April 6th, 2007 by
Behind the rules
In my intuition I find myself,
In myself I find freedom;
In nature I find the rule,
In the rule I find the wisdom.
Obviously, all the textbook conventions forbonsai are derived from fundamental concepts of artistry and aesthetic principals of visual art. Among the aesthetic principals of visual art are line, form, color, texture, composition, dimension, perspective and balance. A working understanding of these concepts will enable us to freely create and innovate without hesitation because we understand the essence of the art and what these conventions refer to. Furthermore, a solid understanding of horticultural theory and natural rules is very important to our ability to simulate natural phenomena in a convincing manner.
Basic aesthetic principles easily explain all of the so-called rules in bonsai. The commonly cited fault lists in bonsai books should be treated as basic guidelines rather than absolute rules. These lists should also be taken in the context of artistic aims as applied to individual bonsai efforts, rather than thoughtlessly applied to all bonsai. The objective is to create an artistic and appealing bonsai instead of a textbook-true bonsai. Nature is always perfect in imperfection. So-called the imperfection is our human misinterpretation and limited knowledge about the true essence of beauty; we always consider the imperfection as defection rather than natural phenomena. Every style or shape and character of trees in the nature is not formed by miracle, there is always reason, either natural rule or horticultural aspect behind. For this reason, when we create a bonsai, we should put all these aspects into account including exploring the “imperfection” as part of the natural beauty. We should create a soulful and beautiful bonsai rather than “correct” bonsai. The task of a bonsai artist is to explore the character of the tree and conveying the thematic message effectively through the overall design and presentation. This makes art different from craft.
Textbook-true bonsai are seldom appealing and artistic simply for the fact that the way one rule suits a certain condition may not be applicable to other situations. Advisable application of basic bonsai styling convention should take into account the overall structure we have to work with and our artistic aims. Furthermore, the faulty element may indeed become a feature of added value, depending on what other features must be compensated for in the composition. The fault can, of course, be significantly diminished in importance if the overall presentation triumphs in spite of the fault. However, there are a few faults that are difficult to compensate for, like bar branches, spoke-wheel branches, comb branches, inverse taper trunk, etc- but these are not always impossible to visually compensate for.
Here are a few examples:
– Eye-poking branches are considered to be faults because they don’t present a good use of dimension for the viewer; but sometimes such a branch is needed to fill an ugly gap in the structure.
– Crossed branches are not good because they look messy and disturb the visual flow; but they are often needed in windswept or literati form bonsai.
– Parallel branches indicate bad branch order and composition in the body, but it can be ignored in certain circumstances.
– “Knee roots” that rises up from the soil are considered to be bad, but they can be a counter balance element in certain slanting-trunk bonsai. This fault is similar to having too many roots on one side of the trunk.
– The curve of the trunk should not come frontward like a pigeon’s breast. This simply explains the dimensional matter because such a curve will not be seen and will simply look like a straight line from the front due to the two-dimensional effect.
– Bow shaped trunk is considered monotonous, boring and unnatural. This is not always true, however, when a proper composition is smartly done.
– The recommended placement of the branches on the left, right, back etc., is indicative of proper composition and helps to create good physical volume. But in many styles, one-sided branches offer an interesting and different impact.
– Lower branch should always be bigger than the ones above. This helps to indicate the normal growth of a tree. This element is also a matter of perspective â€“ showing how we view a tree from bottom up. But in many cases, nature shows us exceptions to this idea.
– The decreasing internodes space between branches ascending the trunk is another element of perspective, but disorder between internodes can offer a charming appeal.
– Parallel trunks with no taper present a challenge to perspective, but the distraction can be mitigated in an innovative bonsai.
– “Frog-leg” trunk formation is a fault owing to the problem of symmetrical composition, but such a formation can be adjusted to diminish the effect by repositioning the viewing angle.
In many cases bonsai do not look good because of inconsistencies of line and form. For example, the dynamic trunk line of a literati style bonsai is topped by a dense, heavy, umbrella-like apex. Another example would be the combination of curving branches on one side with clip-and-grow zigzag branches on the other side. Yet another could be the combination of one sparse foliage canopy with another fuller canopy on a twin-trunk form bonsai.
As said, textbook-true bonsai do not always look good. Although it may perform perfect root formation, good anatomical and optical balance, good dimension and composition which seems to follow the “rules” correctly, but it can end up with an awful design, unnatural and disintegrated in harmony. This is the result of “check-list” practice.
So, to create good bonsai there is no single pattern or rule to follow. One convention can be applied in various ways to account for different physical conditions and styles. Blindly applying the “check-list” of rules is like the Chinese proverb: Wu lun thun zhao â€“ swallowing the walnut without breaking the shell. Breaking the rules in bonsai is not vandalism.
* The same article with pictures can be viewed at :
Premna “ The Stinky Lady“
Premna, a new rising star of bonsai in Indonesia after Pemphis acidula and Casuarinas equisetifolia.
