Bonsai – Past and Present
Juniper growing on lava glass sheet by Nicholas Lewis
Reprinted with permission from Bonsai Tomorrow Magazine, Issue 456 March 7, 2232
into Old English with WinMac Translator v3.95
Information Bureau license 2232.3941644.art.living.public one reprint
only, no duplications, no archiving, no other distribution granted.
All rights subject to change without notice
The following techniques
of the past may be offensive to some as the descriptions of the tools, techniques, and methods are graphic, some bordering
on what many would call barbaric. Please be advised that the following is presented for historical reference only and should
not be read by those undergoing readjustment training or by those as of yet un-inoculated as per government requirement section
artists often do not remember that the tools, techniques, and methods we use to create our art today were the result of innovations
of the past and have not always existed. We often dismiss the bonsai artists of the past as clumsy, barbaric butchers, forgetting
that these very same people are the ones who made the discoveries and innovations that have brought bonsai to its present
form. Certainly they can not be credited with actually making all the discoveries that brought our art civility and raised
the level of the art form to that of fine art, but they did indeed latch on to these new innovations and adapted them to bonsai
at every opportunity. For this alone they deserve respect.
it would be interesting if we looked at the tools, techniques, and methods of the past and compared them to the advancements
that we take for granted today. My great, great grandfather, who is my namesake, used these very techniques described in this
article, not having access to the technology we are blessed with today. I am proud to have researched the methods he used
to create his bonsai and to have one of the actual bonsai, still living and not in a status field, which he cared for personally
hundreds of years ago.
Understanding the history of our art form can be like adding seasoning
to a main dish, correct use will bring out flavors that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. By wisely "seasoning" our knowledge
of bonsai, both from the past and from the present, we can better taste the whole dish while appreciating what life was once
like for artists like ourselves
Thousands of 15 cm high, fully mature redwoods growing at the World Bonsai
Federation Nursery in Death Valley near the Nick Lenz Museum
When we need raw material to create our art from, we simply pick a
species that appeals to us, we select the height limitation imposed by genetic engineering that suits our vision, and we purchase
a tree. Thanks to the modern horticulturalist’s ability to manipulate BAS-1 (phyB activation-tagged suppressor1) and
other genes, it is possible to create short or 'dwarf' plants that are completely normal in every other way and that have
all the attributes of a full sized tree. The difference in the trees being grown today and those in the past is that the fruit,
leaves, flowers, and every other aspect are also reduced in scale.
BAS-1 acts like a volume knob that the grower can
use to determine the height a tree will reach, be it 15 cm or 80 newmeters. It is truly a remarkable thing, even today, to
see a mature oak tree with the complete appearance of a mature, old oak growing in nature, but at only 20 cm in height.
Non-bonsaists enjoy the fruits of this discovery as well with grass and hedges
that never need height reduction, as once they reach their predestined genetic height they grow no higher. Imagine in the
past when running a machine with spinning sharp blades over the grass was a common chore and done on a weekly basis, it must
have truly been a savage world.
Also contributing to our art is
the advancement given to us long ago when the complete genome sequence was compiled for every living plant, enabling us to
identify and manipulate the genes responsible for growth. Biologists, arborists, and horticulturists repaired rain forests
and grew completely new forests, to replace those that were once destroyed, in just a few short years. Bonsaists quickly discovered
that, when used with the new genetically engineered dwarf plants, that trees with all the characteristics of trees that were
hundreds or even thousands of years in age could be grown in two or three years, complete with mature bark, fine ramification,
developed nebari, and yes, even with fruits and flowers. No longer did the bonsaist need to wait for decades for a seedling
to mature or produce fruits and flowers.
In the past bonsaists had no such technology; they
were forced to use one or more of the following techniques to acquire material:
- Purchase unaltered trees and then, though a process of physically sawing or cutting the trunk and branches, reduce it
to the size needed for their vision. Often sending the tree into a stress state and certainly slowing development while the
- Grow their own trees, a process which took years without gene manipulation, which were allowed to grow large to develop
trunks and then sawed back, allowed to grow, sawed back, allowed to grow, and so on to develop movement and taper in the trunk,
while physically restricting the height of the tree.
- Rip up trees in nature from their natural habitat. This was done as carefully as possible in an effort to preserve the
tree, but stress and environmental change destroyed many trees and even those that lived were taken from nature. Once collected,
these trees underwent the same sawing and cutting techniques common to the era.
The techniques used in the past to create bonsai from raw material left many scars on the tree, some which are still
noticeable to this day on many bonsai in the National Bonsai Status Museum. Besides scarring the tree, such techniques set
the development of the bonsai back by years while the tree was allowed recovery time after the assault.
Antique Concave Cutters shown with a modern Microsprayer
So much has changed in the designing of bonsai
art that it will be impossible for me to list them all out in a single article. The following are some of the major changes
that have taken place; some are so great that the techniques used in the past to achieve the same results defy the imagination
and are difficult to understand at all.
