Updated: Jan 7
Continuing on from last week. We discussed elements of bonsai show display such as stands and bonsai pots. This week we are going to actually take a look at the elements of the bonsai tree itself. When looking at a bonsai tree, we generally look at the base first. It's just naturally where our eyes take us, so that's where we will start with this week's article.
Good balance in bonsai design Often starts with the root base. When creating a bonsai. We want to create the base of the tree as the widest part of the tree. This is where our taper begins. Our root base can also give our tree a feeling of stability. If you've got a windswept design or a slanting style tree that is slanting all the way to the right. Then it is good practice to have an elongated root to the left with a compressed root to the right. This will give the tree a feeling of stability even though it's leaning all the way to one side. We also want an even distribution of roots around the tree. Roots can even be wired into place to help design the root base of your tree. So when you are looking at a bonsai tree in a show, Try to see if the roots match the design of the tree. Do they give the tree a feeling of stability? Do they make the base wider? And are they evenly distributed with no roots facing the viewer directly?.
Although it has nothing to do with the nebari it self also look at the presentation of the soil surface while your eyes are there, is the soil even with no mounding? Is the soil surface free of any weeds or crusted organic fertilizers. If the tree has been mossed is there a good healthy moss on the surface that suits the tree and is it hydrated? . It is also good practise to have the soil presented neatly around the edges of the pot, if the pot has a lip on it and there is soil sitting on the lip rather then in the pot this is not a very good look in a presentation situation.
The next thing we will notice as our eyes begin to move up the tree is the tachiagari , this is the area between the nebari and the first branch of the tree or just after the first curve in the trunk, usually what ever comes first. This is an area of the tree that should have been developed from a young age in the tree because movement can only be put into that section while the tree is young and pliable. This is generally the part of the tree that will begin to thicken the first so if the movement is not set there properly it is hard to rectify later. But keep in mind not all designs have movement within the tachiagari, The formal up right style for example wont have movement there, and other styles will require major movement there such as the cascading style. So when looking in this section try to use your knowledge of styles to determine what should be present in the Tachiagari.
Ichi no Eda ( First Branch )
This should be the thickest most dominant branch on the tree, Later on you will look at the branch structure as a whole to determine if there is good branch structure taper as the branches ascend up the tree. But for now take notice of the Ichi no Eda and see if it stands out as the most powerful branch on the tree. Now this doesn’t mean it has to be the Sashi Eda ( Directional Branch ) because that could be the next branch up, but you will want to get a feeling of power from the first branch
Sashi Eda ( Directional Branch )
Now we want to look for the Sashi Eda which will most likely either be the first branch on the tree or the second branch on the tree, in rare cases it can be a higher branch but in most instances it is one of the 2. This is the branch that will set the overall direction of the tree, so if you decide that leaning the trunk to the left as it leaves the soil gives you your best angle and movement but your first branch is actually on the right you might make the next branch up on the left your directional branch if you are going for a harmonious design which means your shorter counter branches will be on the right and your apex will also move its longer branches to the left. The sashi eda sets the direction of the tree. Say we had that same trunk but we made the first branch on the right the sashi eda this would indicate a tension design with the direction moving away from the trunk lean and the apex also having its longer branches on the right moving away from the direction of the trunk, we would now put all our short counter branches on the left side.
As we move our eyes further up the trunk we want to see constant movement in most designs ( formal upright being the outlier ). It can be really unsightly in a design if there is lots of movement down low but then you suddenly hit a straight section of the trunk. Maintaining movement up the trunk is important but it also needs to flow. If the artist has thought out the design well the movement in the trunk will actually help place branches properly up the tree for both photosynthetic efficiency and for design purposes. Keep in mind though that not all movement needs to be dramatic, some movement it better being subtle but it really depends on the design of the tree.
The trunk should gradually get thinner as it reaches the apex from the bottom, A well tapered trunk can be the difference between a good design and a bad design in a tree. When looking at a trunk with no taper you almost get this feeling like the tree is meant to continue and there is no apex to the design.
If a tree has been trunk chopped you can have a look and see how well the transition to the new leader was made and how well it healed at the cut site. Keep In mind though this will never be perfect but an attempt should at least be made.
Have a look at the trunk and see if there are un healed wounds or flaws in the trunk, Also if there are features such as hollows or shari have they been well maintained? Have all the areas where branches have been removed been well healed? Is there any scarring from wiring up the trunk? Usually all trees in a show don’t have any of these flaws which are why they are being displayed, the reason I am pointing these things out is to help you apprecate the work that the artist has done that you might not otherwise see in a good looking tree.
On a tree that has corky bark, has the tree got a good amount of bark over the tree and does that bark run out onto the branches?, this is a good way to tell if the tree has matured as a lot of trees don’t get a good covering in bark until they have a good amount of age and when branches are young they are generally smooth, so if the branch's are well barked up then you can tell they have been on the tree and well maintained for sometime. A good quality bark can give the illusion of age which is very important in a design. Smooth bark trees give the same illusion as well, even the smooth bark varieties will have a change in bark texture in an older tree. A maple for example will get a much more Grey / white bark as it matures.
Now branching on a tree is really important, branches need to be well placed, well tapered, well aged, scar free, mostly wire free ( some detail wiring is fine in a show ).
So lets start with taper, as the branches move up the tree they should go from the thickest at the bottom and thinnest at the top, and this same pattern should be repeated on each branch it self. As the branch leaves the trunk that will be its thickest point and as it moves out to its last branchlet that should be the thinnest part of the branch. This is achieved with good fertilization and good pruning techniques and also a good soil mix and watering technique. This takes a few years to achieve so when you are looking at it you can really see the effort that has gone into the tree.
Now like mentioned earlier the more bark the branches have built up on them the older they are so the more mature the design will be, so have a look at the branching and see if you can determine how old that particular design might be by the aging of the branches.
When looking at trees in shows we really don’t want to be seeing too much scaring from wire, hopefully all that has been healed properly for trees that have good bark coverage. If the tree is a deciduous tree then you don’t want to see any scaring at all.
Much like the trunk design have a look at the branches and see if they have been designed well in terms of movement and placement of secondary and tertiary branches. The branches should also be all around the tree in a 3d design to create depth. Are the branches free from being shaded by the branches above? Do they move with the flow of the tree? Do they make sense to the design?
When it comes to the foliage really we want to look at leaf size and health, Has the leaf been reduced to match the proportions of the tree? And also are the leaves presenting good health. Are the leaves free from yellowing or other issues? Are the leaves full? The foliage is a big tell tale sign of health in a tree so if the foliage isn't presenting well then this can ruin the presentation of a tree. Has the foliage also been maintained to have a neat appearance, have pads been clean and crotch growth removed?
Pest and Disease
Is the tree free from pests and disease? Can you see any pests or fungal issues on the trunk and branches or even the foliage? This can obviously be a big problem for a tree in a show as we know that one of the most important things in Bonsai is the trees overall health and if it has pest and disease issues then this can really take away from the tree no matter how good the design is.
So I hope this has helped you understand what you are not actually seeing in a Bonsai when at a show.
All the stuff I listed above as problems to look for in a tree you are likely not going to find, But know what problems we face in bonsai and seeing a tree that is free of these and had the work put in over the years can really make you appreciate a tree even more when you are looking at it. As mentioned sometimes its not what you are looking at but its what you arn’t looking at that you can appreciate.
Most of the problems listed above are normal things that happen as we develop our bonsai but its how we rectify these issues as they arise that matters.
Until Next Time, Enjoy Your Bonsai Journey.