TUTORIAL - BONSAI 101
"Who's In Charge?"
Many years ago, when my Uncle George was in his final days in the hospital, he would loudly ask "Who's In Charge?" He had been the police chief of San Antonio for 22 years. So he was a very authoritarian person who had, over the years, grown accustomed to being the head honcho who was very much in charge of "His City". Nothing and no one got by him. At the end of his tenure on this earth he had to relinquish his role as his world shrank and his strength ebbed to his wife, doctors, and caregivers. However, he demanded to know who was in charge. If not himself then who.
I'm reminded of that same question when I talk to people who are interested in learning more about this fascinating art form, bonsai. Who exactly is in charge? So I will venture to answer this very perplexing question as it applies to the art I so dearly love and have participated in for over 35 years.
When I'm giving a class, I begin by asking the question, what is this life form that we are dealing with? Of course the class gives the unanimous resounding obvious response, "A TREE!" Exactly! You get an "A" on your first quiz. Now the next question..."where do trees live?" This one usually elicits a pause and some thought. I can see the wheels turning. They usually think this is a trick question but its not. "Where do trees actually live?" And here's a hint. Because I always give classes outdoors, and in South Texas when you're standing around outdoors you make it a point to do so in shade and in this case under tree shade. Usually I have to answer this for them...it's a tree and trees live OUTDOORS! Anyone who answers "in forests" or "in my back yard" will get only partial credit. The point is we do not change the nature of the life form we're dealing with, a tree, just by putting it in a pot. It's still what it is. And further more, in order for the tree to perform its normal functions, life cycle, and stay healthy and thrive it must be given the same environment that it normally occurs in. This has burst many a customer's bubble when I tell them that the bonsai, for the most part, should live outdoors with all of it's natural friends. Bring it indoors for temporary display. Besides you, the customer, isn't home all the time anyway. So leave it outdoors in it's natural world.
The techniques we use in bonsai are all mechanical; such as pruning, wiring, etc. We don't alter the normal genetics of the tree. We can over time with selective breeding before we transform it into a bonsai, but that's another topic that goes beyond this tutorial.
What I mean is that whatever type of tree we select to work with, it is what it is. Whatever it is in it's natural setting, then that's what it is in a pot. For instance, if we want to work with a deciduous tree. Then it must grow outside. If we want it to stay healthy then we have to give it the same environment and seasonal changes as it's counterpart in the landscape. Deciduous trees are what I call "four season trees". They must go through the entire cycle of seasons, fall winter, spring, and summer in order to stay healthy. The same goes with the needle trees, conifers, such as Junipers and pines.
Now tropical trees, such as Ficus or Sheflera, they have evolved in climates nearer to the equator where there is very little seasonal change in light intensity and temperature range. The weather stays relatively constant and moderate. The biggest seasonal change in the tropics is the rain fall. Those climate changes are differentiated by rainy seasons and dry seasons, not by cold temperature season and warm temperature season.
What's in a name? Knowing the type of tree you want to grow is essential no matter if you want to transform it into a bonsai or plant it in your yard. Know the name of the tree...the botanical name. Common names are not enough. They won't relay enough information to make intelligent choices. Many different trees have the same common name. Or one type of tree will have several common names depending on where its growing or who you're talking to. It's like people. There are many Georges' and Sallys' in the world. If your looking to find your friend Sally but have no other name it makes the search much more difficult than if you had Sally Amelia Gonzaba, So knowing the exact scientific name of the chosen tree will greatly facilitate finding out the correct information about how to care for that tree. For instance, there are probably hundreds of different species of oak trees. They occur in many different climates. Just knowing oak is not going to cut it. But if you know Quercus virginiana that will narrow it down and provide the necessary cultural information about how to care for that type of tree. Researching that name will turn up that it's a southern oak, that it looses it's leaves in the spring instead of the fall, and that it is propagated from seeds (acorns) not from stem cuttings. There are some herbaceous coastal oaks (which really aren't oaks but the shape of their leaves look like oaks) which are propagated by stem cuttings.
Moving on, now that we know our tree, it's name, where it occurs in it's natural setting, and other pertinent information, we can decide if we have the proper environment for it to live in order to turn it into a bonsai. I'll insert right here. You can display a bonsai indoors once it's developed but you can't develop one indoors. Let me say some more things first about bonsai. What makes a plant a bonsai? Well there is only three basic criteria for a bonsai. We probably know that trees live a long time. They can actually live longer than any other life form on our planet.
