The Importance of Nebari or Surface Roots in Bonsai

The Importance of Nebari or Surface Roots
The three elements comprising the roots (both visible and hidden under the soil), the trunk, the branch silhouette and the external element of the pot or container are integral components of a bonsai. In all these elements, the roots are of prime importance not only because of their bearing on the health and wellbeing of the bonsai (especially the hidden roots), but also because of the direct visual impact of visible sur face roots in the overall bonsai design. In fact the visible sur face roots or “nebari” are the foundation on which the entire superstructure of the bonsai is based. Nebari or Surface Roots Variations in nebari:
1. It is said that first impressions are more lasting than subsequent ones. In bonsai this first impression is created by the Nebari or Surface roots. Strong nebari gives the impression of a strong bonsai and vice versa. The relationship of surface roots with the trunk from the base up decides the impact of the bonsai and, in a manner of speaking sets the pace of the entire composition. Good surface roots which indicates stability and good anchorage (in the soil), although it is the first requirement of a good bonsai, also needs to compliment for the movement of the trunk and the supporting branch silhouette. This is comparable to the position of a batsmans’ feet while playing a particular cricketing shot; if the footwork is at fault, the shot is not executed correctly and lacking the requisite power behind it, does not achieve the desired results.
2. In general, good rootage implies roots which emanate from nearly the same level and which generally radiate in all directions from the base of the trunk, caliper vis-a-vis the trunk thickness, tapered disappearance into the soil without appearing to be hanging. Usually, there shouldn’t be any surface roots in the front of the trunk directly facing the viewer. However, because trunk movement and configuration of branches are distinctive in the different styles of bonsai, there are subtle differences in the movement of the roots in each style. For example, in the ca se of upright styles where a trunk is perpendicular to the soil level (Formal Upright and Broom styles), the visible surface roots also need to appear almost linear with an almost equal caliper and to radiate in all directions, tapering to disappear into the soil; but the roots on the left and right axes would, however, extend slightly more than those at the back, mimicking the later al spread of the branches. This will also be the case with the plants in a group planting, although their roots will tend to be shorter due to the tighter placement of the several trunks; roots of the peripheral trunks will, however, be seen to spread outwards towards the sides of the pot. (Fig. 1, 2 & 3 – Rootage of the Formal Upright, Broom and Forest styles)

3.   In the case of upright styles with slanted or twisted trunks (Slanting, Informal Upright, Windswept styles) although the surface roots would radiate in all directions they would be tortuous & snaky and with unequal thicknesses. Where the trunk leans in a particular direction, the major visible root/s on the side opposite the lean will appear to be stronger but expressing a tension as if counter – balancing the pull of the lean; the root/s on the side of the lean, on the other hand will appear sprung as if compressed to support the visual mass of the branches and foliage. The design of the bonsai, in the curves of the trunk and the springy sweep of the branches would be but a reflection of the tension and compression of the surface roots; only this will lend conviction and strength to the overall composition. Sometimes the effect is exaggerated by exposed roots which coil sinuously under the trunk like the legs of a prehistoric monster.

(Fig. 4 – Rootage of the Informal Upright and Slanting styles)

4.   In the case of Bunjin, Cascade and Semi-cascade styles, the roots will appear more compressed, given the narrower mouth of the pot, although the roots opposite the direction of the lean of the bunjin style or cascading trunk might just appear to be stronger to counteract the lean or fall of the trunk.

(Fig. 5 & 6 – Rootage of the Cascade, Semi-cascade and Bunjin styles)

 

 

5.      In both, the informal styles and the cascading styles, the twisting appearance of the roots is therefore both functional as well as artistic. A critical design balance is achieved through this impression of the nebari or surface roots. This aspect is succinctly expressed thus by Carl Bergstrom, USA, ” the logical explanation …. of the structure (of a bonsai) must be consistent in both a physical sense and in an artistic sense. Tension requires must be consistent in both a physical sense and in an artistic sense. Tension requires obedience (?) and compression requires release. How these dynamics are accounted for in the overall design is how we must measure the success or failure of the root configuration of a bonsai”.

6.     Encouraging good rootage:

It is difficult to obtain plants with ideally arranged roots. More often than not one gets plants with defective rootage only, especially if the plant is a collected one. Most times, if a bonsai is to be created out of nursery grown material, the chances are that the roots will be abundant but it will probably take years to develop good surface roots compatible to the style in which the bonsai is designed. This is usually done by exposing the surface roots a little more during each successive repotting.

7.     Corrections to defects in nebari: The defects in nebari are usually in the form of: a) lack of roots at certain points; b) poor or thin rootage; c) abnormal roots or too thick roots. In such cases, corrective measures need to be adopted in order to maintain the impression of a particular style.

For trunks lacking rootage from certain points – initially attempts should be made to encourage new roots by making cuts at the places de void of roots and dusting these places with rooting hormones or if that fails or if the variety is hard to root, root correction in the form of grafting the roots of a donor plant or grafting a donor plant at a place devoid of roots should be tried. If even then roots fail to emerge, then a rock or a tuft of decorative grass can be placed at the point lacking rootage. Poor rootage can also be corrected in the same way.

8.    Abnormal as also hanging roots should be removed entirely if substitute roots are already available at suitable places lower down. Alternatively, they can be stapled down or in extreme circumstances wired into the desired shape. Overly thick roots can be split along their lengths and the resultant wounds sealed with a suitable sealant.

9.     In some cases, lack of rootage can be corrected by changing the potting angle and modifying the branch structure and opening up the foliage wherever necessary to suit the new design.

10.     However, in a case where roots are misshapen beyond salvage or only a single heavy root exists, the trunk just above the soil surface can be gouged or scoured in selected placed, rooting hormones applied in these places and the trunk at ground level is enveloped in a wall or well of netting and the space is filled with coarse sand or well-drained soil and watered well; the well can be gradually removed when new roots emerge and are strong enough to replace the old roots.

11.     The caliper growth of thin or weak but ideally placed surface roots can be hastened by leading them into hollow plastic or bamboo pipes or tubes filled with gr owing media (soil and compost in equal proportions) which are in turn led into the ground. But this is an advanced technique that has to be tried on bonsai which are already in a mature stage.

12.    To sum up, since nebari or visible surface roots are the basis on which the other elements viz., the trunk, branches and foliage depends for the impression of a convincingly mature image in bonsai, it is important that particular attention needs to be paid to their development and artistic arrangement in the bonsai pot, failing which the bonsai, however developed it may be, will not make the intended visual impact and style statement. Following are some photos of the nebaris of some of my own bonsai. Each nebari pic is followed by the actual tree in order to show the relationship between the surface roots and the style of the tree. Admittedly, most of them still need a lot of refinement, but that is the beauty of cultivating bonsai: they are never finished and therefore of constant interest and joy in their changing imagery.

Nebari of Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis) and full view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nebari (left) and full view (right) of the Wrightia (Wrightia Religiosa)

 

 

 

 

        

Exposed roots style nebari of Baobab (Adansonia Digitata) on left and full view

 

 

   On left – Nebari of Manilkara

(Manilkara Hexandra)                                                                                                       On right – full view of M. Hexandra

 

 

     Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis) Left photo showing nebari

and Right photo showing the huge bonsai in full

 

 

 

 

  Baobab (Adansonia Digitata) nebari photo on the left. Same tree full view on right.

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements & References:

1 – “Superior Rootage- The starting point of your masterpiece” by Jerry Meislik in the BCI Magazine Vol. XXIX No.3, May/June 1990;

2 – “Artistic Composition and the Position of an Asymmetrical Nebari” by Carl Bergstrom, USA, in the Art of Bonsai website, 2012.

3 – Occasional Critiques by Robert Stevens on the Stone Lantern blog.

4 – My researches and my article entitled “Perceptions & Perspectives in Bonsai Design” on my own website “ruchabonsai.com “.

