Article 81 – ‘Covert versus Overt’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this post we discuss the art of deception – what is real and what is not.

Introduction‘Deception is an act or statement which misleads or promotes a belief, concept, or idea that is not true.’ According to U.S. naval intelligence officer Barton Whaley deception is comprised of two parts, dissimulation covert, hiding what is real and simulation overt, showing the false. Deception is not a modern trait, it has been in existence for thousands of years in for example, religion, politics, finance, art and journalism; now the finger is pointing towards bonsai horticulture.

The art of bonsai – began in China in the 6th century known as Penjing, (also called penzai) it is the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, plants, and landscapes in miniature. Diplomats and emissaries from Japan and Vietnam who visited China were amazed by what they saw and purchased many specimens subsequently returning home where most of their plants died, due to the lack of required horticulture knowledge. Why these diplomats and emissaries did not receive instruction on plant husbandry is unknown.

As a result during the same period Chinese Chan Buddhist monks visited Japan to teach in the monasteries, activities included introducing Leaders-of-the-day to the various arts of miniature landscapes as accomplishments befitting men of taste and learning. Hence the knowledge handed down was a closely guarded secret and remained thus – even the Chinese and Japanese immigrants to America in the mid 19th century brought their knowledge of miniature tree cultivation but, were reluctant to share their technical skills, their perception was that westerners were not permitted the extensive knowledge and instruction regarding horticulture development.

From what has been said here thus far, we note that the Penjing masters (Chan Buddhist monks) were the elite of society and their technical horticultural knowledge was not for the peasant class. Even the Japanese elite adopted this perspective – were they protective of the skills and technical knowledge or simply being tergiversate, from the Latin root word tergiversari’ meaning ‘to turn one’s back” or more figuratively ‘to be evasive’ hiding the truth.

In more modern times the 1960’s onwards if one wanted to gain the technical knowledge Japan was the destination and centre of learning and many students and citizens from various countries worldwide went to there to study in the nurseries; with many becoming apprentices. The Japanese bonsai masters soon realised that such knowledge was much desired and travelled to other continents, bringing the knowledge to those desiring to learn.

Is age important the general perception among many is that for a tree to become a bonsai it has to be ‘old’, which is a misnomer; admittedly there are bonsai that are old for example. Bonsai specimens from the seventeenth century do still exist and one of the oldest-known living bonsai trees thought to be at least 400 years old, is one of the national treasures of Japan housed in the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection. The tree a 5 needle pine Pinus pentaphylla v. Negishi known as ‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ was first trained as a bonsai in the year 1610 by the shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu a Hachi-No-Ki enthusiast.

‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ by shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu

Other bonsai that depict signs of age are ‘Yamadori’ – the definition of Yamadori in short is ‘collecting plants from the mountains’, the collected specimen is then carefully and skilfully trained into a work of art and is the most coveted type of Bonsai because of its unique characteristics. But, not all Yamadori are old some are as young as 20 years of age whilst others can be 5 times this and more.

As stated a tree does not have to be old to become a bonsai, a young tree if planted from a seed can in the right hands be skilfully turned into a bonsai in approximately 5 years thus giving the impression of age. (Although much depends on the species) Some of the best bonsai artists include Qingquan Zhao, Kunio Kobayashi, Ryan Neil, Peter Chan and Graham Potter whose demonstrations on design can be witnessed on their ‘youtube’ channels.

Covert or overt – the question is are we deceiving the populace in our attempts to change a tree’s structure from a mundane appearance into a work of art by the many methods that are often implemented; there are those whom would argue that we are, because we are taking it out of context and not leaving it in its natural state as nature intended. But in the wild, nature itself has created many tree specimens into various shapes and forms.

The first fictional work regarding bonsai The Tale of the Hollow Tree, by Utsubo Monogatari originating in the year 970 states “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.”

Thus came the perception that nature could only become beautiful if shaped according to human ideal; no doubt this topic will be debated further, but for the moment we will leave you with this thought: is bonsai horticulture covert or overt? Until next time, BW, Nik.

World’s oldest bonsai a 1000 y.o. FICUS at Crespi – Italy

Article 80 – ‘A question of size’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this article we discuss the size issue for those new to bonsai horticulture or others looking to vary their collections in any shape or form.

Introduction – all bonsai are classified into two different categories, ‘style’ and ‘size’, styles include the classics, Chokkan, Literati, Shakan, Sokan and Kengai etc. Size includes the smallest Kenshitsubo 2.5 cm to 8 cm, Shito 5 cm to 10 cm, Shohin 5 cm to 15 cm, Mame 10 cm to 20 cm, Komono 15 cm to 26 cm Katade-Mochi 25 cm to 46 cm. Chumono-Chiu 40 cm to 90 cm, Omono-Dai 76 cm to 122 cm, Hachi-Uye 102 cm to 152 cm and Imperial the largest of all Bonsai 152 cm and 203 cm. This is according to the guidelines written by the old bonsai masters however, there are bonsai that are smaller than the Kenshitsubo class and those that exceed the Imperial category as we see momentarily.