When we want to introducing movement to a trunk or a branch, we simply increase
the amount of auxin or decrease it by adding triiodobenzoic acid which simply changes the mircofibril angle of the wood, creating
either reaction or tension wood, depending on the species of tree. It is simple for us to apply such technology on the spot
we want a bend, twist, or turn, the great bonsai artists are able to use the mircosprayer like master painters of old used
In the past wire was wrapped around a branch or trunk and then the area was physically bent, using the hands,
with force. The wire was somewhat successful in retaining the desired shape, but often had to be repeated many times. This
is hard to imagine in an age where bonsai are seldom, if ever touched by any outside objects, especially our hands. Imagine
the damage done in the past, unknowingly, by the chemicals deposited by the artist’s hands or working in close proximity
to foliage and branches with iron tools and wire, although it is evident that the bonsai of old were not as highly detailed
or structured as those of today.
Using wires to tie down branches, weights, and even a technique called "clip and
grow" which involved brutally cutting off any branch growing in the wrong direction, were all techniques used to force the
tree into a desired shape. Often, as is evident today, these techniques caused much damage and were slow in producing any
results. They also were incapable of producing the ultra fine detail our bonsai have today.
When we wish to remove
a branch that is not part of our vision, we simply spray -Unable to Translate- onto to the branch, which causes it
to drop off clean, after callusing, and take root. Sending such removals back to the manufacturers not only earns us credits,
but also preserves the resource.
In the past when a branch was unneeded or unwanted, it was cut off with a tool called
a concave cutter. This tool was designed to flush cut the branch off at the trunk, leaving a scar that sometimes took years
to become covered and which stressed the tree. These hacked off branches and shoots often unbelievably were just thrown away
When we need a branch in a desired spot, we excite the cells at the area, causing them to start
division and formations of meristems. Once the process is started, additive growth continues until we stop the process. This
is how the great artists of our time create such fine and delicate ramification on their masterpieces.
In the past
the tree was hacked back hard with the hope that the tree would, in order to survive the assault, push out new growth further
back on the branches or further down on the trunk. Even with such methods, where and when the new growth came was left completely
up to chance; all the artist of the past could do was hack and pray.
Bonsai by Guesswork
WinMac Plant Scan b2100X with new retina implant screen
for the serious arborist
Specifications and ordering information
The bonsai artist and the growers of today carry their scanners with
them everywhere they go, many of us couldn’t imagine caring for a bonsai or any other plant without this tool, but incredibly,
the bonsaists of the past did so. It is second nature for us to simply pull out our pen-sized scanner which projects infrared
light and "reads" the plant, projecting an image on the screen that tells us exactly what nutrients are lacking, what the
water level is, and how if usage of nutrients and light is at the maximum efficiency level.
Thanks to the early 21st
century research, we now can convert early singles of stress, long before the plant suffers, and use this information to maintain
our trees at the pinnacle of health. Using key proteins or other molecules associated with stress, or a change in foliage
light reflectance because of a deficiency, we take care of plants needs before stress retards growth or development. We now
give our plants only what they need, when they need it, no more and no less.
In the past, most of the care given to bonsai was based on simple guesswork and the only indicator of unfulfilled
needs or damage often came too late for a remedy to be effective. They used various fertilizers that were manufactured to
contain all known foods, regardless of species, age, or even goals. There were no separate nutrients available, when plants
were fed, they were fed everything, this waste of resources and guesswork was common practice in bonsai and all other forms
of cultivation, including farming, which led to the poison ground act of 2111, in which such broadcast feeding was finally
Watering was the same, where in the past the color of
the soil, the weight of the pot, or antique indicators such as a piece of wood shoved into the root system as a primitive
moisture gage. Water was applied until it freely poured out of the drainage holes all pots had then and was allowed to run,
un-recycled, into the ground below or down drains. It is hard to fathom such waste of our most valuable resource, but the
prevalent soil requirement then was that it was fast draining and all the texts on the subject recommended watering in this
manner. Thankfully, these artists of the past do not live now when such water crimes would lead to re-education.
The best side effect caused by scanner technology was enabling anyone who could
use a scanner and measure liquids to successfully grow healthy and thriving plants. In the past, only those few who were trained
had the knowledge to successfully keep a bonsai alive and healthy, making for a very small customer base for artists to sell
to. Now a pre-school child with no horticultural training at all can keep a bonsai happy and healthy. This innovation alone
is responsible for the millions of people who now purchase and keep bonsai art and for the financial success of bonsai artists
Bonsai by guesswork, once common is now unheard of.
Our trees receive what they need, when they need it, and only as much as is needed. Waste, guesswork, and prayers are no longer
tools of the bonsaist, instead our energies can be directed at creating art instead of trying to keep our material alive and
A Change in Styles
Melissa Steven’s One World Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Walston’)
is considered by many to be the textbook example of Utopian Bonsai
Based on the photo history we can access, it seems as though a very
large percentage of bonsai from the past had deadwood. We cannot say with any certainly if this was a design decision or simply
the results of their methods. Many today argue that no artist would ever incorporate the results from pests, disease, and
imperfect growth purposely onto a bonsai. Others argue that such imperfections were considered attractive during a period
when life was harsh and that perhaps the artists were making a statement about life as a whole.