COMPILATION of TIPS & TRICKS for BONSAI

TIPS & TRICKS for BONSAI
Design:
1) Thick wrightia / ficus branches can be bent by notching them in a ‘V’ shape in the direction of the bend, matching the cambium along the edges on bending and by fixing the bend with a screw inserted at an angle. The wound should be covered with cut-paste to stop the drying of cut edges. (Tip by Yong Yap Chong at International Bonsai Art & Culture Biennale 2014, Yogyakarta, Indonesia in Oct 2014)
2) Live veins of junipers form ridging (raising of the live vein) and can be seen to continue along the branch or area which they feed. Shari can be formed once the live veins are found, by carving along the length adjacent to and parallel to the live veins as far as possible. (Tip by Mauro Stemberger at International Bonsai Art & Culture Biennale 2014, Yogyakarta, Indonesia in Oct 2014)

Growing Tips:
1) Bucida Spinosa (Bahama Black Olive) likes water & can be kept in pots w/o drainage (Drenching/wetting a pot before potting is also good for bucida (Tip by Robert Sevens at International Bonsai Art & Culture Biennale 2014, Yogyakarta, Indonesia in Oct 2014)
2) Bucida Spinosa also does not like root-pruning; in case root-pruning is necessitated in an emergency, the plant should be defoliated and its roots should be sub-merged in water for some days to aid recovery. It also likes alkaline water. (Tip by Pedro Morales of Puerto Rico)
3) Podocarpus do not like air-layers and will sulk if air-layered. (Tip by Ratna Dave, my teacher and eminent bonsai artist of Mumbai, India)
4) Bougainvillea should be defoliated to induce better branching during the growing period.
5) Ficus will be induced to put out aerial roots faster if their pots are placed in a bigger pot filled with humid material or gravel, etc. (from self-experience)
6) Some plants varieties, especially conifers do not bud on bare branches, but sometimes snapping a branch half-way will induce budding underneath the cut. This has been tried successfully on some ficus varieties which are prone to die-back. (from self-experience)
7) Jades & adeniums should be allowed one rain shower in the monsoons after which they should be sprayed with urea mixed in water (proportion: ½ tsp per 5 liters) and then kept under an overhang to avoid heavy rains. (from self-experience)
8) Banyans should be fertilized with nitrogen every 15 days to induce good branching. (Tip by Veer Choudhary, bonsai artist, India)
9) To develop the girth of the trunk, the roots of ficus can be lead into the ground; aerial roots can also be lead into the soil through tubes filled with moist growing material for faster thickening and also to ensure that they do not dry out before they reach the soil level. (observed in Indonesian Nurseries)

Flowering Tips:
1] For profuse flowering in Boganvillas (Recipe by Shrikrishna Gadgil, bonsai artist, Mumbai, India)
Step 1: Do not water subject plant for 2 days
Step 2: Feed with Vitamin B Complex on the 3rd day
Step 3: Feed liquid cow-dung slurry 1 week after 3rd day
Step 4: Feed with Urea (Nitrogen) 1 week after step 3
Step 5: Feed with Suffala (Super Phosphates) every week, 1 week after step 4 and continue till
flowers set
Once flowers are set in boganvillas, removal of leaves will lead to full flowering (from self-experience)
2] Wrightia can be defoliated completely which will induce profuse flowering one month after defoliation (from gardening experience)
3] Adeniums, in order to flower well, need weekly fertilizing. (Tip by Arun Ashar, Apoorva Nursery, Pune, India)
4] For most tropical flowering and fruiting plants, 2/3 weekly doses of Phosphorus dominant fertilizers about a month before the flowering /fruiting season of the species will induce better and sustained flowering.

Miscellaneous
1) To tie plants in shallow pots or on a rock – make a loop of the wire and place the bent end of the loop touching the surface of the pot or rock at the spot where the plant is to be located; put epoxy adhesive on the wire loop at the spot which touches the surface of the pot or rock and sprinkle some baking powder over it. Hold the wire in position for a couple of minutes; the tie-wire will be fixed permanently to the selected spot. (From: Bonsai Bark post, Stone Lantern and also Pedro Morales during a demo)
2] Possible method of correction of one-sided rootage (especially for tropicals): To induce rooting on sides bare of roots, first scar the side bare of roots and tie the base of the plant to the pot rather tightly in such a way that it will not move. Tie a guy wire at about 2/3rd the height of the trunk of the plant and exert a pull and tie the other end of the wire to the pot so that its base is stressed at the side without roots. Due to the stress at the base in the direction opposite the lean, the plant will be induced to send out roots at the point of stress. (From experience)
3] Branches which require back budding on lanky growth but which will not bud back on bare branches should not be pruned bare; the branch should be cut half way through just above the area which needs budding and then bent at the point of partial cut, snapping but not separating it. Care should be taken not to cut off the branch completely. Adventitious buds will eventually form between the trunk and the snapped point, as the flow of nutrition is disrupted but not completely stopped. (From experience)
4) While wiring branches, anchoring of the wire can be achieved as follows: Build a small spiral loop at the end of a sufficiently thick wire; hold the loop about two inches above the branch to be wired, bring the wire down to the branch to be wired and execute the first turn around the branch and complete the wiring around the branch in the normal way. Now, holding the looped end against the trunk with one hand, bend the wired branch downwards. If the wire is of sufficient strength, its tension against the trunk will hold the branch in place. (As shown by Pedro Morales of Puerto Rico, original technique by Sensei Mashahiko Kumura, Japan)
(My comments: the loop can be positioned even under the branch and held against the trunk in the same way)
5) The Brazilian Raintree will do really well if it is planted in soil containing 95% sand. It can take drastic pruning without any die-back provided there is no root disturbance while potting/repotting. (Tip by Nacho Marin of Venezuela as conveyed by Sanjay Dham, Delhi)
6) For bending thick branches: the branch should be wrapped with jute rope (close, continuous windings). This should be wrapped with electrical insulating tape. The bound portion can then be wound with thick wire and then bent as desired. (As demonstrated by Marc Neolanders in a workshop in Mumbai)
7) For Twin Trunk bonsai: Start shaping the smaller trunk first; change the potting angle if the trunks appear to go in opposite directions. (by Marc Neolanders in a workshop in Mumbai)
8) Simple tip to test suitable thickness of wire: hold the wire about 4/5 inches away from the loose end and press the loose end against the portion that is to be wired; if the wire bends then it is not of sufficient strength and a thicker wire is needed. (by Marc Neolanders in a workshop in Mumbai)
9) Bending a wired portion of the trunk/branch in the direction of the wire turns can tighten the wire; bending against the direction of the wire turns may loosen the wire. This has to be taken into account while wiring any portion of the bonsai (From various sources and self-experience)
10) Extreme bends can be achieved by turning three or more lengths of wire along the desired branch/trunk close together (almost to the extent that the bark is not visible and then bending the portion in the direction of the wire turns (by Neli Stoyanova during the Baroda Convention 2015)

THE CRAFT OF BONSAI :- COMPILATION OF TIPS & TRICKS

TIPS & TRICKS for BONSAI
Design:
1) Thick wrightia / ficus branches can be bent by notching them in a ‘V’ shape in the direction of the bend, matching the cambium along the edges on bending and by fixing the bend with a screw inserted at an angle. The wound should be covered with cut-paste to stop the drying of cut edges. (Tip by Yong Yap Chong at International Bonsai Art & Culture Biennale 2014, Yogyakarta, Indonesia in Oct 2014)
2) Live veins of junipers form ridging (raising of the live vein) and can be seen to continue along the branch or area which they feed. Shari can be formed once the live veins are found, by carving along the length adjacent to and parallel to the live veins as far as possible. (Tip by Mauro Stemberger at International Bonsai Art & Culture Biennale 2014, Yogyakarta, Indonesia in Oct 2014)

Growing Tips:
1) Bucida Spinosa (Bahama Black Olive) likes water & can be kept in pots w/o drainage (Drenching/wetting a pot before potting is also good for bucida (Tip by Robert Sevens at International Bonsai Art & Culture Biennale 2014, Yogyakarta, Indonesia in Oct 2014)
2) Bucida Spinosa also does not like root-pruning; in case root-pruning is necessitated in an emergency, the plant should be defoliated and its roots should be sub-merged in water for some days to aid recovery. It also likes alkaline water. (Tip by Pedro Morales of Puerto Rico)
3) Podocarpus do not like air-layers and will sulk if air-layered. (Tip by Ratna Dave, my teacher and eminent bonsai artist of Mumbai, India)
4) Bougainvillea should be defoliated to induce better branching during the growing period.
5) Ficus will be induced to put out aerial roots faster if their pots are placed in a bigger pot filled with humid material or gravel, etc. (from self-experience)
6) Some plants varieties, especially conifers do not bud on bare branches, but sometimes snapping a branch half-way will induce budding underneath the cut. This has been tried successfully on some ficus varieties which are prone to die-back. (from self-experience)
7) Jades & adeniums should be allowed one rain shower in the monsoons after which they should be sprayed with urea mixed in water (proportion: ½ tsp per 5 liters) and then kept under an overhang to avoid heavy rains. (from self-experience)
8) Banyans should be fertilized with nitrogen every 15 days to induce good branching. (Tip by Veer Choudhary, bonsai artist, India)
9) To develop the girth of the trunk, the roots of ficus can be lead into the ground; aerial roots can also be lead into the soil through tubes filled with moist growing material for faster thickening and also to ensure that they do not dry out before they reach the soil level. (observed in Indonesian Nurseries)

Flowering Tips:
1] For profuse flowering in Boganvillas (Recipe by Shrikrishna Gadgil, bonsai artist, Mumbai, India)
Step 1: Do not water subject plant for 2 days
Step 2: Feed with Vitamin B Complex on the 3rd day
Step 3: Feed liquid cow-dung slurry 1 week after 3rd day
Step 4: Feed with Urea (Nitrogen) 1 week after step 3
Step 5: Feed with Suffala (Super Phosphates) every week, 1 week after step 4 and continue till
flowers set
Once flowers are set in boganvillas, removal of leaves will lead to full flowering (from self-experience)
2] Wrightia can be defoliated completely which will induce profuse flowering one month after defoliation (from gardening experience)
3] Adeniums, in order to flower well, need weekly fertilizing. (Tip by Arun Ashar, Apoorva Nursery, Pune, India)
4] For most tropical flowering and fruiting plants, 2/3 weekly doses of Phosphorus dominant fertilizers about a month before the flowering /fruiting season of the species will induce better and sustained flowering.

