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How to Become an Afghan Bazaar Queen
Debunking the Myths of Bonsai
BONSAI Past and Present
Dealing with Difficult Roots
Escapees! Get em!

Name: #4 / Will Heath
Country: USA
Credits: See References
Category: Fiction
Submission Date: 04/27/2008
Winner of the Fiction Category

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
Translated into Old English with
WinMac Translator v3.95
Information Bureau license one reprint only, no duplications, no archiving, no other distribution granted.
All rights subject to change without notice

Reader Warning:

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 Please be advised that the following is presented for historical reference only and should not be read by those undergoing readjustment training or by those as of yet un-inoculated as per government requirement section 783b.3998c

Bonsai 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.

I thought 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

Raw Material


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 tree recovered.
  • 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.

Shaping the Vision


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 a brush.

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 without recycling.

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 outlawed.

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 everywhere.

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 healthy.

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.

Bonsai 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 to all.

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.

Bonsai 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 ( )
Knowledge of Bonsai Archives ( )
Information Bureau Archives (
" holographicweb,informationbureau,gov " )

Historical References:

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
Chrispeels, M.J. and Sadova, D.E. Plants, Genes, and Crop Biotechnology. Second Edition. James and Bartlett 2003.
'The Growing Tree' by Brayton F. Wilson ( )

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