Article 68 – ‘Finding the front’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai, in this article we answer a recently posted question of how to determine the front of a tree.

Introduction – all bonsai material regardless of the species (conifer or deciduous) will have certain characteristics that allow you to decide which is the front and which is the back. The signs that allow such determination are: 1. the Nebari or root system, 2. trunk and its movement, 3. branch configuration 4. the tree’s overall style and/or potential; we are referring to trees that have some maturity a minimum of 4 to 5 years old – not saplings, which lack such characteristics.

This Cotoneaster Lucidus now 19 years old – rescued from a garden centre’s waste bin in 2003 had no potential whatsoever, to solve the problem it was decided that the focus of attention should be aimed at developing the nebari. Every two years the plant was re-potted but was elevated each time by 1.5 cm exposing the root system that hardened off until the desired effect was achieved. The left branch was trained in a horizontal position and the right branch out and down to balance the composition, then finally placed in a shallow ceramic container.

Arguably the greatest teacher is nature itself, a walk through a woodland, forest, bog, swamp or mountainous terrain will reveal a wealth of information for example. Exposed roots systems, gnarled and twisted trunks and branches that have suffered severe weather patterns and this is what we try to imitate. However, when removing plants from the wild one has to be careful, permission has to be granted from the land owner; there are three posts on ‘Selecting material for bonsai’ part 1, April 15 2016 – part 2, April 23 2016 and part 3, August 06 2017.

Nebari – this Fukien tea Carmona retusa reveals it’s 5 root system in a ‘claw’ like manner allowing the viewer to see through it, left hand and front roots are dominant giving the impression of strength and stability, the root on the right although smaller balances out the above two roots whilst the two roots at the rear are in support. If we had of shown this tree in reverse the whole perspective of strength and stability would have been lost. Of course there are cases where this can not be achieved especially if there is no prominent root system, one then has to rely on the trunk and its movement for inspiration.

Fukien Tea Carmona retusa

Trunk and movement – staying with this Fukien tea for the moment – as the image shows there are acute turns in the trunk both left and right starting from the base to the apex, hence there is much movement and one might argue that such movement is rather excessive. Moreover, the foliage is masking the middle and upper portions of the trunk, but in our defense we are not the designer/s of this specimen, it came into our possession in 2013 as an import probably from Asia; where in that part of the world bonsai growers tend to be a tad more zealous in their approach to design.

Branch configuration – all trees regardless of the species have either dense or open foliage for example, Betula pendula commonly known as the ‘Silver’ or ‘weeping birch’ has open foliage and branches that droop down, Picea glauca has dense foliage often detrimental to the tree’s health as the inner branches are deprived of sunlight; hence they wither and die. According to the bonsai guidelines a bonsai should in all intents and purposes resemble its wild counterpart, branches should be evenly spaced from the base to the apex where they will be more abundant. As we have stated nature itself is the best teacher Autumn/spring is a good time to view trees as their branch placement is easier to see. Below is a hand-drawn image to give you some idea of the guidelines.

Branch placement

Seasonal change – the Northern hemisphere at this juncture is in the depths of winter, hence collection is virtually impossible for obvious reasons; in temperate zones seasonal change does occur but it is generally gradual. Of course there are instances where adverse weather patterns can have dramatic effects for example, a cold front with record-level snowfall caused major problems in most parts of the Attica region of Greece – Wednesday 17th February 2021.

Venturing into the interior – in August 2017 we obtained this Ginkgo biloba also known as the maidenhair tree, it is the only living species in the order Ginkgoales, which first appeared over 290 million years ago. The leaves are unique among seed plants, being fan-shaped with two veins radiating out into the leaf blade instead of a central vein that is found on other plants.

Ginkgo biloba before and after work

The left image depicts the tree after purchase, the right image shows the tree in summer 2021 the question is how did we arrive at the final design as the tree had no potential. Venturing into the interior to discover trunk movement and branch placement, measurements were taken to mark the lengths of each section, then duplicated on paper. Having discovered the tree’s potential the design was formed, foliage and branches were pruned – the lower branch on the right was jinned; the tree’s nebari is visible and will develop over time.

As stated the right image shows the tree in early summer, we could have pruned it back but decided not to, it was time to give the tree a break from the shears. We hope this article will give you some idea of how find the front of your tree specimens and should you require more information then the book Taiga Bonzai ‘Simplifying the Art’ is available. Until next time, BW, Nik.

5 thoughts on “Article 68 – ‘Finding the front’

  1. Good day! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this page to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!


  2. Having read this I thought it was very informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this content together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!


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