Bonsai (pronounced bone sigh) means a tree planted in a dish or tray. Research indicates that the Chinese probably started the art of bonsai as long ago as circa 200 BC. However, it was adopted and refined by the Japanese until the art is now generally associated with that culture, and they are the ones who introduced the art to the world in the World’s Fair in Paris in 1878 and again in London’s in 1909. Today the appreciation of bonsai and the art of creating them have spread around the world.
The goal of the bonsai art is to express the spirit of nature. Never “finished”, they are living, changing artworks. A well designed bonsai tree will make you feel that it has been formed solely through the forces of nature.
The cultivation of bonsai requires much care and attention, but the rewards are great. One feels a sense of inner peace while working, and there is great pleasure in seeing the results in a harmonious design reflecting nature.
There are no two bonsai trees that are the same. However, there are certain recognized shapes or styles used, all of which are seen in nature.
For individual trees there are:
Chokkan or formal upright – This tree has a strong vertical trunk and the branches usually form a symmetrical triangle
Moyogi or informal upright – This tree, while being basically upright will have some curves in the trunk or may have a slight slant. However, the top of the tree will be right over the base. The branches normally will form the outline of an asymmetrical triangle
Shakan or slant style – This tree has a fairly severe slant and the top, or apex, is not over the base. The branches form the outline of an asymmetrical triangle.
Han-Kengai of semi cascade – This tree usually starts on a slant with the foliage then growing downward, but not below the soil surface.
Kengai or cascade – The trunk and the branches of this style tree cascade down below the surface of the pot and often considerably below the bottom of the pot as well.
For trees with several trunks and group plantings there are:
Sokan or twin trunk - This style has two trunks of different thickness and height growing out of one root. There can also be two individual trees rather than just the one root. These trunks are often referred to as father and son or husband and wife. It is the only bonsai style that has an even number of trees. One tree or trunk is always slightly in front of the other.
Sankan or triple trunk – This style has three trunks growing out of one root (father, mother, and son). There can also be three individual trees. Again, the trunks or trees are never in a straight line across the pot.
Korabuki or stump style - In this style, there are several trunks growing from one root.
Kabubuki, Kabudachi or clump style – This style has a cluster of single trunks grown closely together.
Ikada or raft style – This style is formed from a trunk being buried horizontally in the soil with upward growing branches being trained to have the look of individual trees.
Netsuranari or raft from a root, or sinuous style – Like the Ikada raft style except that the trees come from a single root lying horizontally throughout the pot.
Yose-ue or multi tree or group planting – This style uses several trees of differing thickness and height planted so as to give the impression of a grove or forest.
Styles that may be used for single trees or groups:
Hokidachi or broom style – This style has an upright trunk with fanned branches.
Fukinagashi or windswept style – The trunk or trunks are slanted or bent over with branches growing only in one direction as if pushed by the wind.
Bunjin or literati style – This is an abstract or freestyle design
Ishitsuli or rock clinging style – This style has the tree growing on or around a rock with its roots tightly grasping or imbedded in the stone.
Growers each seem to have there own favorite “recipe” or mix for bonsai soil. As a beginner, a commercial bonsai mix from a nursery that sells bonsai will suffice. Soil should always be clean and healthy and be of the type that will drain well. If the soil remains muddy or soggy without drainage, the roots will rot, and your tree will die. On the other hand, it must also hold water enough that it doesn’t all run out leaving you with a water-starved plant.
Each type of tree requires a different soil mixture, and it is best to get advice from where you get your tree or from an experienced bonsai grower.
When re-potting, it is important that the soil be packed correctly around the roots so that they can breathe, but there will be no air pockets. Until you learn how to do this, it is better to have it done by an experienced bonsai grower or instructor.
Bonsai may be kept in all sorts of pots or even black nursery containers when they are in the design or training process. When showing off your tree, however, you will want it to be in a pot that compliments and works with the tree. These “show” pots are made of brown clay that is usually not glazed except in the case of a flowering tree when it may be glazed and colored. Terra-cotta pots are not generally used. The shape of the pot should relate to the shape and style of the tree. Trees with straight trunks will usually look better in a rectangular pot. Trees with curved or soft lines may look better in an oval or round pot, but may also be shown in a rectangular pot. A rugged tree should be in a similar pot. For selecting a pot in proportion to your tree, the rule of thumb is that the length of the pot should be a little more than 2/3 the height of the tree, and the depth of the pot should match the width of the trunk except in the case of cascade or multi trunk styles. The width of the pot should be a little less than the spread of the branches from front to back.
Care of your bonsai
Placement: Bonsai are living trees and like to be outdoors. While it is possible to create an environment for them inside, this is a complicated process. Bonsai may be brought inside for a day or two to be enjoyed, but they should be returned to the outside for most of the time. Some trees like more sun than others do, and the tree should be kept in a location where it will be happy. Junipers, black pines and other conifers usually like full sun. Be vigilant about watching your trees in the heat of the summer. They may need to be moved into semi shade or into a position where they will not be in the full sun all day.
Watering: Correct watering is the crux of keeping bonsai alive. Bonsai need special attention due to the shallow pots and small roots. Unless it is the rainy season and there has been a lot of rain, you will need to water your trees every day. In the heat of the summer, the tree made need water more than once during the day. It is best to water in the morning. Start by spraying the foliage and the soil to get it damp. Wait about five minutes and then spray again on the soil watering deep enough that the soil is soaked through. A good way to check the soil is to take a sharpened chopstick and stick it down through the soil, near the trunk of the tree, to the bottom of the pot. If the chopstick comes out with damp dirt clinging to it, you are all right. If the dirt is dry, you need to water further. Watch to ensure that the water does not just run off the top of the soil and down the edges of the pot leaving the middle part of the soil dry.
If leaves start to droop or turn brown, this is usually a sign of too little water. If the leaves turn yellow, this is often a sign of too much water.