From this we may be able to surmise that bonsai live a long time as well. And that is exactly the case. Trees can live for centuries. There are some types that are hundreds of centuries old. I just recently read in the paper that there was a cypress in the Florida that burned up in a forest fire. It was over a 1000 years old and was on the register for being the oldest tree of its kind in existence. What a terrible tragedy and loss for all the natural world. I mourn the loss of that tree. Theoretically, since bonsai are so meticulously cared for and sheltered from danger they have the potential to survive for as many centuries as their counterparts in the landscape. Some have even survived the devastation of wars and other man made follies. What are the bottom line criteria for bonsai? Well from this discussion, we know that we need plant material that is a perennial (long lived, living year after year).
Secondly, we need plants that can be fashioned into a tree like form. Ahah! Tree-like form implies that the plant doesn't HAVE to be a tree (which is only a generic term anyway but we won't go there). So what does tree-like mean. Well, it means, for instance, that we don't always work with only trees. We can train a vine into a tree-like form. Plants like grape vines, wisteria, ivy are specimens which make wonderful bonsai. Grape vines produce grapes. How cool is that! I have a Black Spanish and Champanelle grape that I adore. Especially when they are loaded with clusters of fat juicy red grapes. Wisteria produces the most spectacular fragrant lavendar blooms in the spring. They are a thrill to see. English ivy makes thick strong trunks and lends itself to be trained in many styles. It is a standard for all forms of plant art such as topiary, espalier, mazes and other genres.
O.K., so, we have a long living plant, that may or may not be an actual tree but may be some other kind of plant material. What's the third leg of the stool? Answer. It has to be the type of perennial tree-like plant that makes BARK. Now that you think about it, bark is the one universal visual clue that the brain immediately recognizes that identifies it as a tree. If a plant has bark on its trunk then there's no question in the beholder's eye that it's a tree. It's the definitive identifier. Bark - tree. Tree - bark. Let me give a "for instance". There's a popular cane plant that is often planted in a bonsai-shaped container and labeled a bonsai but it is not a bonsai, never will be. It can be long lived. It is upright and can look sort of tree like. But it is not a bonsai. Why? Because the canes are green and they don't form bark. It's what we call a herbaceous plant. Just because a plant is put in a bonsai pot doesn't mean that it is a bonsai. It's not about the container! Forget the container! Just like putting your grand daughter's finger painting project in a frame doesn't make it a Picasso. Maybe to you it is, but not to the appraisers on Antiques Roadshow.
At this point you're probably asking, and I probably should have given this at the beginning but I didn't and its too late now. I'm not that good manipulating this devise. I might lose this whole text. Anyway, you're thinking, what is the definition of the word bonsai? Literally, it is translated from Japanese meaning "a clipped tree in a pot". When you see the word written in their script you can actually see the meaning. Bonsai is two figures. Bon and sai. On the right, the sai, the clipping figure, looks like hen scratching. The left figure,the bon, actually resembles a picture of a little tree in a pot. So when you say bonsai to a Japanese person, that's what he/she understands you're talking about. Oh, I'd better tell you HOW to say it. As near as my south Texas accent can come, it's pronounced softly like bone - sigh. Bone, like a leg bone and sigh, like a soft summer breeze sigh. It is not pronounced BAN - ZAI, like in kamakaze pilot. That word is an exclamation and has a totally different pronunciation and translation. The translation of that word is "long live the emperor!" If you say that to a Japanese person and point to a little tree in a pot, they'll just nod politely, smile and think you're a typical westerner nut case that doesn't know what your talking about.
Now we westerners use the Japanese word for this horticultural art form. And in its most pristine practice it is a time honored art form. In our country we have adopted the Japanese word for this type of container tree growing. However, depending on what Asian country you are visiting it will be called a different word in their language. Americans were first introduced to bonsai during the occupation of Japan after World War II. Since that's where we first saw these amazing little trees, we assumed their word for them. Actually, evidence now tells us that it was first begun by Taoist monks in the highlands of Tibet and China about 4000 years ago. They were the intelligentsia of the society, the educated class. They practiced the healing arts of Chinese herbal medicine primarily for the upper classes. The lower classes were on their own if they had the misfortune to become ill. Parts of trees, roots, bark, leaves, seeds, etc. were concocted into various medicinal potions. The idea was that the ingredients were most effective when they were fresh. So sometimes if the patient was too sick to travel the royal patient was administered old dried plant parts. But if the illness called for fresh and the patient was able, he/she was loaded into one of those pallets and lugged over long distances of arduous roads up steep mountains to where the tree was growing. Over the years someone got the better idea of putting the tree or plant in a pot with soil and transporting it to where the royal personage was. Totally better idea! Probably saved many a life. If the disease didn't kill them the journey surely would. Anyway, there is some who theorize that this is what caused the invention of commodity agriculture. Transporting plant material to where it was needed and where a good price could be received for it. Then over many centuries pot plant culture slowly took on an ornamental purpose. The Chinese word for this is pengjing which literally translates "pot plant". But don't be deceived. The very essence of bonsai or pengjing is the high level of artistry. It's much more than just sticking a plant in a pot.
