Basics of bonsai: How miniature trees from Asia have transcended frontiers

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Used to diagnose physical disorders and categorize food for its medicinal properties, the ancient East Indian Ayurvedic system would seem to have little connection to the cultivation of bonsai. It was in India, though, that the art of miniaturizing trees began, with the aim of using them for medicinal purposes. Although only a small number of people in India today cultivate bonsai, favoring species such as ulmus, ficus, ixora, jade and even rubber plants, it is interesting to speculate what tree types native to India would originally have been selected. We will probably never know.

Indeed, China — a nation comparable in geographical and cultural magnitude to India, but with a particular consideration for small things — would become bonsai’s first great exponent. Chinese cultivators were more interested, however, in the aesthetic rather than purely horticultural aspects of bonsai, an art form they called penjing or penzai. The earliest illustration of a miniaturized living landscape, dated 706, has been found in the Tang Dynasty Qianling Mausoleum in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province.

Although container plantings were brought from China to Japan by imperial emissaries as early as the sixth century, bonsai as an art likely dates from the 13th century. Its most recent journey has been to the West. Dwarf trees were components in the Japanese gardens constructed for world fairs in North America and Europe in the years from 1870 to 1940.

Judging from old postcards and catalogues, many of these re-creations, resembling congested amusement parks, were lacking in the refinements of the original, but, as vulgarized prototypes, helped to sate an infatuation with cultural objects of Japanese origin.

Exhibits of bonsai at the Osaka Expo in 1970 drew international attention to the art and helped boost a renewal of interest in Japan. Bonsai cultivation as an art form, though, continues to be known outside Japan, but little understood in its specifics.

It’s no exaggeration to speculate that many people in the West may have got their first glimpse of bonsai cultivation in the 1984 film “The Karate Kid,” in which actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, playing the unassuming Mr. Miyagi, a martial arts master, is seen tending his specimens with a meticulous attention to detail that is supposed to convey a higher sensitivity and Japanese inclination for the miniature masterpiece. Morita, a Japanese-American who spoke flawless English, was required to deliver his lines in a corrupted version of the language, a Hollywood requisite for Asian roles at the time. Instructing his young protege in the correct procedure for trimming a tree, he says: “Close eye. Trust. Think only tree … wipe mind clean.”

Trellis tables at Shunka-en, a nursery in Edogawa Ward in Tokyo. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Trellis tables at Shunka-en, a nursery in Edogawa Ward in Tokyo. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Coincidentally, the assumed movie connection was partly confirmed by Bjorn Bjorholm, an American who opened the Eisei-en Bonsai Nursery outside of Nashville, Tennessee, in 2018. Bjorholm saw the movie when he was 12 years old, receiving his first bonsai from his parents a year later. After graduating from university, he began a bonsai apprenticeship at the Fujikawa Kouka-en nursery in Osaka, spending an intensive six years studying under its bonsai master, Keiichi Fujikawa. A further three years followed as the nursery’s artist-in-residence.

Asked to explain the growing popularity of bonsai in the United States, he cites the importing of the techniques by a number of trainees returning from Japan in the early 2000s and the importance of social media, which has “increased awareness of bonsai in the West … outlets such as YouTube have made it easier to access quality information.”

Nashville might seem an improbable choice for a bonsai nursery, but Bjorholm maintains that the climate, temperature, humidity, rainfall and growing seasons are practically identical to Osaka. Finding comparable environments in the United States may be plain sailing, but importing tree species from Japan is a different matter.

All plants are required to be bare-rooted, necessitating the removal of even microscopic particles of earth. Once in the United States, they have to be quarantined from between two to three years before being claimed by the buyer.

Bjorn Bjorholm opened Eisei-en Bonsai Nursery near Nashville in 2018. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Bjorn Bjorholm opened Eisei-en Bonsai Nursery near Nashville in 2018. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

According to Bjorholm, this tedious process has been a blessing in disguise, forcing cultivators to seek out tree samples in different parts of the country.

“I would venture to say,” he concludes, “that bonsai practitioners and professionals in Japan are likely somewhat jealous of the raw material we now have to work with in the U.S.”

As for the future of bonsai in the United States, Bjorholm’s optimism is undimmed.

“The appetite for knowledge here is voracious,” he says. “I am very excited to see how bonsai evolves in this new cultural context over the coming decades.”

Although its bonsai section represents only a fraction of the vast 1,100-acre grounds of the Longwood Gardens complex in greater Philadelphia, an area known as the “garden capital of North America,” it is a field of cultivation and research that is well-established and expanding.

I asked Patricia Evans, Longwood’s director of communications, about the origins of their involvement in bonsai. The catalyst, it seems, was a demonstration given in 1959 by the bonsai master Yuji Yoshimura (1921-97).

“Our staff were so inspired they decided to purchase 13 species from him,” Evans says. Those trees included ginkgo, Japanese zelkova, crape myrtle and Chinese elm, specimens that are still in the garden’s collection today.

Kevin Bielicki, bonsai curator at Longwood Garden, a horticultural center in Greater Philadelphia. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Kevin Bielicki is a bonsai curator at Longwood Garden, a horticultural center in Greater Philadelphia. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Asked whether the complex was actively innovating with bonsai, Evans says that, being an expressive art form, trees require cultivators to bring forth their own special beauty and dynamic nature.

“We are currently experimenting with the cultivation of many underutilized or potentially never utilized species,” she says. “Some species include coral pea and spotted fuscia.”

Asked to explain the popularity of bonsai in places such as Europe and the United States, she explains that the bonsai world has expanded through clubs, groups, exhibitions, and competitions, its re-appropriation spurring “new forms and the growth in knowledge of non-utilized species.”

