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The ancient Chinese art of bonsai involves creating miniature versions of fully grown trees. Today bonsai is becoming increasingly popular in the west as ordinary plants can be used and successfully grown in a small area.
The art of creating a living sculpture from an ordinary woody plant
originated in ancient China. The plants growth is controlled from its earliest
days to ensure that the tree becomes a dwarf and takes on an old, rugged
appearance. The symbolic significance of the bonsai goes back to the Taoist
dynasty. People believed that by contemplating natural objects in miniature,
natures magical power could be absorbed, and the smaller the object, the more
powerful it contained.
Great age was also revered as the only way to achieve immortality, thus ancient or old looking trees were highly valued.
Japanese Buddhists later adopted bonsai and developed it into a high art form. The meticulous care of these plants was linked to the ultimate achievement of spiritual enlightenment.
Over the centuries the interest spread from the wealthy and aristocratic to
the merchant classes. Many bonsai schools and styles developed, and fashions in
the art came and went.
Today bonsai is increasingly popular in the west, where plants are usually grown and trained from seed or cuttings.
In theory, you can train a bonsai into any shape you like, although
traditional bonsai styles are favoured, and plants exhibiting must be trained
traditionally. There is however plenty of scope for creativity.
Bonsais are often kept under 18" high, but larger ones can be 3ft or more. The enchanting miniature bonsais, or mame, are no more than 6in high.
Most bonsai trees today are in the 'informal upright' style. The central trunk and branches are carefully trained and pruned into shapes which allow natural growth of the plant to enhance the traditional style. This is the easiest style for a beginner to start with.
The 'formal upright' style must adhere precise pattern and is therefore harder to grow. A good specimen should have a straight, tapering trunk and well spaced branches parallel to the soil.
A surprisingly number of ordinary garden and house plants can be used for bonsai. Ideally, they should be long lived, have flexible growth and tolerate regular pruning and confined root space. Traditionally grown and displayed outdoors, the plants also need to be hardy.
When choosing a plant, consider its potential for an interesting shape - as well as its flowers, fruit and spring or autumn leaf colouring. Plants with natural small leaves are easiest for beginners, though large leaved plants, such as camellias, eventually produce smaller leaves after several years of bonsai cultivation.
maple, azalea, birch, box, camellia, hornbeam, ash, fuchsia, forsythia,
sycamore, horse chestnut, judas tree, quince, hinoki cypress, ginkgo,
cotoneaster, eleagnus, spruce, thorn, beech, pyracantha, myrtle, holly,
laburnum, winter jasmine, larch, crab apple, pine, plane, plum, apricot, pear,
apple, oak, rowan, willow, lilac, yew and wisteria.
Tender plants are becoming increasingly popular for displaying indoors. Good choices include: azalea, buddhist pine, meyers lemon, jade plant, mimosa, palms, weeping fig, pistachio and olive.
Any plant in a container is dependant on you for its nutrients and water.
Bonsais, with their relatively tiny containers, require meticulous ongoing care,
especially in warm weather. Watering and misting twice daily is often necessary
in the summer.
Bonsai pots are usually shallow, the depth of the pot traditionally equaling the diameter of the trunk. These pots can be attractive in their own right, but they should be chosen to enhance the bonsai.
To shape the bonsai, young, supple growth is wired to form lines that conform
to a chosen style. Various thicknesses of copper or aluminium wire are used, but
for the more sensitive species, plastic coated wire is better. The wire is
removed once the growth hardens into shape.
Growth both above and below ground is pruned using a range of traditional bonsai scissors and pruning tools. The beginner may at first be happy to use ordinary scissors and clippers, but as interest grows it is worth investing in the real thing to do the job properly.
Root pruning helps to keep the plant small, and encourages flowering and
Branches are pruned to concentrate growth in a chosen direction and keep the tree compact. Special side branch cutters are used to remove a branch flush with the trunk. This leaves a slight hollow for the bark to grow back properly over the area where a branch has been cut, disguising the fact that the branch were ever there.
Bonsai teaches patience, since it takes at least five years to train a plant into a recognisable shape. Caring for bonsai is a peaceful, relaxing activity. On a practical level, there's none of the heavy or very messy work of ordinary gardening, and you can work comfortably at a table.
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