      Specially defined shapes each with their own name. "The Japanese are so stylish with bonsai," says Bob Furnback, founding President of the Deep Cut Bonsai Society in Middletown, New Jersey. "They've been doing it for 800 years. We're sort of developing our own American style, following the basic rules of the Japanese." Besides the general leeway in adapting rules, the essential difference between Japanese bonsai and Western versions, says Furnback, are in the plants available as subjects. He and his wife Jean are strong proponents of using native New Jersey trees in their own bonsai creations, and a good percentage of the trees they have used in their sixty-odd bonsai collection have been seedlings or dwarfed trees found right here in the state, then trained to both shape and size.

     "The trees are generally more prized if found in nature to begin with," says Furnback, rather than those started from nursery grown seedlings. The weathered quality of trees found outdoors lends itself extremely well to the finished bonsai product. Exposed wood that has been scarred or broken off in nature is a desired effect, one that is often artificially induced by breaking off parts of branches and applying lime sulfur, which turns the wood a weathered silver gray or white. The sun also helps bleach the wood further.

     "Pick trees that are not perfect," advises Furnback, "the ones with branches missing and stunted growth. They make the best bonsai subjects." This is true whether choosing plants found naturally or ones in a nursery. Native New Jersey trees that make good bonsai are the Eastern white cedar, found in many areas of south Jersey. Swamp maple also works well, and grows almost anywhere in the state, even along roadways where they are constantly cut down by the road departments. Eastern red cedars are particularly common in the shore area. Pitch pines are good, but they are harder to find. As with any collected plant material, however, potential bonsai subjects should never be taken from protected areas or from properties without the owner's permission. Good places to look for likely subjects are on a slope or on a bare hill. Best season for finding native plants is early spring, when new buds are beginning and roots are still somewhat dormant and can be safely cut and dug up. A good root ball, perhaps a third in diameter than the height of the tree, should come with the plant. Bigger trees should be put in a big pot for a couple of years, then transplanted to a smaller container, and then finally into the bonsai pot itself, a training process that gradually root prunes the plant, enabling the dwarfing process. Smaller plants, says Furnback, can be put right away into bonsai pots, making a sort of "instant bonsai."

     Even native fruit trees such as apple and crabapple can become bonsai. "In the dwarfing process you can change the size of the leaves and roots of the apple," says Furnback, which can be done by selective root pruning and leaf cutting, "but you can't change the size of the fruit. To some, it may look grotesque, but to us, it is beautiful."

     Other types of trees not necessarily native to New Jersey that lend themselves to bonsai include Alberta spruce, junipers, pine, Hanoki cypress, Chinese elm, "in fact, almost anything that's woody," Furnback suggests. Plants can be started from seed as well as purchased in various stages of growth, but there is no such thing as "bonsai seed," even though some catalogs may advertise as such. No plant will grow from a seed into a perfectly formed dwarfed bonsai. Bonsai is an art, not a seed.

     One of the easiest ways to start with bonsai is to purchase a "finished" bonsai. "Finished" is a relative term, because a bonsai tree is always growing, and therefore needs continual care and pruning and repotting throughout its lifetime. Miniaturizing the tree does not change its capacity for long life; some bonsai that have been handed down from generation to generation are estimated to be five to eight hundred years old. But a bonsai that is sold as "finished" has captured its essential character, its training basically complete. The vision has been created. The novice new owner basically needs to learn how to keep it alive and trimmed to its essential form, which is generally easier than trying to learn how to visualize, select, pot, root- and branch- and leaf-prune, twist, train and grow all at once.

     "While almost everyone has a passing interest in bonsai, those of us who have 'been to the mountain' know it is not a sport for everyone. Most lose interest when they find out you can't keep them on top of the television," writes Randy Clark, Vice President of the National Bonsai Foundation, in the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN BONSAI SOCIETY. What kind of care do bonsai need? Most bonsai subjects are temperate zone trees, those that need four seasons of cyclical change, including winter in order to undergo their necessary dormant season, just like trees do outdoors here. Just because they are in pots does not eliminate their need for seasonal change. Temperate zoned trees need a lot of sun, and by and large will spend the bulk of their time during any part of the year outdoors. They can be brought indoors for display, but for true growing, they want the fresh air and sunlight found outdoors. As with any plant in a pot, care must be taken to help them through the extremes of winter, sheltered from hard cold. Actually, hardy bonsai can be exposed to frost several times before being winter protected; this helps signal the coming dormant season. The type of soil used in the bonsai pots varies from person to person, "like spaghetti sauce recipes," says Jean Furnback, which depend upon individual growing environments and culture, but basically the mix includes gravel or coarse sand for drainage, peat moss, and clay loam. Many, like Dr. Lou Nosher, an admired New Jersey bonsai artist, recommend adding fine compost as well.