Miscellaneous
1) To tie plants in shallow pots or on a rock – make a loop of the wire and place the bent end of the loop touching the surface of the pot or rock at the spot where the plant is to be located; put epoxy adhesive on the wire loop at the spot which touches the surface of the pot or rock and sprinkle some baking powder over it. Hold the wire in position for a couple of minutes; the tie-wire will be fixed permanently to the selected spot. (From: Bonsai Bark post, Stone Lantern and also Pedro Morales during a demo)
2] Possible method of correction of one-sided rootage (especially for tropicals): To induce rooting on sides bare of roots, first scar the side bare of roots and tie the base of the plant to the pot rather tightly in such a way that it will not move. Tie a guy wire at about 2/3rd the height of the trunk of the plant and exert a pull and tie the other end of the wire to the pot so that its base is stressed at the side without roots. Due to the stress at the base in the direction opposite the lean, the plant will be induced to send out roots at the point of stress. (From experience)
3] Branches which require back budding on lanky growth but which will not bud back on bare branches should not be pruned bare; the branch should be cut half way through just above the area which needs budding and then bent at the point of partial cut, snapping but not separating it. Care should be taken not to cut off the branch completely. Adventitious buds will eventually form between the trunk and the snapped point, as the flow of nutrition is disrupted but not completely stopped. (From experience)
4) While wiring branches, anchoring of the wire can be achieved as follows: Build a small spiral loop at the end of a sufficiently thick wire; hold the loop about two inches above the branch to be wired, bring the wire down to the branch to be wired and execute the first turn around the branch and complete the wiring around the branch in the normal way. Now, holding the looped end against the trunk with one hand, bend the wired branch downwards. If the wire is of sufficient strength, its tension against the trunk will hold the branch in place. (As shown by Pedro Morales of Puerto Rico, original technique by Sensei Mashahiko Kumura, Japan)
(My comments: the loop can be positioned even under the branch and held against the trunk in the same way)
5) The Brazilian Raintree will do really well if it is planted in soil containing 95% sand. It can take drastic pruning without any die-back provided there is no root disturbance while potting/repotting. (Tip by Nacho Marin of Venezuela as conveyed by Sanjay Dham, Delhi)
6) For bending thick branches: the branch should be wrapped with jute rope (close, continuous windings). This should be wrapped with electrical insulating tape. The bound portion can then be wound with thick wire and then bent as desired. (As demonstrated by Marc Neolanders in a workshop in Mumbai)
7) For Twin Trunk bonsai: Start shaping the smaller trunk first; change the potting angle if the trunks appear to go in opposite directions. (by Marc Neolanders in a workshop in Mumbai)
8) Simple tip to test suitable thickness of wire: hold the wire about 4/5 inches away from the loose end and press the loose end against the portion that is to be wired; if the wire bends then it is not of sufficient strength and a thicker wire is needed. (by Marc Neolanders in a workshop in Mumbai)
9) Bending a wired portion of the trunk/branch in the direction of the wire turns can tighten the wire; bending against the direction of the wire turns may loosen the wire. This has to be taken into account while wiring any portion of the bonsai (From various sources and self-experience)
10) Extreme bends can be achieved by turning three or more lengths of wire along the desired branch/trunk close together (almost to the extent that the bark is not visible and then bending the portion in the direction of the wire turns (by Neli Stoyanova during the Baroda Convention 2015)

Sunlight, temperature & humidity and their influence on bonsai in the tropics

Sunlight, temperature & humidity and their influence on bonsai in the tropics

It is generally known that almost all plant varieties need ambient light conditions and a certain amount of warmth & humidity for good growth. Climatic conditions are not the same throughout the world; they differ depending on the latitude in which the region is located. There are broadly two climatic zones in the world, viz., tropical (hot), temperate (very cold). Regions in the vicinity of the north or south poles are said to be in the temperate zone and experience extremely cold or near freezing climate almost throughout the year. Regions located around the Equator (tropical regions) have extremely hot climate throughout the year, hotter than all the other regions of the world due to the directness of the sun rays. Between these two extremes, are climatic conditions which vary from the cold to the hot to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon which latitude the region is located in. The nearer a region is to the north or south pole, i.e.,  between the Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn and the respective pole and further away from the equator the more semi-temperate (more cold, less hot) the climate will be;   conversely, the nearer a region is to the Equator, further away from either of the poles but between the Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn and the equator, the more semi-tropical (more hot, less cold) its climate will be.  Growing conditions are accordingly, significantly different in all these climatic zones, but sunlight, temperature and humidity play a very important role in the growth cycle of plants in general and bonsai in particular in the tropical belt and semi-tropical regions.

The scope of this article is confined to the consideration of the growing conditions in the tropical and semi-tropical belts, i.e., between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, as this is the region I am most familiar with.

The tropical regions, both the tropical belt around the equator and the semi-tropical regions between the Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn have four seasons: winter (January–February), summer (March–May), a monsoon (rainy) season (June–September) and a post-monsoon period (October–December). 

In the tropical belt, i.e., between the Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn, in the regions around the equator, the sun rays fall perpendicularly on the surface of the earth so that the intensity of sun-light is extremely high and average temperature varies from about 28 degrees Celsius to maximum 50 degrees Celsius. The length of the day is also very long, ranging from 9 hours a day in winter to around 12 hours a day in the height of summer. Rainfall in the tropical belt is perennial, i.e., it falls intermittently throughout the year due to accelerated evaporation caused by high temperatures,. This results in year-round growth of most of the plants due to higher humidity and consequently gives rise to some of the best tropical rain forests of the world. (there are temperate rain forests too). Bonsai too would have equally good growth due to the high humidity and temperature.

In semi-tropical (more hot, less cold) regions, the same conditions and seasons prevail except that the intensity of the sun is lesser than in the tropical belt due to the obliqueness of the sun rays falling on the surface of the earth. (The farther away from the equatorial region, the more oblique are the sun rays hitting the earth and consequently the lower the temperature). The length of daylight is also lessened comparatively. But otherwise the growing conditions for plants and bonsai are virtually the same. In most regions there is a prevalence of a season of heavy rainfall resulting in high atmospheric humidity followed by winter which is not very severe and summer in which it can get stiflingly dry & hot. The climatic conditions favor good growth of plants.

In both the cases there is a very short period of winter dormancy and also sun-light is available more-or less through-out the year. So, most of the varieties of plants which survive well in higher temperatures, tolerate higher sunlight conditions for long periods and do not require a dormant period can be grown easily and successfully as bonsai. Evergreen broad leaf varieties, deciduous broad leafs, succulents & arid region plants as also some coniferous evergreens which do not require a significant winter dormancy and require good sunlight & humidity do extremely well as bonsai in the tropics.

The second important factor is that root activity is faster in warmer soil temperatures compared to colder soil temperatures. It is for this reason that bonsai which are grown in temperate zones have only one annual growth cycle in spring due to its warmth, whereas there are three distinct warm periods in the tropics and consequently three definite periods for good root activity – the spring (about 2 months), the alternate showers & sunlight which provides humidity in monsoons (3 months) and the pre-winter heat (15 days-1 month); this means that the plants are also in high active growth during these three periods, apart from the regular growth due to the generally warm weather throughout the year.

Plant varieties which require high temperatures & humidity would naturally thrive very well in tropical climates. Due to the size of their leaves, broad leaf evergreen varieties are able to generate carbohydrates at a higher rate than the coniferous evergreens and therefore growth in broad leaf evergreens is observed throughout the year and regeneration is also speedier. Ficus especially are prone to form buttress roots and also profuse aerial roots. The availability of ambient sun light and humidity ensures that most of these varieties are successful as bonsai in tropical climates and can also be placed in full sun light throughout the year.

