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Guide for Growing a Bonsai

The art of Bonsaï first appeared in Egypt 4,000 years ago, before being developed in China, and then codified in Japan.  This art which crossed the planet only came to Europe as late as 1878.

According to evidence from the time of the Pharaohs, growing plants in pots began on the banks of the Nile around 4,000 years ago.  The technique was invented to allow for the transport of plants.  Later, the Greeks, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Indians used this technique for the same reason.  Growing for aesthetic purposes was invented by the Chinese at the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC. to 220 AD.).  At the time, the technique involved recreating a landscape in a large bowl.  The first single trees grown in a pot appeared during the Qin Dynasty (220 to 581 AD.).

The codified structure of today’s Bonsaï was created in Japan.  The art of growing Bonsaï most likely crossed the sea from China with the arrival of Buddhist monks who came to preach their beliefs in the 6th. and 7th. Centuries.  Documents confirm that it took several centuries before the Japanese adopted this art.  During the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1386 AD.), Japanese politicians and merchants brought these trees back from China and the first full collection was brought back by the Chinese civil servant Chu Shun-sui when he was sent into exile in 1644.  This passionate Bonsaï grower fled the Mandchou rule and initiated a few Japanese in the art of Bonsaï to while away his time in exile.  A privileged few continued to follow his teachings over several centuries.  Only the dominant, feudal and religious classes mastered the art, which really became popular after the first national exhibition of Bonsaï in Tokyo in 1914.  It wasn’t until 1934 that it became officially recognized as an art form in Japan.

The first Bonsaï exposed in Europe was shown at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1878.  Documents from this time show that these Bonsaï were totally different than the ones we know today.  Today’s codification dates from the 1950’s.  The Americans imported many specimens from Japan during the Second World War.  Bonsaï were introduced to  Europe from 1965 on, mainly coming through Germany and the Netherlands.  They only became popular in France in the 1980’s.

The different species of Bonsaï

Although all trees, or almost all, can be developed as bonsaï, some species are more suited than others.

In theory, there are no trees specifically grown by bonsaï lovers, but varieties with small leaves, flowers, and fruit are usually preferred. Among these, there are three main categories.

Rustic species

Rustic species bonsai
Rustic species bonsai

Rustic species are preferred for growing outdoors.  The most common of these are the Japanese white pine, the trident maple, the field maple, the alder, the European barberry, the box tree, the common hornbeam, the cedar, the Cyprus and false Cyprus, the hawthorn, the spindle, the ash, the ginkgo, the Japanese holly tree, the juniper tree, the crape myrtle, the larch, the Common Privat, the American Sweetgum,  the honeysuckle, the crab apple tree, the redwood tree, the olive tree, the vine, the pine, the cinquefoil, the Chinese quince, the firethorn tree, the pomegranate, the English and the cork oak, the yew, the Chinese, Siberian, caucasian or small-leaved elm, the wisteria and the Japanese zelkova.

The orange grove species

The orange grove species bonsai
The orange grove species bonsai

Like their rustic cousins, the orange grove species need to be protected from severe winter frost.  The most common of these are the Bougainvillea, the sacred bamboo tree, the snow rose, or the rhododendron.

Greenhouse species

Greenhouse species bonsai
Greenhouse species bonsai

The more fragile species, especially tropical tres, must be kept in a warm place, with a temperature not exceeding 10°C..  The most common of these are the Jade plant, the Carmona,  the tropical fig tree and other varieties of fig.

As every species has different needs, it is highly recommended to ask the advice of specialists concerning the treatment of these trees.  The main differences of treatment concern the proportion and frequency of watering, the amount of exposure to the sun and their resistance to frost.

Local rustic species generally tolerate severe frost if the pot is sufficiently protected from this.  Tropical species commonly sold are logically more fragile.  They need to be kept in a cool place in winter, which must also have plenty of sunlight and a stable humidity level.  If you don’t have a place like this (a veranda, a glass roof, a greenhouse) it is advised to grow outdoor rustic bonsaïs.

The Bonsaï: strictly codified styles

The Bonsaï: strictly codified styles
The Bonsaï: strictly codified styles

Considered as an art form in Japan, bonsaï growing follows very formal aesthetic codes.  Imagination is only tolerated after the fundamentals of the art have been fully assimilated.

For the purists, a perfect mastering of the art of bonsaï growing can only be achieved after having assimilated all the ‘compulsory figures’ of the traditional styles.  These highly codified styles follow very strict aesthetic imperatives which represent forms of trees found growing in the open.

A bonsaï is not just a carbon copy of a normal tree – it should also be a reminder of the power of the tree.  The most beautiful specimens must possess the essence of a normal tree in miniature.  Although most bonsaï come in many styles, there are three main categories.

Bonsaïs with a single trunk

These are the ones most appreciated by the purists as they are the most difficult to grow.  The trunk may be perfectly straight (Chokkan), it may have some curves (Tachiki), it may be leaning over as if it was bent by the wind (Shakan and Fukinagashi), it may be cascading as if it was growing on the side of a mountain (Kengai), in half-cascade (Han-Kengai), it may be twisting (Bankan), it may be bare and topped with masses of leaves like a pine (Bunjinji), it may have the shape of a brush (Hôkidachi), it may be split and devastated (Sabamiki), or sinuous (Takozukuri), etc..

