014Bonsai is a Japanese word meaning “plant in a tray”. It is usually thought of as a Japanese art from but there is evidence that it actually began in China in the 8th century and made its way to Japan in the 13th century.   Today Japan is still the Mecca for bonsai masters.

Bonsai is an art form whose objective is to mimic nature on a small scale. In nature you will see trees with contorted gnarly trunks or trees that have been struck by lightning or blown over in a storm yet still survive. You will also see majestic trees with gracefully symmetry. These are all models that form the basis of bonsai.

The various styles, for the most part, take their name form there form. Terms like formal upright, informal upright, twin trunk, cascade, grove or wind swept are used to put trees into categories. These terms give the viewer a fairly accurate idea of what the tree will look like. Choosing a style is mostly dependent on what the tree has to offer and its natural growth habit. For instance a blue rug juniper lends itself to a cascade style and could not be trained to an upright style. A maple tree is adapted for an upright style and could not be made into a cascade. Certainly the bonsai artist can train branches to grow in a desired direction, but it is more about fine tuning what exists. Training is done by selective pruning and wrapping wire around a branch.   Once the wire is in place the branch can be bent into the desired position or shape. After a few months the wire is removed and the branch will, hopefully, retain the new shape.

A misconception that I had was the bonsai trees started small then grown to full size bonsai. This is done, but most commonly the source for trees is the discount bin at nurseries. Plants that are mostly dead or misshapen would not look good in a landscape but are prime material for bonsai. The key to selecting a plant is the trunk. A thick trunk with a gradual taper communicates to a viewer that the tree is old. Special varieties are not needed. Just your ordinary landscape plants are often the best to use. I have even dug maple seedlings that have come up in my garden. Once a tree has been selected the rough trimming begins. As much as 80% of the tree any be removed. Often within a year you have a respectable looking bonsai. From that point it is largely a matter of refining the shape.

Getting started in bonsai is simple. Tools need to get going are a scissors, pruning shears, wire cutter and wire. The wire can be just normal electrical wire. All are items that you already have. Specialized bonsai tools are very helpful and purchased for 25 – 30$. I have often heard the comment that people don’t have the patience for this art form. It really does not take much time. A couple times a year the tree will need to basic maintenance pruning – maybe an hour or two. Other than that it is a matter of basic care similar to any other potted plant.

The Fox Valley Bonsai Society will be having its annual show at Lowneys Landscape Center 6064 N. Richmond (it is about 2 miles north of I-41). This is a chance to see a variety of trees and learn more about this art form. The show is October 3, 2015 from 11:00 – 3:00. You can also get more information about the Society on our Facebook page

Written by Tom Wentzel

Posted by Vicki

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