     Lou and Pauline Nosher have been growing bonsai in New Jersey since 1976, after they became inspired by the Japanese government's fabulous bonsai collection gift to the United States, from which the collection at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., was begun. At one point the Noshers owned over 300 bonsai, some of which have garnered awards at national bonsai symposia. Since retiring and moving to the shore, their bonsai collection enjoy the waterfront breezes on specially constructed tier display benches in summer, while during winter they are placed, pots and all, into the ground and protected with slatted fence and burlap windbreaks. One year a robin even built her nest in the center of a prized bonsai forest planting of Alberta spruce (which involved planting of several trees in one pot together), a true testament to Dr. Nosher's replication of nature. He is considered a master by many in New Jersey, including the birds.

     Hardy bonsai are generally watered every day during the growing season, between April and November, then given water perhaps only three times during the winter months after frost. Some bonsai are at their very finest in winter, especially some of the deciduous-leaved types whose trunks are particularly beautiful by themselves. Jean and Bob Furnback own a 25 year old Chinese Elm that is stunning any time of the year, "but we almost hate to see leaves come on," says Jean, because of the graceful beauty of the old trunk and intricate branches best revealed in winter.

     Because of their longeveity, bonsai become permanent members of the family to devotees. The Furnbacks even have names for some of their plants. One Eastern white cedar "was standing alone in the middle of a swamp, like a ghost," remembers Jean. It is called, simply, "The Ghost," a decided presence in their collection.

     The genius of bonsai lies in a combination of plant material selection, training the branches with wires if necessary, sometimes the entwining of trunks, judicious pruning and trimming, and also choice of pot in which to compose the landscape, for the bonsai is always treated as an ensemble. Granted, some artistic vision is necessary for the beginner, but mastering the techniques and craft helps the novice create his own miniaturized view of nature. As in the old joke, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice," the same holds true for bonsai. Every beginner must first "mangle, mutilate and finally murder a small juniper," again writes Randy Clark, but the secrets of bonsai art eventually are disclosed through the self-revelation of experience. No one need be a great bonsai master in order to create bonsai. They simply must be enthusiastic and persevering, with a wish not to tame nature, but, instead, to reveal it, through the gentle art of bonsai.

- - - - - - - - - -

     INDOOR BONSAI AS HOUSEPLANTS are becoming increasingly more popular as people begin to take non-traditional indoor plants and train them in the bonsai tradition. Many plants that make suitable general houseplants, many of which come originally from tropical countries - ficus, schefflera, Ming aralia, camellia, crassula, dracaena, fuchia, hibiscus, poinsettia, succulents, rhododendron, jasmine, ivy, even herbs - are finding their way into bonsai pots. Because of their quick, non-dormant growing abilities, as well as their usually more flexible trunks and branches, many of the tropical plants are much faster to train to classical bonsai shapes than temperate trees. For instant gratification bonsai that can be displayed indoors all year round, tropical plants are a definite solution.

     This type of bonsai gives the budding bonsai artist more to do in winter months, since tropical plants still grow during the cold season and can be trimmed and shaped and wired. They are excellent practice plants as well, since most tropical houseplants are far less expensive than finished temperate zone bonsai trees.

     Most indoor bonsai need to be near a bright window - not hot sun, but bright indirect light - and appreciate good humidity, which can be increased by keeping them on gravel trays filled with water so that the pots sit above the water. All indoor bonsai will need water before the soil goes completely dry. And because of the limited amount of soil in a bonsai pot, it is important to fertilize often to replenish the soil, feeding a bit less in winter when the plants are in a slower growing season.

