Bonsai as an Art Form

Cultivating bonsai is more than a skill – it is a unique experience to be enjoyed and shared. Here is what the horticulturist responsible for the Montreal’s Botanical Garden’s collection has to say about his passion:

What is a bonsai expert? – Someone who grows miniature trees in containers, according to the Japanese aesthetic ideal.

What is it that you love about bonsai as an art form? – I feel close to these trees. Through them, I have a very special relationship with nature, space and time. It’s amazing to thing that they were around before my grandparents were born and will still be here when my grandchildren die… And these living things allow us to turn our usual perspective upside down: you can admire a pine tree in your own living room, close up and from every angle.

How is Japan important for you? -  It’s an endless source of inspiration – it’s where I find my mentors and I study their work. I am deeply touched by Japanese aesthetics: their economy of means, refinement, use of empty space and simplicity. I try to apply these principles when working on the Japanese Garden’s bonsai collection.

What makes a successful bonsai? – A bonsai matures only after it as been grown in a container for many years. It now has an obvious form, its branches are well ramified and it shows less and less evidence of human intervention. A successful bonsai evokes something larger than itself: a plain, a mountain, youth and old age, the wind or a sense of calm, perhaps. That’s when it becomes art. A bonsai has to spark an emotion… otherwise it’s a failure!

What does a bonsai expert do:

arbre bonsai

Pruning the branches: By pruning them frequently and selectively, he creates an ever-more ramified structure. As the thickest branches are constantly removed, they are replaced by finer ones – to keep the tree full and small. Photo: ©

art bonsai

Wiring: Copper or aluminium wire is wound around the trunk and branches to guide their growth, like orthodontic braces. The bonsai expert uses the wire to  finish shaping the tree, augmenting the effects of pruning. Photo: ©

bonsai garden

Guy wiring: The branches are held in the desired position with guy wires that maintain the tension in one direction. Unlike wires, guy wires may be left on the tree for years. Photo: ©

bonsai tree

Pruning the roots: When the tree is repotted, its rootball is cut back by on-third or even one-half, just as with the branches, the expert does this so that the tree has more rootlets and fewer large roots. Why? Because the rootlets (feeder roots) take up the water and nutrients the tree needs to survive in the small amount of soil. Photo: ©

bonsai tree

Pinching: The tip of a growing shoot is removed to make the branch more ramified and keep the desired form. The plant tissue at the tip can be simply pinched off or trimmed with shears. Photo: ©

A giant in a pot

A bonsai is just a regular tree cultivated in a special way.

A bonsai artist starts out by carefully selecting a particular specimen. Then the expert takes inspiration from the tree’s personality – he visualizes what it will eventually look like and forms a plan in his head. Now begins the great aesthetic adventure.

He prunes and wires the tree and places it in a container. Then, day after day, with infinite patience, he refines the bonsai, quiding its growth and emphasizing its assets, from the movement of the trunk to signs of age and its main branches.

By drawing on all these techniques – from pruning the branches and roots to pinching off the shoots and wiring – he creates a miniature tree. The flowers and fruit will always be a normal size, however. But all this work would be for naught without the constant, attentive care the tree needs to keep it healthy. It must be watered, fertilized, pruned, pinched back and repotted regularly.

He creates a balanced microcosm allowing the tree to flourish in all its splendour.

There are a number of standard styles and variations in bonsai, all based on close observation of trees growing in the wild. The choice of style is dictated by the individual species and specimen. If the main trunk is already curved and slanted, a slanting form is a natural choice.

A tree in the wild is greatly affected by such factors as the steepness and altitude of the slope where it grows, both of which are suggested in the following bonsai forms : : Kengai (cascade), Han kengai (semi-cascade), Shakan (inclinée – slanting), Moyogi (informal upright), Chokkan (formal upright), Kabudachi (clump), Sokan (twin trunk), Yose-we (forest).

bonsai montreal

Beauty and form are central to the bonsai expert’s creative process. Take a careful look at the trees. Can you see these different forms? Photo: ©

bonsai en été

The container plays an important role, too, when it comes to displaying a bonsai. While most such containers are plain and simple, they must be carefully selected to form a harmonious whole. You will often see another plant displayed next to a bonsai. It is intended to set off the tree’s beauty without stealing the spotlight. Photo: ©


Appreciating a bonsai: Simplicity tends to be the golden rule. Photo: ©

bonsai en foret

A bonsai is not a tortured tree: Far from it! It’s a pampered tree. Just think how old it is. After performing stressful operations – like pruning the roots, for instance – the expert makes sure to give the tree the care it needs to recover quickly. And while the wires may look scary, they don’t hurt the tree. They aren’t kept on long enough to leave any permanent scars. Remember, too, that trees don’t have pain receptors like we do. It’s no more cruel to prune a bonsai than to mow a lawn. Photo: ©

bonsai japan

They say sometimes that the older a bonsai is the more valuable it is. In fact, you can’t always judge a bonsai by its age. That’s not really what matters most. What counts is its form and beauty and the emotion it evokes. Although one can’t help respecting them for their venerable age, of course. Photo: ©

bonsai penjing

Some bonsai, are they collected in the wild? The first bonsai were naturally dwarf trees collected in the wild. The harsh natural elements – wind, poor and rocky soil, freezing temperatures, salt air, etc. – are what dwarfed them. Most modern-day bonsai are grown from cultivated trees. Photo: ©

fall bonsai

Do all bonsai make good houseplants? Not so! All bonsai species do better if put outside for the summer. Bonsai made from tropical or subtropical species can be grown outdoors in summer but must be moved indoors for the winter. Then there are bonsai made from native or hardy species, which can spend the winter outdoors with special protection. If they are brought indoors, they must be kept cold (between 0 and 4 degrees Celsius). Photo: ©

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