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Each Part Builds the Whole

Every bonsai expresses its own personality. For all their diversity, they all rely on integrating the same three essential parts. These are: the tree(s), the surface on the soil, and the pot. Optional elements include rocks, figurines, and stands to position the bonsai on the display table. Water is rarely present, but can be implied or imagined. Let’s look at each.

Every bonsai

Expresses its own personality.

Ann Arbor Bonsai Society

The Ann Arbor Bonsai Society promotes the knowledge, appreciation and practice of the art of bonsai. It meets at the UM Matthaei Botanical Garden.

As a strong community that celebrates differences and works hard to create a sense of belonging among its members, AABS values diversity, equity, and inclusion, and supports justice and peace for all people. AABS will continue working towards breaking down barriers to learning the art of bonsai.

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The Essential Parts

The tree is the star – it creates the unspoken story.

There are many styles, and some styles require more than one tree in the pot. A special treat for flowering species is those few days they are in bloom. The flowers elevate the specimens beyond ‘awesome’ – our azaleas in the Goldstein donation are respected as among the best in the world. Once done blooming, deciduous species return to being ‘every day beautiful’. Other deciduous trees, especially maples and beeches, are known for their stunning fall foliage season, and then they assume yet another appeal when dormant. Part of enjoying bonsai is appreciating what you see today in relation to nature’s annual cycle.

The surface on the soil sets the place and shifts the sense of scale.

The slope and how it relates to the tree trunk and revealed roots reinforces the place and the implied age of the tree. Often the surface is home to tiny mosses (yes, some mosses are too big) – they reinforce the viewer’s bird’s-eye perspective.

The pot intensifies the mood.

The shape, size, texture, glaze colors, and patterns are intentionally selected to complete the narrative. Just changing the pot can dramatically shift one’s appreciation of the tree. Since the trees are slowly growing, they can outgrow any given pot over time. Did you know that when not on display, the trees may be removed from the pots and grown in shallow wooden boxes? This way the pots are available for other trees, and are not damaged during routine care when a tree is not in display mode.

Optional Elements

Rocks heighten the drama.

Their shape and texture as well as how the plants interact with them evoke cliffs, edges of waterfalls, rocky sea-shores, and other wild places in nature where the elements rage.

Figurines specify and animate the narrative.

They are rarely to sparingly used in bonsai (the Japanese tradition) and more frequently seen in penjing (the Chinese tradition).

Water is very challenging to include.

That’s why it is usually implied rather than physically present. Water is nearly impossible to present as miniaturized, it is always level, and it has to be kept from drowning the tree.

Stands lift the bonsai above the display table.

This ‘lift’ helps visually isolate and focus the bonsai for the viewer. Stands contribute to the spirit of the entire composition without calling undue attention to themselves.

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Trees Tell Dynamic Stories

Each viewer interprets a bonsai their own way. That interpretation starts an implied story of what happened here, what’s ahead, and any ‘meaning’. The artists working with the trees – generations of artists for old trees – express their version of the story. It’s their artistry that conveys messages without words – as we are familiar in other performing and visual arts.

Trees change! As the trees grow the trunks and branches change and die, presenting the artists dynamic opportunities to prune and restyle the trees. The stories shift, too. Even the front, or the ‘face’ that draws you in, engages your imagination, and resonates emotionally can be abandoned for another side of the tree to become the ‘face’. Refacing a tree takes years – and often presents a dramatically different tree and story.

Asian Origins

The meditative practice of growing stylized potted plants is ancient. It began among Buddhist monks traveling in India. (Buddhism was founded in the late 6th century B.C.E – about 2,600 years ago.) A significant step to the world stage was the concept (not necessarily specimens!) crossing the Himalayas and into China, where the adopted practice became known as penjing (literally, plant in a pot).

China has a rich and vibrant artistic history across the millennia. The first clear reference to penjing is in Tang Dynasty’s Prince Zhang Huai’s funerary fresco – after 684. This elite context implies the art form was well developed and likely traces back in China as far as the Han and Qin Dynasties (221 BC to 220 AD). Over the centuries, penjing styles diversified, each striving to capture aspects of ‘the nature of nature’. Penjing’s development as a contemporary art continues today.

In Japan, several sects of Buddhism were introduced from China starting in the sixth century (no earlier than 538 AD) and through the Heian period (794-1185.) As with all other Chinese elements introduced across these centuries, they were reinterpreted and integrated into Japanese culture. By the Kamakura period (1185-1333) a scroll depicts them at the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, the ancient capital. Japan was intentionally self-isolated from most of the world between 1635 and 1853. The isolation was nearly complete. After Japan reopened to the world, bonsai were introduced to America and Europe through diplomatic and commercial engagements.



Why aren’t they all called ‘bonsai’?

In American English, penjing are the plants styled in the Chinese traditions while those reflecting Japanese traditions are called bonsai. Somewhat confusingly, the term bonsai has expanded to encompass any of the plants. As to the term ‘bonsai’, it’s relatively new. In 13th century Japan, the art form was developed among the aristocracy and samurai and later became known as hachi-no-ki, which translates as “tree in pot.” It wasn’t until the 1800s that the term bonsai was adopted in Azakusa Park, a now famous bonsai center near Tokyo.

Bonsai Comes to America

At the ‘Centennial Exposition’ in Philadelphia (1876), at least two substantial bonsai were featured in the Japanese Pavilion’s Bazaar, and are the earliest record of bonsai on American shores. They mark the first wave of bonsai influencing American culture on the East Coast. By 1899, equally handsome bonsai were commercially available in Boston, facilitating development of private bonsai collections as ‘early adopter’ markers of socially-competitive elite Americans. This history and how it further develops is usually profiled in short histories of bonsai in North America.

Unheralded but more fundamental and influential was the extensive introduction of bonsai (and Japanese culture in general) by Japanese immigrants to the West Coast of the United States beginning the late 1800s. Their success – including establishing myriad nurseries – were met with the racist 1913 law in California banning all Asians from owning land – laws soon adopted across the country. During World War 2, Americans of Japanese origin were forced to live in remote internment camps – amazingly bonsai can be detected in a very few of the documentary photographs.

Social Contexts of the UM Bonsai Collection

World War 2 and the Korean War introduced vast numbers of American soldiers to bonsai, while the post-war release of the interred Americans of Japanese origin initiated a new wave and contexts for expressions of identity. These cultural shifts (not the elite collections assembled in the early 20th Century) are the basis of most mid to late 20th Century American bonsai’s vibrancy. The UM bonsai collection is one of the best examples of this foundation, as is its continued focus on excellence in both traditional and contemporary ways (rather than being a ‘bonsai museum’) as bonsai continues to develop on the world stage.

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