Well, after the Chinese developed this form of horticulture, how did the Japanese come by it?
Why, the same way we did! by way of war invasion and occupation. About 1500 years ago the Japanese were becoming over crowded and were feeling the squeeze on their homeland islands. They were running out of vital resources. So they invaded China. Does any of this sound familiar? When they returned from China they brought back to their islands many useful things, like writing. They copied and adapted the Chinese forms of written language. Before that invasion the Japanese had been an illiterate society that didn't have a form of writing. Other things that came back to Japan were ceramics, gun powder, paper making, silk production, and of course, bonsai. Wars are horrible ways of settling differences and helping yourself to someone elses' assets but one positive outcome of them is the introduction of the occupier to the art and culture of the occupied. Of course, there's much more efficient and effective ways of doing this to the truly creative minds but war is the knee jerk method. If we had been at war and had occupied China (if you can imagine that!) then we would have been exposed to bonsai in its true birthplace and would be calling it pengjing today. As it was, we sophomoricly thought it originated in Japan. It wasn't until President Nixon opened talks with Communist China and Americans were allowed to visit China in the 1970's that we suddenly saw the Chinese forms of bonsai or pengjing as it was called. That gave us a whole new perspective on this subject. Of course, we were astounded by the examples we saw. The Chinese schools of pengjing are quite different from the Japanese bonsai. Here again, that would be a topic for an entire other lesson.
So let's review. We have a perennial plant with bark that is planted in a shallow container that is artistically trained into a tree-like form. Voila! And we have our bonsai!
So now getting back to my original question, who is in charge? As I mentioned earlier, different trees live in different environments. As bonsai growers and artists, we must conform to the needs of the tree. The tree does not conform to the needs of the care giver. If we want it to stay healthy and thrive in our care then we have to provide it with an environment that suits it. Bonsai growing is a partnership between the care giver and the tree. I always say the tree does all the heavy lifting. It does the growing. I just play the supporting role of providing it with what it needs in order for it to do its tree thing. Since it is considered to be an art form then that suggests that the tree must be alive, thriving, vigorous, healthy, and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. This is not, as some art is, an artistic interpretation that allows for the expression of ugliness or grotesqueness in its meaning. In my artistic supporting role I complement and enhance the intrinsic beauty of the tree. One of the very special lessons one can take from bonsai is that in it's practice we are not shooting down nature. We don't muscle our way into bonsai. We don't man handle the tree. We are making it possible for the tree to elevate us above our primitive interpretation of where our place is in the social scheme of nature on this planet. Unlike other forms of static art, bonsai takes the ego out of the art. It's ever changing like nature. It's dynamic. Its not about the artist. Its about the tree. Since the tree typically long outlives the starting artist, and several more along its way, most times the names of the artists are long obscured by time.
Trees make our air and clean it up after we've used it and in some cases, messed it up. Trees give off oxygen and scrub out carbon forms of toxins that we insist on making that fouls our own living space. They moderate the planet's temperature to a range that it is inhabitable for us and other life which we rely on. So once more I ask, who is actually in charge here? We assume we are but I suggest that we are in denial. We are not in charge. We are a player in a much bigger system. The planet has been around for what? 4 billion years. And we have been manipulating its resources for our own benefit for how long? 100,000 years max. And that includes much of the time that we were covered in fur, walked on our knuckles, and ate cold food. If you want to really count back to the beginning of sentient beings it's more realistically like 15,000 years ago. That's chump change in the total planet lifespan. Plants on the other hand have been around for billions of year;, pumping out oxygen, making the atmosphere, cooling things down, recirculating water.