Nevertheless, others varieties which are basically temperate climate plants but require good sunlight also thrive as bonsai in these conditions due to the presence of high humidity. Conifers, especially many sub-varieties of junipers (e.g., L Juniperus Prostrata, Africans, etc.) which proverbially grow only once annually or at best in spurts in temperate zones and become dormant in the winter are observed to register noticeable growth even in the mild winters of the tropical climates due to good humidity and light conditions and will do well in the hot summers, provided those which are likely to scorch or get stressed in the severe mid-day sunlight in the height of summer  are given some over-head protection.  Some deciduous plant varieties (those which shed all their leaves almost at once in the autumn), basically of temperate origin (e.g., Chinese Elm, L Ulmus Parviflora) develop into evergreen / semi-evergreen plants if they are located for a long time or for a few generations in the tropical / semi-tropical  regions. This is apparently the result of the heat and humidity.

A representative selection of typically tropical plant species are given below:

Excellent results are evident in the case of most Figs (L. Ficus species), Adenium (L. Adenium Obesum), Jade (L. Portulacaria Afra), Wax (L. Carmona Microphylla), Wrightia (L. Wrightia Religiosa), Jasmine Orange (L. Murraya Exotica), Casuriana (L. Casuriana Equisetifolia)and some other tropical varieties, including foliage, flowering and fruiting plants.

Figs (L. Ficus species), at least some varieties, may tolerate slightly low light conditions, but most do better in good direct sunlight. Growth in direct sunlight is always healthy, more compact with lesser inter-nodal  distances and a denser and bushier growth.  Humidity will encourage aerial roots which are a main feature and attraction of ficus bonsai.

Adenium (L. Adenium Obesum), which is basically an arid region plant, needs  maximum sunlight but do not really need humidity. The hotter the climate, the better is the flowering on adeniums. They can survive less or infrequent watering also.

Jade (L. Portulacaria Afra) grows well is full sunlight but do not really need humidity. Requires well drained soil even if it is not placed in rainy conditions. Will tolerate less watering but leaves shrivel if starved of water for long periods. Thrives well in extreme sunlight provided it is given adequate watering

Wax (L. Carmona Microphylla) also needs good sunlight for tight compact foliage and good flowering but requires more watering and more frequently. Needs constant trimming.

Wrightia (L. Wrightia Religiosa) requires good sunlight for flowering, although in some climates, it tends to shed leaves if in cold weather. Leaves may turn a dull yellow en masse, in extreme sunlight.

Jasmine Orange (L. Murraya Exotica or Paniculata)also requires good sunlight for flowering. However extreme sunlight stresses the plant resulting in yellowing of leaves in summer.

Casuriana (L. Casuriana Equisetifolia) also thrives well in good sunlight but requires humidity. Occasional spraying with salty water has a beneficial effect on the plants as they are mainly seen to grow well along sea shores.

Due to year-round growth, almost all tropical plants & bonsai need to be fertilized accordingly. There is hardly any dormancy even in the case of deciduous trees so fertilization need not be stopped on that account as is the practice in temperate regions. Nitrogen is also needed in higher doses than is required for conifers and other temperate trees.

 

Possibility of growing tropical varieties indoors in temperate regions:

In the temperate zones, as natural temperatures are significantly lower than tropical regions, the hot and humid conditions of tropical zones will have to be simulated artificially, if tropical varieties of plants are to survive, let alone grow successfully. Hot house or green house with artificial indoor lighting and heat & humidity can be installed to re-create tropical conditions but they are expensive. But green houses are largely extensions of the main house and depending upon the number of trees and their sizes may need quite a bit of space and are worthwhile for growing medium to large size bonsai. Mame & shohin bonsai can also be grown indoors without the need for green houses if there is central heating in the house and will thrive well provided ambient light and temperature are maintained; if mame bonsai are grown more trees can be kept in lesser space. However, due to lesser intensity than natural light in the tropics, the duration of artificial lighting needs to be greater, approximately 12 – 16 hours if the trees are to remain healthy. Specialized halide lights are more suitable for green house conditions but they are expensive and may need periodic replacement with new lamps to maintain light intensity; halogen lamps are equally good for light intensity but heat up too much.  Small trees can be grown  indoors under florescent tube lights but the trees will have to be placed very near the light source. And the light fixtures may not look decorative too and have to be replaced periodically.

Frequency and potency of feeding fertilizers also needs to be on a reduced and lesser scale.

It is certainly possible to grow tropical subjects successfully under indoor light conditions in temperate zones, provided proper growing conditions are maintained and adequate precautions are taken.

Bonsai Soil – The Key to Successful & Healthy Bonsai Growing

BONSAI SOIL – THE KEY TO SUCCESSFUL & HEALTHY BONSAI

All plants, be they ordinary potted plants or bonsai, need a medium to grow. The growing medium has to primarily provide firm anchorage for the roots and also be able to provide moisture and nourishment, at the same time allowing the roots to grow and breathe and to provide good drainage over a long period of time.The success of any growing medium or soil depends on the following factors –

a)     Good draining capacity: The draining capacity of the bonsai soil is gauged by its capacity to allow excess water to escape as fast as possible from force of gravity so that, given an equable climate (not too hot nor freezing cold), the soil goes from a state of wetness or sogginess immediately after watering to a state of mildly moist between a given watering cycle, presumably of twenty four hours. Good drainage in turn depends directly on the particle size and its tensile strength. The bigger the particle size, the better the spaces available for aeration, lesser surface tension & better gravitational drainage; the smaller the particle size, the lesser the spaces available for aeration, the higher is the surface tension & consequently poorer gravitational drainage. In the event of poor drainage the roots cannot absorb enough oxygen and consequently due to anaerobic respiration they produce ethanol which causes root rot and cause poor growth of the plant and eventual death in the event of continuance of the water logging.

b)      Tensile strength and size of soil particles: The particles of the soil need to be of a tensile strength which will resist crumbling under pressure, friction or changes in temperature. The absence of granular ingredients of good tensile strength would result in gradual pulverisation & compaction of the soil particles and lessening of its draining capacity due to reduction in particle size over a period of time. This state is referred to as structural breakdown of the soil. Material such as river sand, stone crush, brick crush, calcined clay, etc., have good tensile strength and therefore good drainage capacity.

c)      Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC): CEC refers to the capacity of the growing medium to retain nutrition and fertilizers and make them available to the plant. Water and nutrition absorbing capacity is present in some components such as clay, humus, diatomaceous earth, pumice, etc. However, clay, unless calcined or roasted, tends to crumble rather easily and particles will eventually find their way to the bottom of the pot causing a build-up of sedimentation which will hamper drainage, mostly sooner than later. Humus, on the other hand, as it is composed to organic animal or fauna waste, will not crumble so much and due to natural adhesion will also not easily sedimantate at the bottom of the pot. For the reasons stated above, the use of clay is not advisable in the long run. As to sand, since it is generally inert, it will practically have nil CEC. Diatomite, pumice, crushed brick, calcined clay, etc, due to their semi-absorbent capacity have a good CEC and will be able to substitute clay as they are less prone to compaction.

d)      Ph factor: Refers to the acidity and alkalinity of soil and its ingredients. For most plants a soil with a neutral ph works well for optimal growth of the plants. Where specific species need a different ph level, additives will be required to be used periodically. All soils will gradually become progressively more acidic due to the use of chemicals. To reduce the acidity and to increase alkalinity,  lime (calcium) is added to the soil as required.

e)      Inertia or Chemical reactivity: The reaction of the ingredients of soil to changes in temperature extremes may not be significant in the tropics but in temperate climates where freezing temperatures are prevalent it may affect the drainage to the extent that in freezing temperatures the soil would solidify through contraction and hamper drainage and is also likely to damage fine feeder roots. Of course, in such climatic conditions, it is highly probable that the frequency of watering may be very low and hence the chances of freezing in the soil might be avoided. The chemical reactions of the various ingredients of soil viz., sand, clay, humus, diatomite, pumice, crushed bricks, etc.,to fertilisers/reagents, etc., is practically neutral and hence it is not harmful per se. However, due to the semi-absorbent nature of these ingredients (except sand which is inert), these ingredients may  have a build-up of acidity over a period of time and soils having a large proportion of these ingredients will have to be treated for acidity.

For most plants which are grown in ordinary garden pots (made of clay or plastic or composite materials) the growing medium or soil consists of a simple formula of equal proportions by volume of unsieved garden earth and compost or manure. Due to its vertical shape a garden pot holds a substantial amount of the growing medium, so this formula or slight variations thereof work well for a long period of time. Even if the structure of the particles break down, due to the height of the pot the sedimentation at the bottom of the pot is not a problem for drainage over a long period of time if broken shards of earthen pots are placed at the bottom of the pot.

However, the environment of a bonsai is limited to the soil holding capacity of a generally flat pot which is significantly smaller than garden pots, so the soil needs to be composed of lerge particles of ingredients that have an open structure of soil which allow good aeration for good root growth & good drainage and should be heavy enough to support the weight of the bonsai and should also be able to absorb and provide nutrition for optimum good health of the bonsai. Horizontal drainage in bonsai pots is also much slower than in garden pots.  If ingredients with fine particles of soil are used, water-logging or prolonged sogginess of the soil due to poor soil aeration and poor drainage will result in root –rot due to the production of ethanol through anaerobic bacteria which germinates quickly in compacted soils. In such small pots, corrective action such as emergency repotting is usually late, i.e., at a time when root damage is in its extreme stage and almost irreversible.