We may never know
the reason bonsai were displayed in the past featuring obvious signs of ill health, but I think we can all agree that what
has become known as utopian styling of bonsai is vastly superior artistically, as well as certainly being better for the trees
we use. Bonsai today are artistic representations of trees as they would be in a perfect, stress-free environment. Massive
trunks, beautifully positioned branches, full, healthy foliage, and ramification so fine that the naked eye can barely discern
the outermost branching.
Walter Pall, a 21st century bonsai artist
is considered the father of utopian bonsai, his naturalistic style of bonsai is the foundation that bonsai today was built
upon. His genus in taking naturalistic bonsai to the next logical level, that of a tree never having a harsh day, or as some
would say, trees from heaven, earned him a place in history. The most amazing thing is that his accomplishments were all done
with the same iron tools and harsh methods many call brutal and barbaric today. Those who have not yet visited the Pall Museum
of Bonsai should make the trip; the collection of antique tools, pots, and bonsai in status is worth the transport.
Bonsai artists of the past styled their creations with a single view, called
a "front" in mind. Having no holographic technology, two-dimensional photographs were the primary means of viewing the work
of artists from around the world. Except for live viewings, which sometimes required traveling for days to attend, bonsai
were shown in strictly 2D, making it obvious why they were styled in the same manner.
Today, with holographic images, a viewer can examine the artwork from any angle including the top and bottom
of the piece as well as magnifying right to the cellular level, if one so desires. Modern transportation enables anyone to
attend any show on Earth and be home in time for third meal, while a weekend enables off-world viewing of the zero G creations
like the mind bending juniper spheres of the One World Space Station.
artists of the past were confined in many ways that we are not, such as that the trees then needed a soil substrate in order
to survive. This was before the invention of the fungal spray -Unable to Translate-, which enabled roots to draw nutrients
and water directly from the air, not unlike the air ferns that initiated the research leading to this development. Remarkable
bonsai such as Nicholas Lewis’s Juniper featured in the leading holograph are able to grow on nothing more than a sheet
of glass, exposing the wonderful roots that were simply buried in the past and allowing them now to be as much a part of the
art as the foliage. The 3X G bonsai of -Unable to Translate- has remarkable examples of this
technology and their cascading, trailing foliage that originate from smooth stone surfaces are certainly inspiring and breathtaking
Soil, gravity, lack of proper tools, no growth regulators,
barbarous methods, and no way to tell what and when a tree needed, it is a true wonder that bonsai were created at all in
the past or that they could survive more than a few months.
has fallen from its old form of sculpture and has become more like painting, where the great masters wave their sprayers (or
wands as they like to call them) and branches appear, bend at their will, ramification spreads like frost on glass, and magical
bonsai are created.
Material is unlimited and custom specs can
be met during any season. If you need an apple tree, 1 newmeter in height with gold apples the size of thumbnails, that has
the characteristics of a two hundred year old tree, you can have one in a matter of a few weeks.
The masters take this material and bring it
beyond what science can deliver; they add the soul, the mystery, and the essence that art demands. The talented have better
tools now than they ever have, they can create art in a shorter period, and they are limited only by their imagination. One
thing remains the same, even with all our advances, talent is still needed and this inherent trait remains unreachable for
those without it.
In closing, I must say that perhaps we should
not look so distastefully at the techniques and methods of the artists from the past and instead imagine what bonsai will
be like two hundred years from now. Will the artists of the future think we
were barbaric, clumsy, and careless as well?
Art of Bonsai
Project Archives ( http://www.artofbonsai.org )
Knowledge of Bonsai Archives ( http://www.knowledgeofbonsai.org )
Information Bureau Archives ( " holographicweb,informationbureau,gov " )
The Salk Institute For Biological Studies (1999,
December 22). Plant "Dwarf" Gene Found By Salk Scientists. ScienceDaily.
University of Georgia (2007, August 21). Scientists
Aim To Sequence And Catalog Conifer Genes For Future Biofuels Research. ScienceDaily.
USDA/Agricultural Research Service
(2007, June 27). Letting Plants 'Talk' To You. ScienceDaily.
Oregon State University (2007, June 19). Six Inch Tall Tree:
Genetic Modification Used To Control Height Of Trees. ScienceDaily.
Syvanen, M. and Kado, C. I. Horizontal Gene Transfer.
Second Edition. Academic Press 2002.
and Sadova, D.E. Plants, Genes, and Crop Biotechnology. Second Edition. James and Bartlett 2003.
'The Growing Tree' by
Brayton F. Wilson (http://artofbonsai.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=263 )
|Return to Bonsai Vault