As an unabashed plant nerd, I love everything from bioluminescent algae all the way to Sequoiadendron gigantium. Due to an interest in the unusual and more rare species of plants not indigenous to my part of the United States of America, I set out to learn about as many as possible. When something really cool turned up, it was time to get one; hence an interest in plant propagation. Yes, I was one of the bonsai people who had about 600 plants of species suitable for bonsai but had no idea how to make them into something worthwhile at one point. Moving was always epic. Our fascination with the exotic and unusual is likely one reason we gravitate to bonsai; or to be more specific, the plants used for bonsai art in Japan.
Should we use Japanese and other Asian species for bonsai? The short answer is yes. If that is what makes you happy. There is something wonderful about having access to multiple generations-worth of experience working with a given species and living examples of ancient ones that have flourished as bonsai. What I almost never hear anyone say is The Japanese use their native plants! I am not a native fundamentalist at all. I mean, this is being written in Japan and the only native plant close by is a Parthenocissus quinquefolia
One of the many reasons bonsai in Japan are so excellent is the intimate knowledge of the growth habits and physiological responses of their trees. Prunus mume for example, has a physiological window in late Spring where buds differentiate between flower and leaves for next year. How do we know this? Through a massive amount of trial and error, experimentation, and observation of their native trees and shrubs. We use Japanese species for bonsai to some extent because a lot of the work has been done for us. Japan was the best possible choice in my mind to study as this is where the artform as most know it originated. China and Korea were “first” on the scene, but if you call it bonsai, it came from Japan originally. A number of speices here, including Prunus mume, came from the mainland. Where do you go to learn how to make Italian food? Italy. Where do you learn study French Impressionists? Guess.
It is only logical to go to the source to learn the classical styles, cultural / historical background, and influences from nature that made Japanese bonsai what it is today before setting out on my own path towards artistic expression. If you do not have a solid foundation to work from, I feel you’re spinning your wheels. You don’t have to study bonsai in Japan to be good; it certainly doesn’t hurt though. In some ways, being here could even be limiting I suppose, but only if I back myself into a psychological corner.
One motive I did not mention in my first post (Bonsai? Why?) about why I am in Japan is this: in order for me to better understand the native plants I intend to use and promote the use of in America, I need to learn the tricks of the trade here. My personal collection of bonsai in America is about half natives and half exotics. Native plant collection for bonsai is already alive and well internationally. People like Randy Knight are pushing the limits horticulturally and the results are well worth it. Every new insight into how to coax the best out of our natives will get us closer to knowing them like the Japanese know theirs’.
The notion of a style distinctly American, European, South African, etc to me means using native plants. Or for example, at a minimum using something like a Buxus to make a bonsai reminiscent of a Quercus virginiana if you are doing an American style bonsai. Since I’ve opened this door I feel that native companion plants could not hurt either. Not naming names, there are others who feel the same as I do about the concept that art should not be a Xerox copy of what you see in a book from Japan. I will always create and style bonsai made from Japanese plants, but thinking outside the box and making something new keeps life interesting. My dream is to one day have an intimate working knowledge of American native plants. Then, we can push the limits of artistic expression further as has been done in Japan.
Your homework, as if I could assign it : ), is to find a native tree, shrub, or perennial not commonly used for bonsai yet and do some experimenting. I am not advocating collection of anything threatened. Comment if you are working with natives from your area and would like that information to be spread.
Thanks for reading. I’ll leave you with two photos I just felt like sharing from Saisho-in, Kyoto…..