So I ask once more, who do you say is in charge here? If we want to grow bonsai we do so on the tree's terms, not on ours. They are these little biochemical factories. Trees are given a great deal of light because in their natural state they are humongous stationary creatures. They don't go anywhere. Their leaves absorb the sun's magnetic radiation and carbon dioxide and transform it by way of cellular chloroform into carbohydrates (sugars). Then it expels the precious oxygen that we need to breathe. How cool is that! And I repeat, just because we decide to put the tree in a pot we don't change what it does. We don't change it's job? We have to treat it and provide it with just what it's giant counterparts get.
Trees also are water guzzlers. In case you haven't noticed, they are BIG. Like elephants they require large amounts of water. Which they get, by the way, from below the surface of the ground. They transport it up their vascular system, out through the pores in their leaves and send it back out into the air. Thus by doing so, cooling the atmosphere and reforming H2O from vapor into rain so it can fall back down to soak the ground and continue the cycle. Bonsai are no different. They have two reasons for consuming lots of water. First they are confined to small shallow containers and second, they too, are natural water guzzlers. Remember the mantra, we don't change their nature. You're probably getting tired of reading that. But I'll say it again, We Do Not Change Their Nature just because we put them in pots. They are what they are...TREES!
Let's review. Trees live outdoors. They get a full days worth of the sun's life giving radiation.
Trees need water and lots of it, oh, and by the way, they dry out fast, so they need water frequently and thoroughly.
And none of this is negotiable. By that I mean you can't go up and say to the tree, "Oh, Mr. Juniper, I want you to live in my apartment on my breakfast bar and I'm a very busy person so I'm only going to be around to give you an occasional dribble of water. So please live and if you don't mind, look good too." I can tell you right now, it ain't gonna work. The tree's reaction to that bum deal is it will simply spare itself the agony and curl up it's leaves and die. Save yourself the trouble. Do a tree a favor and get another kind of apartment decoration. You're not going to impress your girlfriend with a withered brown dried up tree. Save your money and take her out to a nice restaurant for dinner. You'll win more points by doing so.
We don't just have a bonsai like we have an ashtray. We DO a bonsai. It's not a spectator sport. It's interactive. We LIKE doing it. It's not work to those of us who do it. It's not supposed to be. If it becomes work then you don't get it or it's just not for you. Take up stamp collecting or whatever. I frequently get asked that question, "how much work is bonsai?" It's probably the most FAQ that I get. The next is "how hard is it to keep a bonsai?" Like work and difficulty are things to be avoided at all cost and if something is difficult, well run for the door. Sometimes people give me the impression that they want no part of any kind of challenge. They don't want to learn anything new or they don't want to put any effort into doing something. "How big will it get?" is another query. None of these are in our bonsai consciousness or vocabulary. Bonsai are small, slow, and old, sort of like me. They grow at an imperceptible rate. We go to great lengths to miniaturize the tree. They actually lose their mystique when they get too big. The tree will just look like a run of the mill large plant in a large pot. No big deal. The intriguing characteristic of bonsai is their tininess. In fact, the smaller they are the more prized they are. There is one whole sub-category of bonsai called mame that is highly sought after and admired. Mame are bonsai that are in pots smaller than 6 inches. There are notable collections of mame bonsai that are decades old in pots the size of shot glasses. The older a bonsai gets the more beautiful they are and intriguing they become. And it isn't rocket science either. It is mostly common sense. The person of average intelligence can easily master the concepts. Or even below average for that matter. I've taught bonsai to small ordinary children. They weren't dumb but they weren't geniuses either. It's all in what interests a person and how willing they are to learn and do. It's not different from any other past time. It's whatever floats your boat.
From doing bonsai we learn how plants operate. We learn what we have to do to be tree friendly.
We learn how our specie threads into the fabric of all of the other life forms on the planet. And we need to get a grip on that soon because what is going to happen when we find life on other planets. We can't even get along with the ones on our planet. Much less creatures on another. Bonsai teaches us what niche each of our life forms occupy. It sort of sugar coats the lessons too. Makes it wall very palatable. If you don't like learning facts this is a way to learn that you don't even know your doing it. Surprise! It also has a very spiritual component which I only alluded to that will make for another topic. Finally, bonsai also suggests the answer to the original question of "who is in charge?"
Certainly not us. We're just players on a much wider scale. We're members of a bigger team and there's not one single team position or player that isn't vital to winning the ultimate game.
Thank you for your attention. Thank you for dropping by my blog. Come down and visit me at my shop if you'd like. Until next time, and it might be awhile, I don't do this very often.