This is perhaps a redundant subject and likely understood by most enthusiasts, but it is something I found worth emphasizing in my recent travels–good bonsai takes time. Borrowing a bit from my previous writings…
Recently I have been thinking deeply about what is my bonsai philosophy and how to express it in my work. Time is irrefutably intertwined with bonsai, and perhaps a tree which does not express this element is not bonsai at all.
I think there are 2 expressions of time we can demonstrate. First, is through the artists intent in the image they want to evoke—maybe you are inspired by the harshness of an alpine tree, subject to the elements and with minimal resources to grow resulting in craggy, spindly branching. (Deciduous may evoke a different feeling although that is another discussion.) Second is through age in cultivation; I think we forget sometimes that those old craggly trees is a result of innumerous years of response to it’s growing environment. It may be disingenuous to think that we can emulate that look in short order, circumventing that very critical aspect of time.
This leads me to my current feelings that in cultivating and improving bonsai it is imperative that the work done is one that can be built upon—so that in our self-imposed harshness of the human hand the tree can emerge proud and bearing a dignified record of the past. This is my take on mochikomi.
So when we think about qualities that evoke mochikomi, especially through cultivation, it can imply old but thin branching and dense ramification. For conifers this may imply the balance between enough sparseness or negative space that frames an old elegant tree while still maintaining a density that shows age in cultivation. A green helmet is not visually compelling, but a tree that is too thin may also look immature.
My take on this balance:
The back, looks less bonsai like and more penjing esk but I kind of like it:
Very classical Japanese white pine, Kouka-en circa 2018. Powerful tree, I definitely feel the age in cultivation but perhaps not compelling material.
For deciduous trees this shows itself in carefully curated branching, ramification, and varying degrees of softness vs contortion depending on how branches were grown.
Japanese deciduous trees:
Soft silhouette, technique is to maintain thinness and taper of the branch tips as you progressively grow the tree outwards. Note that branches are GROWN in deciduous trees, not thick branching wired out to silhouette. Think about how they are able to maintain branches that are decades old, but still retain a fine, dense, and soft outer canopy.
Here is one of my tridents in an early stage of branch development. I will progressively build the internodes outwards to avoid coarse or heavy tips. Building branches are time intensive but when you finally reach your desired silhouette the branch quality and density will be magnitudes better quality then trying to wire young thick branches out and relying on interior buds to grow out and build density that way.
Here are some more penjing influenced, deciduous material from Taiwan. My father visited the Hwa Fong Exhibition recently and took these photos. I was deeply moved by what I saw, especially on the deciduous/broadleaf/tropical material.
I’ve had this conversation with many people and we seem to generally agree that in penjing, apex and pad lines are broader, there is stronger directionality, and more emphasis on primary lines relative to bonsai.
The above 3 trees feel much more aggressive compared to their Japanese counter parts with stronger primary lines. Often in Japanese bonsai (not always) we pursue compact shapes. Leggy branches are opted for those with better ramification, internodes, and overall there is a greater emphasis on the cleanliness of branching and silhouette. This perhaps has to do more with the craft aspect vs aesthetic approach to bonsai where leggy branching is often difficult to sustain, floppy or aesthetically unattractive.
Here is a simple lesson on mechanics. Torque or the moment leveraged on an axis is equal to the force exerted times the length of the lever arm:
This is common sense right? That’s why we use longer wrenches to exert more force over a tight bolt. If we consider this concept in reverse, the weight of a long branch exerts a greater moment vs a short one–considering all things equal that the longer branch was also the same weight–which it isn’t!
So long leggy branches are heavy and often cannot be physically supported by the tree. Thus they flop!! In my observations of contemporary American bonsai, I feel (intentional or not) we are slightly gravitating towards penjin-esk designs with greater “asymmetry” or directional shapes. I think this is super cool and I love it, but often we utilize long branches which would be cut out in the traditional scope of Japanese bonsai.
The problem therein lies here. In penjing and some other non-Japanese bonsai in Asia, hobbyists and professionals there grow these primary lines for years to decades before “styling” the tree! To justify elongated primary lines, first the branch must be grown thicker to develop the lignified structure to support it’s weight. Second to carry visual interest over a longer space the branch must have more movement–often of which is produced through growing and cutting back as opposed to strictly wiring. Employing both of these measures may not be as culturally compatible with the American bonsai scene, where instant gratification is sought after as well as for the traveling professional whose visitation period is a smaller window than what these development methods implore!
Field grown Taiwanese junipers at Hwa Fong Exihibition:
Here is a tree I recently worked on a month ago originally styled by another professional in 2017. The tree had looked amazing after the work was done, but fast forward to 2022 all the branches had flopped. Using long leggy branches and forcibly contorting them into a compact silhouette meant there was no structure developed and inhibited all interior growth. Additionally due to the concept explained above, these branches did not have the lignified structure to support the branch weight. Thus the tree slowly lost shape, the technical work went to waste, and the tree needed to be rebuilt.
After opening up apex and cutting out many spaghetti branching. Need to grow out the tree for at least 1-2 seasons and a secondary styling can be done.
Here are some recent projects in varying stages of development. The first tree was originally a prostrata juniper worked on by Mike Pistello for Santa Cruz Bonsai Club in 2016. The tree was won by my friend Drew Tucker who then subsequently grafted itoigawa on the tree. We did the initial styling on the new foliage, ensuring to set up the structure so that in successive rounds of work we can improve the tree:
Here’s another juniper, a San Jose with a great story. This could be a blog post in itself so I’ll link the story here
We did all the structural work over 1.5 years ago, then GREW branches to utilize for refinement work. Last March I did the California Bonsai Society visiting artist program and did the 2nd styling on live stream. Finally we did a 3rd round of work recently, scissor work and light wiring. The tree consistently improves on previous work each time and is looking pretty good now!
I started doing some work at the Clark Bonsai Collection up in Fresno. Bob Hilvers does a great job managing the collection, and the team of volunteers there are highly passionate, attentive, and do good work to upkeep their collection! This is an old historic Hatanaka juniper, likely once prostrata landscape material that was grafted with kishu. It has grown relatively freely all it’s life and ended up in a pom pom shape. We opened up the structure, a few large bends and cutting out unnecessary branching. It is tempting at this stage to give the tree a finished look, but the reality of material grown like this for many years is that there is no interior branches! We will wait for some interior buds to fill in which will allow for successive refinement. Trying to force a finished image at this stage relegates us to using only the leggy growth and will perpetuate coarseness in the structure and design.
In it’s previous form:
Recently I am trying to get in the shohin game more too. Here are 2 trees which I grew from cutting and seedling respectively:
Well that’s a wrap! I am trying to get back in the rhythm of writing again, as I do enjoy sharing my experience and thoughts. I’ve been booking out more of my 2023 calendar to hit up several states so hopefully I can meet more of my non-California supporters in the near future!