Premna is tropical and sub-tropical plant found in many countries e.g. China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia to Australia. There are about 200 different species with different leaf shapes and characters, but P. microphylla and P. serratifolia are the most favorite species for bonsai due to the physical character as well as the ideal leaves.
It used to be called “Chou Niang Zi” in Chinese, which means “Stinky Lady” or even worse “ “Stinky Bitch” due to the unpleasant odor of the leaf. But why “bitch“? Could because it is so sexy, charming, passionate, tempting, yet vigorous and dynamic.
Premna grows along the sandy or rocky seacoast as small trees or shrubs, and some in mountainous area. The one from seacoast is most likely used for bonsai due to the unique texture of the trunk especially for the natural jin-shari as the result of natural forces e.g. sea-water and sand-blasting; and the dramatic zigzag trunk lines formed by the harsh condition. P. microphylla is mostly used for bonsai in Taiwan, while P. serratifolia is used in Indonesia and sometimes grafted with the leaves of P. microphylla to combine the unique bark texture with the small leaves. P. serratifolia in Indonesia is mostly growing on the rocky hill side along the coastline facing to the Indian Ocean. Hunting Premna yamadori is an adventurous experience. In some area, there is no track to access to the hill; in such condition, the hunters should jump into the water and approach the hill by the big wave; and when the wave flows back, they can hold on the rock to climb up.
When a yamadori is collected, it is tight with rope, through into the sea and collected by their colleagues who are waiting below.
The bright and shiny green leaves of Premna and the dancing twisted trunk with the gnarled texture is so beautiful, so elegant, and maybe due to this, then the name was linguistically rehabilitated and upgraded to “Shou Niang Zi“， “ “Long-life Lady“, credit to its dedication in bonsai !
It is a very fast growing tree, tough, easy to take care of and no problem of being bare-rooted or heavy root pruning. Premna is relatively high tolerated to different soil condition and climate, so it can easily grow in many sub-tropical countries. The leaves can be reduced to extremely small from approximately 9 cm to 2 mm (!) by proper pruning and the foliation can be very compact.
There are two more species found locally which names not exactly known and not good for bonsai. Beside the leaves characters, due to the growing condition, both are seldom found in good shape for bonsai although they mostly grow as larger trees. One grows in the swampy area that the local people call it vege-premna because the local people use it for cooking as soup that believed as good to cure bad body smell or to eliminate the fishy smell for seafood. The leaves are much thinner and floppy. The other one is called mountain-premna because it grows in the mountain; the leaves character is obviously different from the others, thin and difficult to be reduced in size.
Due to the fast growing, Clip-and-Grow technique is recommended to obtain a perfect ramification and can be dramatically demonstrated in defoliated presentation. With the proper clip-and-grow method, the leaves size will get smaller on each section forming; so when the twigs structure is formed, the leaves size will reach the smallest stage as well.
The most common disease of Premna is the attack of white fly or other sucking insects on the leaves and scales that attack the bark that may cause the leaves wrinkled and dying back of the branches. Without clear reason, the problem of bugs attack on branches is mostly found on P. microphilla or the grafted trees, while the attack on leaves sometime happens to P. serratifolia (see the below pictures). The worst problem is if they attack the inside bark which normally not very obvious from outside unless carefully observed. The symthom is the bark looks dry with some white spots around. If this problem is not handled immedately, the branches will dye. So it requires frequent spraying of insecticide onto the leaves and branches; or by applying lime sulfur for prevention. Before doing this, all the leaves are suggested to be defoliated and the trunk or branches are cleaned by brushing. Regular check on the bark is a must; and if such problem occured, brush the bark immediately with insecticide and apply lime sulphur.
Most of the materials have multi-dimensional options for different designs and sometimes total repositioning is necessary to find the right angle of composition.
We can hardly find other species suitable for bonsai with such unlimited characteristics to explore our creativity beside Pemphis and Junipers. In five years to come, I believe Premna will be one of the most favorite tropical bonsai in many countries.
Casuarina is a genus of shrubs and trees in the Family Casuarinaceae, native to Australia and islands of the Pacific, and widely spread to Hawaii, Florida, India, Indonesia, Africa, Egypt, some part of China and Japan, Caribbean islands etc. Commonly known as Sheoak or Australian pine because the branches and scale-like “needle” leaves bear a superficial resemblance to the pines, looks like wispy conifer. Casuarina is growing in subtropical and tropical, both at the seashore in dry, salty, calcareous soils and up in the mountains in high rainfall area on volcanic soils. Considered as invasive species in many countries but some are introduced and planted as windbreaks in the windswept area.
There are three species of Casuarina e.g. Casuarina equisetifolia (Beach Sheoak), C. cunninghamiana (River Sheoak) and C. glauca (Swamp Sheoak). They are difficult to tell the differences obviously, despite the growing area, the differences are mainly on the leaf character and the shape of the cone-like fruit. Sometimes the same species have different bark textures; some grow like shrubs in the bush land or trees up to over 30 meters tall.