She talks of a surge of enthusiasm in other countries that may even equal that of “the quality and quantity of Japan and China. Perhaps even one day some countries may surpass them.”

According to the website Bonsai Empire, there are more than 450 bonsai clubs and associations in Europe.

Clubs have played a key role in promoting the art outside of its traditional bases. The Swindon & District Bonsai Society, based in the British county of Wiltshire, traces its roots to the late 1970s. The group hopes to soon revert to pre-pandemic conditions, during which workshops were held in members’ gardens and at a local community center. Workshops are also organized with a bonsai pot maker.

Chairman of the group, Paul Bowerbank, tells me that hundreds of bonsai members in the United Kingdom make trips to continental Europe, places such as Belgium and the European Bonsai Show at Sailieu in France, noting in regard to the country’s new relationship with Europe that, “Brexit has caused even more problems with the transportation of trees.”

Further into Europe, Valentin Brose and his wife set up the eponymously named Brose Bonsai nursery outside Stuttgart, Germany, in 2016.

After apprenticing in Japan, Valentin Brose and his wife set up a bonsai nursery outside Stuttgart in 2016. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
After apprenticing in Japan, Valentin Brose and his wife set up a bonsai nursery outside Stuttgart, Germany, in 2016. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Brose studied for over three years at the Shunka-en Bonsai Museum in eastern Tokyo, with Kunio Kobayashi, a major figure in the Japanese bonsai world.

Asked how vital those years in Japan were, Brose sees them as an essential stage in his early development, going as far as to say they shaped him in the “form of bonsai techniques (and) design, as well as thinking and approaches, such as interpersonal interaction and respect.”

A thriving nursery, they host workshops in their studio rooms and garden. Their work also involves maintaining and designing collections for customers. Reflecting on regional differences, Brose notes that Germany has lower humidity levels than Japan, with colder winters, requiring, in the case of some species, the use of heated greenhouses.

Asked to comment on the growing popularity of bonsai in Germany and Europe, Brose cites three currents of interest.

“For some,” he says, “it’s a status symbol. Others will find an oasis of calm in it for their stressful professional life. Then, for many, bonsai has an aura of ancient culture and a certain spirituality.”

According to Brose, more people have joined bonsai clubs during the pandemic period, a trend he hopes can be sustained. On the durability of bonsai, he adds, “It is about living beings that can exist far beyond a human life.”

Kunio Kobayashi, a major figure in Japanese bonsai, trims a specimen at his nursery, Shunka-en, in Tokyo’s Nihori neighborhood. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Kunio Kobayashi, a major figure in Japanese bonsai, trims a specimen at his nursery, Shunka-en, in Tokyo’s Nihori neighborhood. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

A measure of the global outreach of bonsai is the existence of a growing number of nurseries and clubs in New Zealand. Tararua Bonsai’s members are drawn from all ages, genders, backgrounds and levels of expertise.

Activities vary from displays to potting, wiring, soil maintenance, information sharing and discussions. Hands-on workshops at different levels are held on a monthly basis, and range from simple instruction and demonstration to debates on the aesthetics of bonsai.

Tararua Bonsai President Dawid de Villiers stresses that native species in New Zealand cannot be taken from conservation areas, meaning that trees are often grown from seed. The wild species that are available are generally restricted to exotics like pines, privet, hawthorn, larch, prunus, fir, beech and cotoneaster.

“I am seeing a lot of younger people being interested and taking it up as a hobby,” he says. “There is something for everyone.”

Despite intense interest abroad, Japan remains the epicenter of the bonsai universe, the inspiration for domestic cultivators, but also a magnetic vision for people from overseas.

Adam Jones attends to a pine, a common bonsai type in Japan. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Adam Jones attends to a pine, a common bonsai type in Japan. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Adam Jones, a native of Pennsylvania, came to Japan to study garden design, but soon switched to bonsai, undertaking an extensive five-year apprenticeship at a nursery in Bonsai Mura in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture.

In a method common to the acquisition of skills in everything from studying bunraku and flower arrangement to Zen training, Jones describes how, as a bonsai apprentice in Japan, he was assigned menial tasks such as sweeping, cleaning, watering trees and general upkeep of the garden before graduating to more demanding activities such as styling trees, pruning and arranging displays.

Striking out on your own in the bonsai world in Japan is no mean feat, especially as an outsider.

With a decent employment record, the right visa status and a housing loan from a bank, Jones and his Japanese wife were able to acquire land and a residence through an online real-estate system.

The location of the large, flat plot of land they purchased in the Ami-Machi region of Ibaraki Prefecture, 30 minutes from Narita Airport and an hour from downtown Tokyo, proved ideal.

The only foreign owner of a fully operating nursery in Japan, Jones opened Tree House Bonsai a little more than three years ago.

“Without getting into too much detail,” he adds as a caveat to anyone planning to replicate his career route, “suffice it to say Japan, as a country, really likes paperwork, and in most cases that paperwork would make building a garden here as I have done very difficult.”

An experienced gardener at Toju-en, a nursery in Bonsai Mura in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, attends to a pine bonsai. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
An experienced gardener at Toju-en, a nursery in Bonsai Mura in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, attends to a pine bonsai. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Jones is hopeful that, as technology shrinks the world, the global bonsai community will continue to expand.

Characterizing the pursuit of bonsai as, “a combination of nature, culture and the individual,” he sees two competing, but not necessarily negating forces.

One being the role of the bonsai master as caretaker of traditional forms and aesthetics, the other the pursuit of the avant-garde, the “hitherto unexplored potential of beauty and the relationship between humans and nature using trees as the mediums for expressing that pursuit.”

As bonsai continue their journey from East to West, successfully adapting to unfamiliar new habitats, Jones has taken the opposite course, putting down roots in Japan, where he intends to cultivate them.

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