The Art of Bonsai

A bonsai tree is infinitely changeable, both as the seasons come around, and as it matures over the years. It can never be described as complete, for there is always the possibility of improvement. Other posts on this site detail the specifics of creating and maintaining a bonsai, but lets start with a general background to the subject. It describes bonsai's Eastern origins, and the traditions upon which modern enthusiasts base their work, as well as spelling out the general principles of choosing trees and shrubs for bonsai work, and the different sources from which you can obtain plant material. The vital importance of studying nature as a guide when creating a bonsai is constantly emphasized. Basic elements of bonsai design (branch spread, trunk form, the best view, sizes, and scale) are also defined. The pleasure that bonsai give at different seasons of the year is amply reflected in colorful illustrations and, finally, there are some hints on how to display bonsai for your own and other people's enjoyment.

Creativity in Cultivation

The bonsai grower needs artistic ability similar to that of a sculptor or a painter, but blended with a love of plants and nature. Although bonsai is an art form, it is unique among other forms of artistic expression in that it includes the element of time: the design of the tree changes constantly and naturally as it grows, and as the seasons progress.

A classic bonsai has been described as ninety per cent art and only ten per cent horticulture, the latter being the cultivation skills necessary to keep the tree alive and growing, as well as to enable the design to take shape.

These artistic and horticultural skills are both necessary and complement each other. Not all bonsai growers are experienced gardeners; some come to the art with little knowledge of plant cultivation, but, as time passes, they acquire gardening expertise through daily watering, feeding, and grooming of their trees.

Other bonsai growers have an interest in horticulture, but little confidence initially in their artistic talents. They are very skilled at propagating material for bonsai, and then maintaining the trees in peak condition, and during this process they gradually learn the more creative aspects of bonsai design.

Fact and Fallacy

People often misunderstand the techniques of bonsai, suspecting that there is something unnatural about this form of cultivation, or that it is a process of stunting or damaging the trees. A bonsai is, of course, tiny if you compare it with a full-sized tree growing in the garden or the wild, but the small size is not the point of its creation, merely a way of making the process of cultivation more practical.

A better way of considering bonsai is to compare it with the ways in which garden trees and plants are trained. A fruit tree can be pruned into a cordon or an espalier; a rose or a fuchsia can be trained as a standard; evergreens are often trimmed as topiary, and so on. In bonsai, you prune and train the plant material to expose its natural beauty, while retaining its resemblance to a living, healthy tree.

Traditions of Bonsai

The art of bonsai is usually linked with Japan, but it originated in China, and the concept of growing trees in containers may have been brought there much earlier from India. The Japanese probably adopted bonsai as an art form in the eighth century when they were greatly influenced by Chinese culture. Painted scrolls from the thirteenth century show many container-grown trees that look like bonsai, and there are many specific references to the art in later Chinese and Japanese books and paintings.

In oriental cultures, art brings order to the everyday world; real life is carefully structured according to specific principles. Bonsai sits very comfortably in such an artistic framework of beauty and correctness.

Japanese Fashions in Bonsai

The artistic rules and horticultural methods of bonsai derive from its long history in Japan. Over the many centuries that it evolved there, there were many different fashions at various times. Pines and bamboos have long been traditional bonsai material, and ornamental flowering trees were some of the earliest recorded bonsai subjects; later, magnificent flowering shrubs, such as azaleas, were cultivated. Growing trees like Japanese maples purely for the beauty of their leaves came relatively late, in the seventeenth century.

Bonsai in the Western World

Bonsai has become a real interest in regions such as Europe, America, and Australia only in the twentieth century. The Western tradition of bonsai is based on the Japanese vocabulary and classification of styles; most bonsai tools and containers are Japanese imports. Western growers have a wide range of interests and expertise; there are also great variations in climate, growing conditions, and the availability of trees. As a result, modern bonsai is perhaps more varied and less rigorously defined than the Japanese traditions of the art.

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