The importance of soil in bonsai therefore cannot be overemphasised. It is the singlemost crucial factor on which hinges the success or failure to grow healthy bonsai.

Composition of bonsai soil:

In order to find the perfect formula for bonsai soil, bonsai growers have experimented with all kinds of local material including pulverised pine bark, saw-dust, coco-peat, city-waste, wood-chips, plastic chips, earthen pot crush, etc., using these as additives and in some cases directly as soil – substitutes.  Based on experience, climatic conditions and watering practices, etc., each bonsai grower has formed his own recipe of  the soil mix and due to the success attending individual circumstances, claims to have found the perfect formula of bonsai soil. However, given the diverse climatic conditions, plant species, watering practices, etc., it is difficult to rely on a single or fail-proof formula for a rigid proportion of the ingredients or a fixed recipe thereof. Proportion of the soil components / ingredients will necessarily depend rather heavily on these factors and will  accordingly vary between individual bonsai growers and also region to region based on availability of local materials.

The components of the growing medium or soil for bonsai are therefore necessarily a selective mixture of different ingredients such as sand, clay, humus, diatomite, pumice, crushed bricks, etc., which provide drainage, anchorage and also water and nourishment to the plants. 

A good bonsai soil should include a large proportion of granular sand or something similar in nature & structure and well-rotted manure, humus and common garden earth in such a proportion that the soil will not only be able to provide moisture & nourishment to the plant and anchorage to the roots, but more importantly, it will also retain a very high draining capacity for a longer time or at least till the next repotting. In a well-drained soil, osmosis will take place (flow of water from the soil to the roots) if the soil particles are not too small and spaces between them have adequate medium-sized spores or spaces for water which allow good air movement. If roots are in good contact with the soil, surface tension and capillary action will work hand–in-hand to ensure good water absorption by the roots resulting in the transition of a soaking state of the soil immediately after watering to an almost dryish state upto & before the next watering. Reverse osmosis (flow of water from the roots to the soil)  may take place in well-drained soil only if it is allowed to become bone dry for a prolonged period.

The drainage capacity of the soil mix can be increased by the addition of sand or similar material having good tensile strength to suit plant species which need extremely good drainage; humus, compost, coco-peat, etc., can be added to the soil for plants which need that extra store of humidity & nourishment. A granular structure the size of small grams or sweet peas work will in a moderate size pot. For bigger pot sizes of over 2 ft. length and depth of over 5 inches, a bigger particle size is better. Generally speaking, the greater the tensile strength and higher the quantitative & qualitative granularity of the ingredients the lesser will be the chances of a structural break-down of the bonsai soil and consequent sedimentation at the bottom of the pot. A well-drained soil which will retain its granular structure for a longer time is of utmost importance in bonsai and is the primary target in the making of the bonsai soil. The presence of a high percentage of granular particles leads to better growth and general health of the bonsai. Bacterial activity will also be optimal in such a soil; symbiotic and beneficial bacteria, earthworms, mychorriza, etc., will be fostered and anaerobic bacteria will be discouraged if drainage is good and there is no water-logging. (Anaerobic bacteria will almost always mean toxicity build-up through the production of ethanol in the plants)

Bonsai soil for the Tropical climates

In the tropics in summer especially, hot weather can dehydrate the plants very fast due to the larger surface area of bonsai pots; on the other hand, in the monsoons, rains are frequent and heavy in most places and there is a strong possibility of water logging in the pots if drainage is not good. The bonsai soil therefore needs to be very well drained with particles of good tensile strength but at the same time it should be able to retain enough moisture during the summer months which is also the major growing season when plants use up an amazingly high amount of water. In Mumbai, India, the soil for bonsai is normally composed of a good proportion of even sized brick crush which is cheaper, locally available and is calcined to a large extent due to kiln firing. River sand is also used whenever available. Other ingredients that are used are cow manure (prone to weeds), vermi-compost (comparatively weed-free), garden earth and leaf mould (Humus). Sometimes coco-peat and vermiculite (expanded mica crush) for moisture retention, rice husk which provides some heat in the soil (in small quantities) and/or crushed coal for making the soil sweeter and other soil additives are used especially for species such as serissa (serissa foetida), wax malpighia (carmona microphylla), indian hawthorn (malpighia coccigera), sandpaper (strebulus asper), etc., which need a little bit of extra moisture in the soil.  Lime is added to soils for species like junipers which love alkalinity especially during the winter season to improve needle colour.

Generally speaking a good bonsai soil for the tropics will have around 50 percent river sand and/or brick crush, 20 percent manure, 20 percent humus and 10 percent common garden earth. The higher percentage of brick crush/ sand ensures good tensile granularity, good drainage in the rains but the soil does not compromise on moisture content due to the addition of manure and humus, which, after their nutritive store is exhausted, retard the breaking down of soil to a great extent. Best results are obtained when all the ingredients are sieved, discarding all powdery stuff and only the granular soil is used. Sieving of all the ingredients prevents break down of the soil to a great extent.

The practice of importing soils such as Akadama and Kanuma from Japan is not prevalent in most of the tropical countries where the species of plants suitable for bonsai are so different from the temperate climates in their requirements that it is not known whether these ingredients will be suitable. As the locally available material is better suited & have already been tested on local flora, are plentiful and are considerably cheaper than imported materials, the need for importing these material is non-existent. However, calcined clay (which is semi-absorbent and of good tensile strength), similar to ‘Turface’ which is available in US & Europe is now being manufactured and is very easily available in different grades and is a comparatively cheap material gaining popularity gradually in India.

To sum up, bonsai soil needs to be very well drained for the successful growing of bonsai. Its composition may need to be altered to suit local climatic conditions, plant species (i.e., whether the plant needs more moisture or less, better drainage or normal). Conifers need better drainage and less frequent repotting therefore the proportion of river sand/brick crush is increased. Flowering and fruiting trees need humus rich soil for which leaf mould and coco-peat are added. Some other species need higher moisture; for them vermiculite is added to the soil. In drier areas, a little more compost and   vermiculite are added for added moisture and nutrition; on the other hand, in areas of heavy rain-fall, compositions with a higher percentage of river sand or brick crush or both is advisable. For mame bonsai grown in small pots, vermiculite, coco-peat and leaf mould of about 50 percent is added to brick crush which is preferred over river sand due to the semi-absorbent properties of the former. The particle size also can be smaller than that for bigger bonsai pots.

In all sizes of bonsai, however, the key factor is only good drainage; all else is but supportive window dressing.

Drainage, drainage and drainage of the Soil! That is the key to successful bonsai growing.

Features & Characteristics of a Bonsai

A bonsai is distinct from other plants mainly by virtue of its tree-like shape and appearance. It should firstly have the common attributes of its bigger counterparts in nature. Bonsai are differentiated from ordinarily potted plants because to all intents and purposes they look like full grown trees, albeit on a miniature scale.

But to look like a tree, a bonsai should have the following characteristics of a tree –1) it should have a tapering trunk line;2) an abundance of branches reaching out in all directions; 3) a good spread of roots emerging from the base at the level of the soil disappearing into the soil gradually so as to denote stability and agedness; 4) a tree as natural looking as possible with reference to its species; and 5) a pot which is in aesthetic and visual proportion to the tree, neither too big nor too small, both together forming a harmonious unity.

The branches too should have a pattern: the first branch should emerge from about 1/3 rd of the trees height above the base, the second branch should emerge from the opposite side of the trunk but slightly from a level higher than the first branch,

the third branch again from the side of the trunk opposite the second branch; a branch growing from the back of the trunk away from the front (somewhere between the first and third branches) to give a third dimension to the tree. All other branches would then follow this pattern each emerging from a higher point on the trunk, the entire branch arrangement rising in a gentle spiral up the trunk. The branches, as they emerge from the trunk should reduce in thickness, length and development from the lowest to the topmost branch.

All the attributes mentioned above are equally applicable to bonsai created from plant species from the temperate as well as the tropical climates. However, most tropical plant species, because they have virtually three seasons per year to grow in, have a somewhat faster rate of growth then the temperate plant species which, in comparison, have only one growing season per year, Consequently, tropical plants most times do not have a triangular outline but have a more rounded appearance, with the branch lengths somewhat more extended than temperate climate trees, particularly the ficus family which also feature aerial roots which enhance the appearance of branch spread. The style classification is therefore not as rigid as they are for temperate plants.

 

There are things which are to be avoided in a bonsai design:-

Branches should not cross each other. They should not face in the direction of the front, i.e., the best viewing side of the bonsai.

