A world-class bonsai exhibition will take place Sept. 10-11 in Rochester, and if you go it might be good to know something about this horticultural art form. As a start, let’s pronounce it properly. It is not “Banzai!,” the battle cry or patriotic shout. The word “bonsai” is pronounced as a combination of the words “bone” and “sigh.” Put them together and it’s “Bone-sigh.” We sound smarter already.
The show and master
Creating and bringing the U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition to Rochester is the achievement of Bonsai Master William N. Valavanis, who first studied ornamental horticulture at SUNY Farmingdale and Cornell University. He has traveled to Japan at least 50 times where he apprenticed with bonsai masters. Now Master Valavanis is the proprietor of the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester. He teaches classical bonsai worldwide and is the author of seven books. The event will be the fifth National Bonsai Exhibition, and it’s often compared to the acclaimed Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition of Japan. In fact judges from Japan will preside in Rochester, adding to the prestige of this event.
Now imagine nurturing, shaping, and growing a tree to present in a bonsai exhibition – perhaps a bonsai that you inherited or bought from a bonsai master. Your tree is 300 years old. How are you going to ship it from California, Texas or Maine to Rochester? The answer is: very carefully. And expensively. At least 300 bonsai are coming from 34 states and Canada, displayed by 148 exhibitors. Ten different botanic garden collections will also show their plants. The bonsai will represent at least 100 plant species, both coniferous and deciduous. The show will include demonstrations and critiques by bonsai masters, and one of the largest bonsai vendor areas yet seen. (See end of column for details.)
I’m embarrassed to admit that once long ago I said, “What a terrible thing to do to a perfectly nice tree.” I didn’t get it. A small tree or shrub that is chosen for bonsai purposes is likely to have a much longer life span with much better care than out there in the natural or landscaped world. The purposes of bonsai are equally positive: for the viewer it’s about contemplation. For the grower or artist it’s the exercise of creativity and ingenuity– quite like gardening but even slower. In Japanese the name comes from bon, referring to a tray or pot with low sides, and sai – plant or plantings. There are similar practices in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures. The bonsai artist chooses a small shrub or tree and uses cultivation techniques such as pruning, root reduction, defoliation, grafting and wiring to produce a small tree that mimics a tree form in nature.
Besides my earlier misunderstanding – that this practice was tormenting an otherwise happy tree – myths and misunderstanding abound, according to bonsai practitioners. Let’s clarify:
Myth: Bonsai plants are houseplants.
Reality: Everything depends upon the type of plant you chose. If it’s a hardy deciduous or coniferous tree, like a maple or juniper or Kentucky coffee tree, the tree will grow best outside in summer and must have a real winter and go dormant – outside (or in a cold place with some protection). Hardy woody plants don’t do well as houseplants, period. If your bonsai tree is tropical in origin, then it must come inside for the winter where you’ll try to replicate tropical conditions (light and humidity).
Myth: Bonsai is about dwarfing the plant.
Reality: No, dwarfing is a process in which plant cultivars are developed genetically through crossing, to produce a stable new plant that’s a miniature of the original plant. With bonsai you start with seedlings or cuttings of normal sized plants and apply techniques that direct the plant’s growth and shape. This is why, for instance, you may see a normal sized fruit or flower on a bonsai specimen, rather than a miniature version of the fruit or flower.
Myth: Bonsai are all trees.
Reality: Many shrubs (azaleas) or vines (wisterias, grape) are also used.
Myth: Don’t use fertilizer because you want to keep these plants small.
Reality: You want a healthy, growing plant so use fertilizer in appropriate amounts and timing for the type of plant.
Myth: In bonsai practice the tree stops growing.
Reality: The tree keeps growing, including going through normal seasonal changes such as dropping leaves, growing shoots, or producing flowers in spring.
Myth: Root pruning is harmful.
Reality: Roots are pruned for the health of the plant; it’s part of the art of bonsai.
Forms and styles
Bonsai developed over at least 10 centuries, and tastes and styles have evolved differently depending upon regions, countries and individuals. When you see a bonsai exhibition it may help to recognize at least some of these basic styles:
• Formal upright (Chokkaa): The trees have straight, upright trunks, and the shape tapers up the tree toward the apex (top).
• Informal upright (Moyogi): While the apex of the tree is aligned with the base, the tree grows in a curving, bending line with branches on the outside of the curves.
• Slant (Shakan): The tree slants dramatically to one side, with roots appearing to hold the tree in place. Sometimes a rock is used to prop the tree when it is young.
• Cascade (Kengai): Also called a cliff hanger, in this style the tip of the tree is held below the bottom of the container. In a “half cascade,” the plant dips below the edge of the container but does not lean lower than the bottom.
• Broom (Hokidachi): The trunk is straight upright but at about one-third of the plant’s height many fine branches extend outward in all directions (brooming) to form a rounded crown.
Other forms are double trunk, multitrunk, forest style – and you will see more.
A person could spend a lifetime studying the art of bonsai, and many do. So why not start next weekend with the two-day show that is being called “the highest level bonsai exhibition in America”?
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.