Understanding Bonsai

Aug 30, 2019

In the Japanese language, bonsai means tree in pot. However, bonsai are much more than just potted trees. Bonsai is a living art form.

There are many rules on designing trees to give the look of age. With practice, bonsai devotees master these rules and they become second nature. Bonsai has taught me patience. It takes years to develop a sprig into an old-looking tree.

Practitioners of bonsai take care to consider the natural growth tendencies of the plant. Typically, plants used for bonsai have small leaves or needles. Junipers, pines, elms and maples are good candidates. On some plants the leaves will grow smaller because of the restricted root growth. And while bonsai can be of great age, they have young roots and top growth on old trunks.

Many centuries ago the Chinese were doing a form of bonsai called Penjing. The Japanese borrowed this art form and added to it along the lines of Zen Buddhism.

There are many styles in bonsai but the most common is the informal upright or moyogi. If the trunk has any kind of bend then it is moyogi. Trees with a perfectly straight trunk are formal uprights or chokkan. In all cases, the roots should appear to be grasping the earth and the trunk should be tapered.

The first thing to do is determine the front of the tree. It should look approachable, as if you could walk under the branches. My first bonsai teacher said a bird should be able to fly through the branches.

The placement of branches is next. They should be of uneven number and well-spaced around the tree. Wire is placed on the branches to give the look of age and they are moved into desirable positions. The wire used is either copper-coated aluminum or annealed copper.

In addition to the two basic styles there are many others, including windswept (shakan), cascade (kengai) and semi cascade (han kengai). Tray Landscape (saikai) is very popular also.

Bonsai came to the United States after the Second World War, when Japanese-Americans became more interested in their traditions from Japan. I read once that a Japanese man who was interned during the war crawled out of the camp under the watchful eye of a guard and collected a small tree outside the fence. When the American soldiers who were stationed in Japan returned to the U.S., they brought this art form with them.

Slowly groups of interested people got together, clubs were started and many bonsai were developed. At first some of these groups were restricted to Asians but slowly they allowed non-Asians to join. I have known several people who have spent a year or more in Japan studying under the masters of bonsai. They return home with increased knowledge and are in demand as instructors.

Many books have been written about bonsai. These books discuss the various styles and the rules of display. The art form has spread all over the world.

There is a wonderful collection of Japanese bonsai sent to the United States in honor of our 200th anniversary. These are cared for and on display at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. There is also a collection of American bonsai at the same arboretum. Closer to Napa, the Golden State Bonsai Federation Garden on Lake Merritt in Oakland is another collection to see.

At the Master Gardener Fall Faire on Thursday, October 5, the Napa Valley Bonsai Club will have an exhibit. Be sure to visit the booth and find out about this living art. The club was started over 30 years ago and continues to bring together people dedicated to this unusual craft.

Next workshop: “Home Vineyard: Part 2” on Saturday, September 14, from 9:30 to 2:00 p.m., in Calistoga. Learn techniques to maintain your new or existing home vineyard. Workshop location will be provided after registration. For more details & online Registration go to http://napamg.ucanr.edu or call 707-253-4221.

The UC Master Gardeners are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. To find out more about upcoming programs or to ask a garden question, visit the Master Gardener website (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) or call (707) 253-4221 between 9 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.