Branches should not emerge from opposite sides of the trunk from exactly the same point on the trunk (called Bar branches).

Taper should be uniform, i.e., there should not be any reverse taper.

Extreme distortion of trunk or branches is deemed to be unnatural and therefore avoided.

Plant material for Bonsai

RAW MATERIAL FOR MAKING A BONSAI
The creation of bonsai requires raw material in the form of plants. All plants with woody stems having a good network of branches and which adapt well to hard pruning are suitable for bonsai. Container grown nursery plants are more suitable because of their compact root system. Plants for making a bonsai can be either self-propagated or container grown or collected from the wilds. All the plants are a product of vegetative propagation one way or the other. They are propagated either by seeds, or by cuttings, air-layering or grafts.

For that matter, grafts are also cuttings propagated in a special way. As bonsai are also ordinary plants in every way, raw material for a bonsai is also obtained from any of these methods. Sometimes plants are collected from the wilds, but these are also seedlings which most times grow in inhospitable conditions and are shaped for a long time by nature and therefore have a more natural form than that given by man. Nursery grown plants are also either seedlings or air-layerings or grafted material. When choosing material for bonsai one must select only those plants which have a lot of branches and have a tapering trunkline as a starting point. These characteristics are sure to ensure that such a plant will eventually make a presentable bonsai in a reasonably short time.

The main options for plant material are, however, collected plants and nursery plants.
Collected plants 
Colleting of plants from the wilds is a difficult proposition. Firstly, the collector has to obtain the consent/permission of the property owner/govt. authorities or sometimes permission may not be required. Secondly, the chances of survival for the collected material depends on several factors such the species of the plant, season of collecting, the amount of rootage remaining after collection, the balance achieved between foliage amp; rootage, the conditions which are provided on transplanting and of course the skill of the collector. In most climates, the best time for collecting is early spring. Dig up as much of the root ball as is possible, wrap the roots with damp sphagnum moss or gunny cloth (similar to hessian) and wrap up the whole plant in plastic sheeting to prevent dehydration. Cut off the top growth as much as possible to match the reduced rootage, keeping the future design of the tree in mind.

Plant the tree as quickly as possible in a large pot or planter box using coarse sand or similar fast draining material; water it thoroughly and keep it in a semi-shaded location, i.e., neither too much shade nor too much sun. Do not prune or otherwise disturb

the plant for the next year or so letting it grow unchecked to recoup its energy. Intervals between waterings too need to be monitored closely; keep the soil moist but not soggy.. Feeding with fertilizers can be started only when consistent growth is observed. Training or pruning can commence only after rank growth is achieved ensuring that the roots have taken hold. In some cases it may take three/four years for a wild plant to adjust to cramped quarters before any major shaping process can be undertaken. (Tip – Be careful; too much water to a plant used to surviving in a more or less dry condition can lead to root rotting).

Nursery plants

As creating bonsai from nursery stock is by far the easiest method, we will confine ourselves to this source of obtaining material for creating bonsai, although the guidelines will equally apply to material from other sources as well with minor differences.

In order to convert a nursery plant into a bonsai, the first consideration will have to be prolific number of branches growing all along the trunkline and in all directions. The second priority should be good rootage. This is not a problem with nursery stock.

Once a likely plant is chosen, the plant should be viewed from all directions to determine the movement of its trunk in order to determine the style characteristic of the tree. If the trunk is ramrod straight, it can be a bonsai in the Formal Upright style. If the trunk is bending in any direction, it can be any of the other upright styles such as the Informal Upright or the Slanting style. If the branches are emerging from a single point on the trunk, it can be a Broom style bonsai. The inclination of the trunk should be the main guideline.

Once the style has been determined, the branches can be pruned. In case of the Formal, Informal Upright and Slanting styles, alternate branches can be removed in a tiered structure so that the remaining branches would seem to move up the trunk line positioned left and right (or vice versa) gradually reducing in length as they emerge from higher up the trunk, describing roughly a spiraling stairway up the trunk line. On the other hand, branches on the Broom style can be tip pruned in such a way that they present a symmetrical outline in the silhouette of an open umbrella.

Wiring is an option that can be considered only where necessary, as is not a novices’ cup of tea.

 

Potting the newly created bonsai

Once the necessary shape is obtained, the plant can be potted in a suitable bonsai pot. Even a nursery plant which already has a compact root ball and has been living in a pot will not always survive the radical root pruning needed to put it directly in a shallow bonsai pot. The move should therefore be made in stages to ease the shock; the plant should be moved into an intermediate training pot after the first pruning and over the next two growing seasons it can be gradually shifted to shallower pots until finally it can be put into its final pot. Pruning and training can continue even in the intermediate pots. (Tip: Potential material can be grown in oversize pots or in the ground to initiate faster growth and development of trunk and branches. Once a noticeable trunk girth is developed, it can be gradually transplanted into a bonsai pot).

For the more formal styles (i.e., Formal Upright or Slanting styles), a pot with more formal lines such as the rectangle should be chosen; for the Informal Upright and Broom styles, a pot with softer outlines such as an oval or round should be chosen. Plastic mesh should be placed on the drainage holes of the pot and after a layer of granular soil is placed on the bottom, the plant – which has been removed from its original container and a part of the old soil is removed – should be placed slightly off center in the pot in such a way that the lowest and longest branch is positioned over the larger portion of the pot and its tip is projecting over the rim of the pot. Once the position of the plant is satisfactory, more soil is added in the pot and poked gently so that all air pockets are filled without compacting. As soon as this is overand the plant seems stable, the pot and the plant is watered copiously and placed in a shaded spot to recover.

The newly potted bonsai is gradually exposed to more sunlight once new growth is evident and sustained.

The branches are allowed to elongate & grow and further pruning and fertilizing is undertaken only after a growth of say, six to seven leaves per branch. The bonsai is pruned only periodically to maintain its shape and also to develop further growth in a compact space. A bonsai is normally allowed to grow and pruned alternately so as to achieve maturity and ramification.

Repotting depends on the rate of growth. Normally, vigorously growing plants are repotted every year or every second year; slower growing plants are repotted after 3-5 years only.

Bonsai for the Layman

BONSAI FOR THE LAYMAN

Bonsai is the art of growing ordinary plants in shallow pots by the selective application of some common principles of horticulture and techniques of gardening to bring out the natural beauty of the plants and create a look of age-old maturity in them. This scientific art and the plants cultivated through it are both termed as bonsai. The fascination of bonsai is capturing the imagination of everyone these days. It has gained popularity, as it is eminently suitable for today’s lifestyle especially of city-dwellers in their search for greenery.

For some reason, a few misconceptions about bonsai are also prevalent – that they are tied with wire to prevent their growth; or that they are given just a thimbleful of water and are generally starved to remain stunted. I would like to make it very clear at the outset that this is not true. Wire is wrapped only to alter the shape of the trunk and branches in order to conform to a natural shape. Bonsai are watered thoroughly at least once every day depending upon the climatic conditions and they are also fed nutritionally from time to time. In fact, all bonsai growers lavish a lot care on their bonsai and pamper them as if they were children or pets.

I think that misconceptions such as the above arise mainly due to the reason that the layman has a misplaced idea of cruelty to plants usually born out of seeing oddly shaped, distorted plants displayed in nurseries which do not even know what a bonsai is but are eager to cash in on its glamour. A layman is therefore most likely to be misguided and is far from being able to find correct scientific information or to actually learn the techniques of bonsai; the layman is therefore deprived of the enjoyment of nurturing and viewing bonsai. For such people, I give here some simple tips and pointers that will dispel the misconceptions and induce them to grow bonsai on their own. After all, it is man’s love for nature which leads him to discover newer ways of keeping nature nearer to him in today’s fast growing concrete jungles and disappearing greenery.

What is bonsai – Bonsai are nothing but common plants shaped to look like their bigger counterparts in nature, having all the attributes of foliage, flowers and fruits like mature trees and aesthetically looking like common trees in nature. But then, how do bonsai come into being? Let us see………

Material The techniques of bonsai can be successfully applied to any ordinary woody plant material. There are actually no special plants for bonsai. Any ordinary plants from a number of plant species to choose from can be made into a bonsai. But those with naturally small leaf size are better and have a better chance of being convincing as a miniature tree image. Plants normally grow from seeds which can normally be found anywhere or are also propagated artificially from cuttings, air-layers amp; graft in nurseries the world over. Material for bonsai can be obtained from any of the above sources i.e., from common nursery grown plants or seedlings (both newly germinated saplings amp; thick, mature plants) or collected seedlings/plants/trees from the wilds. It is however easier for the layman to select plants from a nursery for their first attempts in bonsai as these will have an already established root-system used to growing in a small, compact container and will not involve the hardship of propagating and nurturing seeds/cuttings/grafts, etc.