     An excellent book to get started in indoor bonsai is INDOOR BONSAI, by Paul Lesniewicz, Blandford Press, c1985, distributed by Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10016, which describes in detail the specific needs of many kinds of suitable indoor plants for bonsai, complete with pictures and helpful line drawings demonstrating pruning and wire techniques.

- - - - - - - - - -

©1989 judywhite. All Rights Reserved. This article first appeared in Garden State Home and Garden Magazine, Dec 1989. 72230,1154

January 2009, used with the permission of Bob Furnback."

The following information was accurate at the time of its initial apperance." 


The History of Bonsai

Bonsai started in China

The history of bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is cloaked in the mist of the past but it is now widely accepted that it was the Chinese who first created the miniature landscapes and trees that we now know as bonsai. In Japanese, bonsai can be literally translated as 'tray planting', but since originating in Asia so many centuries ago it has developed into a whole new form. Called penjing by the Chinese, bonsai was believed to have had its start in the Han Dynasty. In this essay I will discuss some of the legends and facts surrounding the beginning of bonsai.

One of the earliest Chinese legends contends that it was in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) that an emperor created a landscape in his courtyard complete with hills, valleys, rivers, lakes and trees that represented his entire empire. He created the landscape so that he could gaze upon his entire empire from his palace window. This landscape form of art was also his alone to posess. It was said that anyone else found in possession of even a miniature landscape was seen as a threat to his empire and put to death.

Another Chinese legend relating to the beginnings of bonsai points to a fourth century A.D. Chinese poet and civil servant named Guen-ming. It's believed that after his retirement he began growing chrysanthemums in pots. Some historians believe this was a step towards the beginning of bonsai in the Tang dynasty some 200 years later.

The earliest documented proof of bonsai was discovered in 1972 in the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.) who died in 706 A.D. Two wall paintings discovered in the tomb show servants carrying plants resembling bonsai. In one of the paintings a servant is seen carrying a miniature landscape and in the other painting a servant is shown carrying a pot containing a tree.

Bonsai comes to Japan

Even though it's the Japanese who get most of the credit for bonsai, it wasn't until the Heian period (794 - 1191A.D.) that Buddhist monks brought bonsai to the island. For many years following the arrival of bonsai, the art was practiced by only the wealthy and thus came to be known as a nobleman privilege. The fact that the art of bonsai was limited to the noble class almost caused the art to die out in Japan. It was with the Chinese invasion of Japan in the fourteenth century that the art of bonsai started to be practiced by people of all classes. Once the art was practiced by all classes, bonsai began to grow in popularity in Japan. The Chinese influence on the early bonsai masters is apparent since the Japanese still use the same characters to represent bonsai as the Chinese. After the establishment of bonsai in Japan, the Japanese went to great lengths to refine the art and a lot of credit must go to these early bonsai masters. The refinements that they developed has made bonsai what it is today.

Bonsai comes west

The earliest bonsai to come to the west came mostly from Japan and China. The showing of bonsai at the Third Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1878 and later exhibitions in 1889 and 1900 increased western interest in bonsai and opened the door for the first major bonsai exhibit held in London in 1909. In these early years many westerners felt that the trees looked tortured and many openly voiced their displeasure in the way the trees were being treated by bonsai masters. It wasn't until 1935 that opinions changed and bonsai was finally classified as an art in the west.

With the end of World War II, bonsai started to gain in popularity in the west. It was the soldiers returning from Japan with bonsai in tow that sparked western interest in the art, even though most of the trees brought home by these soldiers died a short time after their arrival. They survived long enough to create a desire in westerners to learn more about the proper care of their bonsai. The large Japanese-American population was invaluable to Americans in this respect. Their knowledge of the art of bonsai was of great interest ot many Americans learning the art.

Today, bonsai are sold in department stores, garden centers, nurseries, and many other places. However, most of these are young cuttings or starts and not the true bonsai produced by bonsai masters. Most trees purchased today are known as pre-bonsai and are for the most part only used as a starting point. To create a true bonsai work of art you need to learn as much as possible about the art and the trees you use. Information is your key to success and it is important to read as much as possible. It is also a good idea to join a local bonsai club so you are able to discuss the subject with experienced bonsai enthusiasts. As your knowledge and confidence grow, creating your own bonsai works of art will become easier and your enjoyment of bonsai will grow.