Bonsaïs with multiple trunks

Each style has a specific name according to the number of trunks it possesses :

Sokan (2 trunks), Sankan (3 trunks), Gokan (5 trunks), Nanakan (7  trunks), Kyukan (9 trunks), and Tsukami-Yose (more than 9 trunks).  Specificities complete the codification of every specimen.  Trunks grouped on a single root are classed as Kabudachi, those on a stump with the form of a tortoise shell are classed as Kôrabuki, trucks growing out of a sinuous root are classed as Nestsunagari, and trees lying down carrying new trunks with their branches are classed as Ikadabuki.

Bonsaïs planted in groups

The same pot contains several trees in order to recreate a landscape.  The style carries a specific name according to the number of trees: Soju (2 trees), Sambon Yose (3 trees), Gohon Yose (5 trees), Nanahon Yose (7 trees), Kyuhon Yose (9 trees), and Yose-ue (more than 9 trees).

Other classifications for other styles of bonsaïs

Apart from the classification by style, there also exists a classification by size.   Small bonsaï (from 5 to 15cms.) are called Mame or Shôhin, medium-sized bonsaï ( from 15 to 60 cms.)are called Kotate-mochi or Komono up to 30 cms. and Chumono up to 60 cms., and big bonsaï (from 60cms. to 120 cms. or more) are called Ömono.

Bonsaï: a question of know-how!
Bonsaï: a question of know-how!

 

Passionate bonsaï-growers confirm that growing a tree in a pot demands nimble fingers and constant attention! Naturally fragile, these miniature trees sculpted by hand need professional attention if they are to survive!

There is no standard bonsaï, nor do bonsaï “seeds” exist! Growing bonsaï is an ancestral Chinese art which consists of cultivating a “normal” tree or a bush in a pot.  Almost all trees can be grown in this manner.  Indeed, despite what people think, bonsaï-growing is not limited to specific types of trees.  Needless to say, some trees with small leaves are easier grown than others.

Grown Bonsaï

The most frequently grown bonsaï are the black Japanese pine tree, the Japanese white pine, juniper trees, the Chinses elm and the Japanese maple trees.  Other trees like the spindle, the olive tree, Cyprus, the cedar or even the vine give great results after a few years of intensive care.   In fact, despite what people think, the most important aspect in the art of Bonsaï is the complex branch and root cutting techniques,  and the reporting and watering necessary for bonsaï growing.

Another commonly held belief is that Bonsaï is indoor plants.  This is completely false – the bonsaï is a tree and prefers to grow in the garden or on a balcony, except in periods of severe frost.  These trees need close attention, as they are rendered fragile by the fact that they grow in little soil and that they are miniaturized.  For example in the summer, they need to be watered several times a day.

leaving a bonsaï

Many beginners learn the hard way – leaving a bonsaï unattended for several days will kill it.  This demand for constant attention explains why bonsaï growers are so passionate and patient.  Indeed, the art of growing Bonsaï requires many years of practice before being fully mastered.  Growing the “perfect” bonsaï demands great patience.

This art is recommended for gardeners with a ‘zen’ attitude!  It is highly recommended to learn the technique and the know-how from confirmed, specialist growers.  The oldest recorded bonsaÎ is a Japanese white pine which dates from the year 1500.  It can be seen in the Tagagi Bonsaï Museum in Tokyo.

The Bonsaï: Watering is (almost) everything!

Watering Bonsai Trees

As water is the main food of the bonsaï, the beauty and health of the plant depend on the quality of watering.  Here’s some advice :

As water is the main element of the nutrition of the tree, you must be very careful to water it properly.  Bear in mind that if you water it too much it will die, and if you water it too little it will die as well!

In fact, the roots of a bonsaï are very fragile.

Too much water will cause them to rot.  Too little will dry them out.  Rather than following the technical notice indicating the frequency of watering, you should water according to your observations of the needs of the plant.  This is a tricky balance to achieve, as generally, a cloud of soil kept humid all year round will not give the desired effect: roots constantly kept humid soil will rot.

It is, therefore, necessary to install a draining substratum.  Compost should never be used as it has the disadvantage of drying out very quickly and thus becomes impermeable.  On the other hand, it may also retain too much humidity, and therefore rot the roots.  Never forget that is always easier to save a tree which lacks water than to save one which has been watered too much.

The best type of substratum is a mixture of akadama, pozzolana, pumice and rough sand.  Avoid at all costs the “special bonsaï” composts available in the shops as they are entirely unsuitable for growing bonsaï!

Traditionally, watering is carried out every day in restricted quantities.  The technique consists of watering the plant from above with a very fine shower of water.  The water should run over the leaves to wash them and to get rid of pests (mainly acarids).  If you use with tap water, allow it to settle it a few hours before watering in order to eliminate the chlorine.

Another technique is used in the case of severe dehydration.  This consists of plunging the pot in a basin a water until the water reaches the level of the outer rim of the pot.  When the water rises naturally in the pot, take the bonsaï out and drain off the water.

Important:

Bearing in mind that a bonsaï needs to be watered every day, if you go off on holidays make sure to leave it with someone who knows how to water it.  If you don’t know anybody, bring the plant with you.  If it isn’t watered for several days in the summer, it will be dead when you get back!

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