Selection of plant– Choose a plant with thick woody stem but small stature. If possible the plant should have good, attractive foliage, all-round root spread, a tapering trunk amp; a profusion of branches distributed along the length of the trunk line.

Creating a bonsai

If you have ever observed the natural forms of trees around you, you may have seen that most tree species conform to some commonly recognizable genetic shape, e.g., tall straight trunks of Ashoka, rounded shapes of Mango trees, the fan-shaped appearance of Pipul trees, the flat umbrella type growth and aerial roots of the Banyan (Vad), etc. So, trees may essentially be similar but the genetic forms and shapes are different from specie to specie. Plants bought from nurseries, seedlings and dug out plants need to resemble with one of the basic shapes mentioned above. Or one may have to wait till a given plant gets such a shape or choose another plant which has such a shape. Once it is seen that the plant has one of these basic shapes its training can be started.

Training– Initially, cut short the top growth of the plant to make it look shorter and to emphasize the relative thickness of the trunk. Also, cut off the branches which look un-necessary and cluttered and are crossing each other. If necessary, change the shape of the trunk by gently wrapping it from base to apex (tip of trunk) with an ascending spiral of aluminum wire of a sufficient strength and then slowly but firmly bend it to a shape which conforms to the tree forms seen in nature. Shorten the length of the top branches so that lower branches appear bigger and longer; if necessary, wire the branches also so that their shape may be altered by gently sloping them downwards. If there is a flow to the trunk then a similar flow should be maintained in the branches also. The shape of the plant should look natural and not tortuous.

It is also possible to commence training in stages by letting the plants grow initially in bigger containers, periodically pruning them without materially altering their recognizable shape and watering amp; feeding them regularly so that over a period of time the plant becomes thicker and mature, a basic pre-requisite of a bonsai. This is a matter of choice and certainly of greater patience. After the plant resembles a mature shape either naturally or by changing it through wiring and pruning, it can be transferred to a flat ceramic of earthen container as you would plant any other plant provided you use a soil textured to be well drained. Normally, only red earth/soil are not used alone for bonsai but a quantity of organic material and draining material (such as brick crush or granular river sand) are mixed in a generous proportion to the soil. Choose any of the recognizable tree shapes mentioned above but take care not to force the plant to grow in a style which is not natural to it. Bonsai is supposed to be an aesthetic statement, not a horticultural oddity.

Maintenance– The bonsai will need only daily watering and exposure to sunlight (at least 2/4 hours a day), monthly fertilizing and pruning and re-potting after 1 to 3 years depending on its growth rate.

General– As most specie of woody plant material needs at least 2/4 hours of sunlight, it is advisable to keep bonsai outdoors only. Of course, they can occasionally be displayed in your drawing room, but care must be taken not to expose it to extended periods of air-conditioning
or excessive heat. The tree must also be checked to see if wire wrapped round the trunk/branches are not cutting into the bark and if needs be, are to be removed; wire is not applied as a fad, it is there for a purpose- the purpose of altering the shape of the part which is wired. Once the purpose is served (maybe in one season or one year or more, as necessary), the wire need not be kept on the tree. Fertilizing has to be a regular monthly feature (preferably half the recommended strength), daily watering a routine and pinching of new growth and pruning of cluttered amp; crossing branches a habit.

Please remember, nothing which is worth human effort is easy, keeping a bonsai more so as it is a commitment – just like keeping a pet. It will need constant care. But if you give it this care and attention it will definitely reward your creative instinct with green foliage, flowers and fruits, depending on the specie.

It is also my first-hand experience that bonsai are the best stress relievers and will teach you to live in harmony and peace not only with nature but also with your inner self, assets which are getting scarcer in today’s stressful lives but are so easily within our reach.

Perceptions & Perspectives in Bonsai Design

PERCEPTIONS and PERSPECTIVES in BONSAI DESIGN

(part of my article entitled: The Living Art of Bonsai)

By definition a bonsai is a miniature tree planted in a tray or dish, evoking the majesty and beauty of a venerable old tree in nature with all its attributes such as tapering trunk, all round branch spread and a ground – gripping root flare. The whole concept of designing a bonsai revolves around the central idea of developing a plant into a tree which will display all the above attributes albeit on a miniature scale.

But all trees in nature are not impressive enough; many of them are young & immature and not so shapely. Trees which merit the adjectives old, majestic or beautiful are seen to have a bole which emerges from a root flare which appears to grip the soil firmly giving the first inkling of old age; there is a gradual transition from the powerfully impressive bole to a trunk breaking out into spreading branches which become smaller and thinner as the trunk tapers gradually to an apex of small branchlets. The tree appears balanced and graceful in its given setting. That is the aim in creating a bonsai-a balanced, graceful yet mature tree on a miniature scale, created through art, horticultural science and patience.

At the core of the art of bonsai therefore, are two interdependent factors: the perception of a potential tree form in the raw material and the conversion of this raw material into a recognizable tree form by means of horticultural skills.

INSPIRATIONS FROM NATURE

Since the design of bonsai depends on the designs of natural trees it is necessary, in order to design a bonsai, to know what key factors influence the shape and design of trees in nature. All trees have genetic characteristics peculiar to their species and are recognized by the distinctions in the following physiological factors:

Trunk Definition: The shape, inclination and movement of the trunk defines and distinguishes the style which is basically a classification of the different genetic tree forms seen in nature – thus a tree with a straight trunk is stated as having a Formal Upright style, a curved trunk denotes the Informal Upright style, a tree with a downward slanting trunk is called a Semi-cascade style, a trunk plunging way down indicates a Cascade style, a tree with a slanting trunk has a Slanting style, no fixed trunk direction for a Bunjin style, a tree with a trunk amp; branches sweeping in one direction is known as having the Windswept style and a straight trunk with branches emerging from one point is called the Broom style – all these styles have a trunk line with specific shapes and movement which gives the tree its special character.

Branch Silhouette and Root Flare: The silhouette of the tree also depends on the spread and arrangement of the branches and their periphery denotes a specific outline. Formal Upright, Informal Upright, Slanting, Cascade / Semi-cascade and the Windswept style will have an alternate left-right branch arrangement and a triangular outline whereas the Windswept and Broom styles will have a more rounded silhouette. A tree with a straight trunk (Formal Upright style) will have straighter branches with an alternate left-right arrangement although they may be slanted at a downward angle and its roots will disappear into the soil sloping down conspicuously on both the right and left sides. The silhouette will therefore be triangular and flow along the left-right axis. A tree with a curved trunk (Informal Upright style) is more convincing if the branches are also curved and sweeping and the roots are slightly up-curved before they disappear into the soil. Again, the branch arrangement is seen along the left-right axis and the roots too are conspicuous on both the right and left sides. If the trunk of a tree is slanting (Slanting style) the branches should appear to reach out away from the tree as if they are doing a balancing act and the roots should also reach out to the side opposite the lean. The trunk & branches in the Windswept tree design follow the wind direction although occasionally the trunk may lean into the wind. The silhouette is therefore almost triangular but somewhat softer, its outline defined by the extreme unidirectional sweep of even the branches growing from the opposite side. The roots grow more prominently in the direction opposite its lean as the tree counters the wind pull by growing stronger roots in that direction. The Broom style will have branches growing in all directions and a root flare to match. In other words, in any style, a critical design balance is achieved because the trunk direction & movement, the arrangement and sweep & sway of the branches and the positioning of the roots are in perfect co-relation with each other. It is this co-relation and the perspective between the three physiological factors which differentiates the impressive trees from the ordinary ones.

On the other hand, a lack of unity between these three physiological aspects will not make for a convincing & impressive tree image but will look more like a quirk of nature. For example, when the tree has a wavy, swaying trunk which projects femininity, then straight perpendicular branches emerging at almost right angles to this trunk and stiff & straight surface roots will look utterly out of place; a straight trunk which projects a masculine image will look incongruous if it is coupled with wavy, undulating branches and wavy amp; thin or puny surface roots. Similarly, a tree in a parkland setting which does not have to compete with other trees will look incongruous unless it is complimented by a virtually symmetrical spread of branches and a strong surface root flare radiating in all directions. A tree with branches sweeping to one side will look odd if it does not lean into or away from the wind direction and the surface roots do not grow strongly in the direction opposite its lean. A tree with peeled bark and branches will rarely show lush, luxuriant foliage; its foliage will normally show the ravages of the forces in their shorter branching & sparse foliage and its roots will be visibly strong enough to withstand the strong natural forces. In other words, exceptions to lack of unity in these physiological aspects are a rarity than a regular feature in nature.

