Since arriving in Japan, I’ve done full styling projects on a a ton of trees. The majority are what we refer to as “lesson trees” that aren’t spectacular bonsai by Japanese standards, but have issues needing resolution to be set on the right path. This particular Juniperus rigida, aka “Tosho”, was a slightly different project.
Every now and then, I’m given an opportunity to take a rough tree and do what I like. There is an understanding that I must make it marketable of course, and as with most things related to apprenticeship, it’s a test.
If the project turns out well, all is well in the the world. If I fail, well, you don’t fail : ). That would mean constant reminders of what mistake you made for the next week or so ad nasuem. “Please water that maple. It’s dry. Oh, and don’t forget that your spacing between branches on oak bonsai needs to account for the size density of the leaves”. You get the idea. On to the tree…..The inital shape of this tree had some serious issues to resolve. The lowest branches were straight, lacked interest, and did not match the rest of the tree. The top half had not been pruned in a while. Choosing a great “front” for this tree was important. This particular tree was field grown and a bunch of twists and turns were put into it in a predictable manner. The “barber pole” twist in the middle of the trunk line really bugged me, so this took precedent when picking a front. The front I chose best links the base of the tree to the apex by softening the curves.
Bunjin to me are all about the trunk line,feeling of age, and embodyment of a life of hardship. A trunk line that is too curvy looks contrived while one too straight (in this particular instance) would be boring. I must admit a bit of an addiction to bunjin trees. However, my first inclination is not to slice and dice to force a style on any tree. Doing so is not only risky, but in my opinion you’re relying on your ego and not working within a reasonable framework. This tree was asking for it though : ). The main reason being the top and bottom halves did not match. A pet peeve I have is jins that look like a branch that used to be part of the design just died. Not all dead branches need to be jin. On this particular project, the lowest right branch was completely deleted as a jin there would conflict with the line of the trunk. Wiring bunjin bonsai is always a joy and an ordeal at once. You may only have a few branches to wire, but every bend and tweak must be precisely calculated. Drastic re-stylings like this are also risky for the health of the tree. I left a few extra branches in the apex and more branches along the base of the trunk to give the future owner some liberties in choosing the future direction of the tree.
I apologize for the lack of progression photos; I was filming this project for the Bonsai Art of Japan Series before it became a blog post…..Two weeks later, a new flush of growth has popped and that signals a window to repot safely. Tosho are one of the last species of plant we repot at Kouka-en. If you ever wonder how to care for a species new to you, one solid lead will be to look into where it’s native to. What altitude can it live at? Does it live near water? How hot / cold does it get there? Another solid lead is observation of the plants behavior. In the case of Tosho, the Spring flush is later than most. So, repot later than most. The first flush of growth tells you sap is flowing and the tree is physiologically active. Many species are repotted as new growth emerges at Kouka-en. One exception is Fagus japonica, as beech do not respond well to the procedure and should be repotted just before the buds swell.
There is a convenient window to repot Tosho after you pinch the first flush of growth back. Wait until the second flush of the year is emerging and get to it. Tosho in general do not like to have aggressive repotting work done to them. I pushed this tree as far as I felt comfortable after removing over half the branches. Review the following pics and think about what stick out as being “off”.
In the future, the live veins that feed each branch will swell and shari can be made up and down the tree. The barber pole twist in the middle will then become an asset instead of a fault as the deletion of the likely half the bark on the trunk will give the tree an even lighter feeling. I may not get a chance to do this work as Mr. Sakamoto came to Kouka-en today and purchased the bonsai. He’s a bit of a bunjin fan too.
It was definitely not alright for me to interrupt, so a covert shot of the deal will have to suffice. I passed the test by the way : ).
So how about the three issues above? Issue #`1 refers to the gap between the dropping branch and the trunk line. “Holes” like this draw the eye and are distracting. The bends I put into the tree were a compromise of what I hoped for and what was possible with the material during the first styling. Issue #2 is the funky bend I used to make the branch look shorter than it actually was from the front. Bunjin trees often have what some people call “character branches”. Something unexpected or unconventional that makes the composition interesting. Issue #3 is that the apex is too full and there are not enough spaces between branches. In the future, I’d remove about half the apical branches to lighten the feeling and bring a better harmony to the whole tree.
Bonsai is not a cut and dry event, but about forward progress. This tree is a good example of that. It is by no means ready to rock, but has been set on a new path.
Thanks for reading.