Casuarina is highly tolerant to many adverse conditions and climate (ranging from 10 to 40 degree Celcius); dry or wet soil, alkaline or acidic (ranging from pH 4.5 â€“ 9.5), clay, sandy or limestone, heat or high winds, but should be well-drained and full sun, yet grows best in slightly acid sandy soils with high humidity. It can be easily propagated by seed, stem cutting and air-layering.
Casuarina as bonsai
Casuarina was first introduced as bonsai in 1985 by the bonsai community in Madura island of Indonesia where Casuarina equisetifolia mostly grows along the coastline of this island. Due to its best quality of fuel wood, the local people had been cutting the branches as firewood for cooking. This continuous cutting process had formed the cut-and-grow branches structure of dwarf trees, which later attracted the bonsai enthusiasts to collect and use as bonsai materials.
As time flows, the unique pruning technique of the foliage was invented which resemble the pines character as old Casuarina look like in some area. Eventually, Casuarina bonsai become the icon of Indonesian bonsai, which has stood out prestigious performance for many international contest awards; and nowadays, many countries are following to train Casuarina the way as Indonesia does.
Casuarina can be easily propagated by seed, stem cutting and air-layering. The success rate of stem cutting and air-layering is quite high, but it can be very sensitive when dug from the nature and moved to pot due to the severe disturbance on the roots system.
Casuarina equisetifolia is growing along the sandy coastline with strong wind and full sun, the same preferences as bonsai as well. Shady condition will cause slow growing; the leaves grow weak, weepy and unhealthy. The best soil used is volcanic soil with larger granules at the bottom layer. Volcanic soil will provide perfect drainage; the porous structure will keep constant wetness and the root hairs system can grow properly to obtain healthy foliation.
When it is dug from the nature, cut out the major leaves with short remain. It is advisable to soak in rooting hormones solution to enhance the new rooting. It is also advisable to collect the soil from its habitat to mix with the potting soil for the first time in the training pot. After potting, do not put in the sunny place, keep in the shady place until new shoots coming out before moving to the open area. During this period, do not water too much, but should keep the moisture by spraying to the whole body.
Programming and Training Technique
Casuarina can root on the surface, also can form taproots that grow down to the water table; so as bonsai, it is easy to improve the nebari (footage) by letting the surface roots growing down to ground through pipes. When the watering on the pot is decreased, these taproots will grow very fast to form a perfect footage.
Casuarina can also easily be grafted to grow new branches at designated places when necessary. Jin shari are not recommended because it rots easily.
The key to successfully train Casuarina into nice looking bonsai is the pruning technique to create the ” foliage-balls” (clusters) along with the compact twigs structure. Casuarina is relatively growing very fast, and the best way to form the ramification is by the “clip-and-grow” method.
In fact the leaves of Casuarina are rather inconspicuous, grow in whorls. Although they look like the needles of pines, but these “needles” are actually multi-jointed branchlets with nodes and can be pulled off. So each needle is potential to grow as branch or twig.
Before working on the foliage clusters, the branches and ramification structure should be obtained by proper “clip-and-grow” method. As each leaf is potential to grow as branch, the messy “needles” should be cleaned out in initial stage, keeping only selected “needles” to create future branches, sub-branches or twigs.
After the trunk and branches are set in place, forming the overall dimension and composition of the design, and the sub-branches and twigs are properly structured, then it is time to start working on the foliage clusters to create the canopy. Each cluster is formed at the tip of twig with bunch of needle-like leaves around by cleaning out and pinching to shorten in desired length.
After the finishing touch of cleaning the messy leaves around on individual cluster, the final compact result will be obtained. Do not use shears to cut the leaves, but by twisting and pinching by hand at the nodes to avoid the brownish tips.
Although it is well tolerant to infertile soil condition in its nature habitat, but in pot, fertilizing is recommended as it responds well in growing rate with phosphorus; nitrogen is not needed in the fertilizer because it produces its own nitrates due to its ability to fix nitrogen in a symbiotic association with the bacteria Frankia sp. As in its nature habitat, it grows well with saline groundwater and salt spray; so it is recommended to put salt around the soil periodically.
One should be very careful when do repotting. If possible, avoid any severe disturbance to the roots system and do not do any major cutting on the roots. The best time to repot is in early spring and never repot during the raining season when the sunlight is not sufficient and too much water may cause the roots rot. If not really necessary, it is better to change the soil periodically on around the pot rather than a complete repotting with new soil mixture.
Casuarina is intolerant to shady place; windy place is preferable; wet but well drainage is a must !
To maintain the delicate performance of foliage, refinement is needed from time to time by cleaning and pinching the over-growth leaves. This can be done all year long at any time to keep the compact foliage outlook; but never defoliated.
Disease and pests Casuarinas is relatively strong resist to disease and pest, no serious problem appears as bonsai; occasionally fungus attack which cause stem and leaf wilt, and eventual death. However, it is quite sensitive to the improper drainage or when the roots system is disturbed during the repotting. The major biological cause of death is the mushroom roots rot that cause dying-back, but this can be decreased in wetter condition with perfect drainage.
Read my article about Literati at :
More articles to come…