The shapes of trees in nature are defined genetically but their designs are influenced by their environment and by natural forces. Thus a tree standing alone in a parkland setting and in a moderate climate will have a staid form irrespective of its genetic shape; a tree which has to compete with other nearby trees for sunlight and water may have a curving trunk or a dwarfed stature; grouped trees have to grow in a naturally upright habit as the crowding of trunks does not allow trunk deviation except for trees standing on the periphery of the group which are inclined to swing outwards & away from the main body of the group. A tree under the constant pressure of strong winds or stormy weather will show the effects of these natural forces in its dynamic design with a swirling trunk and wind-lashed branches or in the peeled & stripped bark and gnarled trunk showing a lot of deadwood. So, genetics dictate the trunk configuration but the environment influences their design distinctions.

The human brain has unlimited capacity to store impressions of things which we see, hear or feel. Dynamics such as culture, learning, information, other aesthetic qualities & values, experience, as also religion and philosophy, etc., influence our perceptions of things allowing the human brain to perceive and interpret things accordingly. Trees with impressive physiological features i.e., trunk movement, placement of branches & their silhouette and exposed root flare seen in nature portray the universal precepts of majesty, beauty and gracefulness and such exquisite characteristics positively impress the sub-conscious and the impressions formed thereby are indelibly incised in the human memory and stored for future reference. When the dynamics of perception and imagination are applied to these images from memory, the physiological aspects are enhanced and impressive real-life images are employed by human endeavor to create idealistic versions of the natural tree images. In other words, the beauty and majesty in the tree forms seen in nature inspire the concepts of bonsai design and these are replicated by the bonsai artist by simulating the natural factors and settings using known and sometimes inventive horticultural skills and imagination.

 

QUEST FOR PERFECTION

Every tree, be it from a tropical or temperate climate is basically molded by its species and the special characteristics of its family. Bonsai are no exception to this generality. Strictly speaking though, bonsai are not blind copies of natural trees; rather, they are the distillation of the best and most beautiful attributes of the trees we see in nature. The artist employs his artistic ability and horticultural skills to exploit the perceived potential in the plant material to create a bonsai of his vision with all the physiological aspects in a scaled down perspective. It is the artists’ memory and skill which serve as tools in creating the ideal form in the bonsai in a given setting.

Given the physiological factors, the setting and the artistic ability of the artist, every bonsai has a story to tell; its style and setting will depict a history of either staid good fortune (reflected in its all-round and even growth) or of competition with other trees (reflected in frequent deviations in the trunk and/or unequal branches) or of harsh or stormy weather and turbulent times (reflected in windswept and/or whipped trunk and branches or peeled bark on trunk & branches and sparse foliage). But this will happen only when the bonsai, its container and setting move as a unit.

However, there are several factors which may go wrong in the planning of the bonsai design and bring about imperfections and inadequacies in the design of a bonsai:

Many a times a bonsai although it is designed conventionally with perfect branch arrangement etc., may not look perfect and the composition may lack beauty; a bonsai may sometimes fail to evoke any special feeling when we look at it. This may be because of a number of reasons: the bonsai may lack a focal point, its visual mass or silhouette and /or the trunk line direction & movement may be contradicting each other or its position in and articulation with the container might not feel correct. Sometimes the bonsai may outgrow its original design and grow in a way not envisaged by the artist, because, after all, it is actually Nature which grows the tree. Many a times a bonsai as a tree individually may be good to look at but the overall composition may still feel wrong if any one of the physiological aspects mentioned above is at variance with the style, taken together with its container and its setting therein.

Whenever a bonsai fails to make the visual impact it would make if all the aspects were in accord, its impression as a replica of a tree in nature is lost and it will appear to be less beautiful and less than perfect; a re-thinking of the design becomes necessary therefore, if the bonsai is to look beautiful & impressive and reach its full potential as a tree evokative of grandeur, majesty and to a degree, refined mysticism.

The following are suggested as possible design considerations for creating a perfect & beautiful bonsai. Of course, these are subjective and just suggestive, but they will help initiate re-thinking for a more suitable and possibly a better design of the bonsai. All factors and each individual case, however, should be considered in their overall perspective:

a) Creation of a focal point which catches the eye of the viewer; The focal point holds the attention and displays to advantage the strong points in the physiognomy of the bonsai. It may be anything: pecularities in the trunk, specific branch placement and ramification or in the case of conifers, the deadwood features. If a focal point already exists, it may need to be enhanced or displayed to its best advantage and full potential. The bonsai will appear impressive visually when its strong points are raised from obscurity and highlighted to their full potential.

b) The visual weight of branches and foliage mass which gives the bonsai its periphery & silhouette has to be adjusted suitably. For example, if the bonsai has a stormy setting, its visual mass cannot appear to be evenly distributed; some branches are bound to be shorter and some more volatile & explosive than others. If it is placed on a rock, its roots are bound to either hug the counters of the rock or flow down the slope of the rock and its branches are more likely to articulate with the counters of the rock as if they are affected and shaped by the lift of the wind, a factor which is of relevance in all mountainous landscapes. The visual weight of the foliage should be greater than the pot size but not so great that the bonsai will look like it will topple over any moment; at the same time the counters of the foliage should complement the trunk movement, size and placement.

The overall volume and structure of the foliage mass also depends on the type of the plant material, i.e., whether it is a conifer or a semi-deciduous / broadleaf evergreen. Further, coniferous varieties, especially those which are amenable to deadwood carving will look better with just the right amount of deadwood and just the right amount of foliage. Sometimes the deadwood can be overwhelming, overpowering and purposeless, looking as if it has been carved merely because the artist wishes to show deadwood; it gives a confused look to the bonsai. Deadwood features need to be arranged and carved suitably so that the bonsai portrays the image of a tree which has faced harsh climatic conditions & trying times. The volume of foliage and its structure also needs to be finely tuned and arranged suitably by careful wiring wherever necessary, to portray the particular image conjured by the deadwood.

In the case of semi-deciduous / broadleaf evergreen trees, which incidentally also sport powerful & heavy trunk/s, abundance of foliage will speak of a lush, rich and sometimes tropical climate and therefore such trees should be having ample masses of foliage and branches to portray that climate and the ramification would need to be heavy enough to justify the powerfully growing trunk and abundance of branches.

c) Many bonsai are seen to have the entire foliage in a single contiguous mass or with markedly defined branches bare of foliage for a short distance from the junctions but with foliage at their ends clipped in the shape of pom-poms. Such bonsai look artificial and unnatural. The foliage masses of trees in nature, when seen from afar may look contiguous, but viewed up close the gaps and de-structured nature of the foliage counters can be seen clearly. The bonsai, since they emulate natural trees and since they are viewed from near, should also have a de-structured look of naturally growing branches and foliage and although they are pruned whenever necessary to keep the overgrowth in control, they should not have bunched up pom-pom like foliage. Artificiality can thus be avoided.

d) A bonsai design is primarily a composition of the tree and its container. Both the tree and the container need to compliment and co-relate to each other in the first place. The placement and the angle of articulation also are important and therefore particular attention needs to be paid to them when designing/redesigning a bonsai. The container also plays an important part in the aesthetics of bonsai design. A visually heavier or bigger pot in comparison to the foliage mass has the negative effect of making even perfectly beautiful trees appear insignificant. The largest dimension of the pot whether its length or height, when they are visually smaller than the branch spread will display & highlight the dimensions of the tree. In most cases, a flatter pot is visually more appropriate than a deeper pot simply because it has a horizontal surface representing earth and again because it’s visual weight is reduced to the thickness or height of the pot and would automatically appear visually smaller than the bonsai. The suitability of the geometric shape of the pot in relation to the style of the tree also needs to be considered carefully. The placement of the tree too should have a say in the bonsai design. The centrally off-center placement of the tree enhances the stability and balance of the tree. The positioning of the tree & the angle of the trunk as it emerges from the pot has a specific articulation with the horizontal surface of the soil and has a vital role to play in defining the style of the bonsai and in the overall visual impression of the bonsai.

The artist’s efforts are to be necessarily directed to using his skills and his imagination to simulate the impression of a venerable old tree irrespective of its actual age. It is the skill of the bonsai artist which, through the application of refined horticultural skills and imagination puts all the relevant factors of the bonsai design in their proper perspective and reveals in time the innermost beauty of the bonsai and breathes the spirit of a natural tree into it. But the skill and imagination of the artist are a variable factor, differing from person to person and one environmental setting to the other. The bonsai artist therefore needs to constantly seek ways to improve and hone his skills and upgrade his knowledge to be able to impart the natural grace, balance and feel to bonsai which makes them beautiful and perfect.

To sum up, there should be an agreement between the following three vital physiological factors: – 1) trunk definition; 2) branch silhouette; and 3) root flare. The shape of the trunk which determines the style, the branching pattern which describes the silhouette of the tree and rootage flare indicating the transition of the roots into the trunk – all these have a role to play.

The words of Master John Naka, doyen of bonsai, saying “Do not make your tree look like a bonsai, make your bonsai look like a tree” are pertinent in this respect and in a nutshell, they reflect the quintessence and philosophy of bonsai design.