The smallest – according to Hanima Anand of Trending World the “dwarf willow or Salix herbacea (shown below) is currently the tiniest tree in the world. It only grows to 1-6 cm in height with 0.3-2 cm leaves.” Care and maintenance for this plant is relatively straightforward and would not require too much time to undertake however, due to its small size monitoring its welfare is needed on a regular basis.

Salix herbacea – credit Nellie Nilsen BBC Earth

Medium size bonsai Katade-Mochi 25 cm to 46 cm – the bonsai (shown below) called Sandai Shogun no Matsu was first cultivated by shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu a Hachi-No-Ki enthusiast in 1610. In looking at the tree it would appear that cleaning, root pruning, wiring and repotting in a fresh soil medium depending on one’s skill level would take approximately one hour as it can be accomplished by one person; foliage pruning if required will take more time.

Image credit –

Large trees – Tokugawa Lemitsu’s (red pine) bonsai Sandai Shogun no Matsu still survives today over 400 hundred years since it was first cultivated, it resides in the Akao Herb & Rose Garden in the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection. This tree is not only one of the oldest bonsai trees, it is believed to be the largest bonsai in the world. Measurements are (4.8 m) in height and over (9.1 m) wide it is atypical for a bonsai, but it still qualifies as one because it is contained in what can technically be considered a pot.

Sandai Shogun no Matsu credit – Wikipedia. Nursery Live

These two examples the dwarf willow and red pine can be considered as going from the sublime to the ridiculous, because one can be held by thumb and forefinger easily moved, whilst the other would require a small army plus machinery to move it. Both specimens require maintenance – the dwarf willow on a regular basis using a spray bottle to give a gentle misting of moisture, whilst the red pine periodically using hose pipes capable of delivering the required amount of water which would be considerable. As for repotting these two examples, the dwarf willow would be straightforward carried out by one person (approximately 15 mins), the red pine probably days with many hands involved.

A second point to consider is the cost of the container, drainage and soil medium. High grade miniature pots can be purchased from as little 20€ upwards depending on the detail incorporated and the maker or potter in question (one person) the soil composition is minimal a dessert spoon full. The red pine’s pot knowing the tree’s measurements (4.8 m) by (9.1 m) the amount of persons needed in its construction would be many and the cost would easily be a four figure sum and the soil medium a truck load.

Another consideration is how the red pine’s pot was formed, possibly by hand a long and lengthy process, as to the firing sequence a minimum of two is another question. Large kilns used in ceramic production have been existence for centuries, the world’s largest wood fired ceramic kiln with an 18 metre long furnace and a volume of 260 cubic metres was built in the first year of Emperor Qianlong 1736 in the Qing Dynasty. The Jingdezhen Zhen Kiln is located in Jingdezhen city, Jiangxi province, China and establishments like this one could easily accommodate a pot of this magnitude.

Individual choice – if one is an established bonsai practitioner you will know of the size range which is suitable to your needs beit small, medium or large. If a novice then careful planning is required so that you refrain from ‘swimming-out-of-your-depth’ or ‘comfort zone’, because the bigger you go the greater the workload which may lead to frustration and disenchantment. Small bonsai for example; Shito 5 cm to 10 cm, Shohin 5 cm to 15 cm and Mame 10 cm to 20 cm can be root pruned and repotted in a relatively short space of time 20/45 mins depending on one’s ability and skill level.

The higher one goes up the scale chart cleaning, repotting and general pruning will take considerable time, special equipment may be required and many hands to do the task, this next image makes a statement, imagine the tools and man power it would need just to remove the tree from it’s pot root prune, clean, add a new soil medium, rewire and repot it.

1000 year old Ficus retusa Crespi Italy credit – The Economic Times

This is but a short discussion on selecting a tree/plant for your collection, so where does one begin? It all depends on you, growing from seed is one option – this is an important step in gaining horticultural knowledge as you watch the plant/s develop. Moreover, the more research undertaken the greater the knowledge in maintaining a healthy plant. But having said this not all want to use this directive, due to the time for the specimen to reach a certain amount of maturity to become a bonsai potential approximately 5 years for deciduous and 7 to 10 years for coniferous however, there are many other routes to take.

Garden centres or nurseries have extensive collections of coniferous and deciduous varieties that are imported, they are packed into containers and are prone to infestation and we have written articles on this issue, hence it is prudent to do a ‘hands-on’ inspection of a potential plant. If a plant is purchased it has to be isolated (quarantined) to prevent any possible spread of infection to others. The most destructive pests include, Red spider mite Tetranychus urticae, scale Coccoidea and Sawfly Craesus septentrionalis.

There are other avenues to search for potential bonsai plants for example ‘air-layering’ and grafting see the articles ‘Selecting material for bonsai parts I, II and III’ . Waste sites and derelict buildings can be a good source for material, some of our specimens were collected from such places. Collecting from the wild is another, but permission from the landowner is a requirement if one wants to venture on to these areas to search for plants. Furthermore, it is wise to do some research of the plant species prior to digging them up; which often becomes a major workout. Whatever avenue you take is ultimately your decision, but do not be impulsive think before you act, until next time, BW, Nik.