We’re a little more than halfway through this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show, and although our inner child has been loving the Disney-centric displays, the exhibit that really caught our (admittedly biased) eye during our lunch breaks was the Pennsylvania Bonsai Society’s. Featuring over twenty different kinds of bonsai trees displayed in their own moon gates, artists and members shared their love for this favorite Japanese art form. In the bustle and noise of the show it was a welcome relief to find a quiet, tranquil place to rest your eyes from the inevitable sensory overload. Inspired by the display, we approached members of the Society to get a quick lesson in bonsai trees, a must for anyone interested in Japanese culture. Ahead, learn about the origins of bonsai, the symbolism behind different styles and species, and how to care for your very own bonsai tree.
What is Bonsai?
Bonsai is the ancient art of growing and maintaining miniature trees –the word bonsai literally means “planted in a container” in Japanese, although the unique art form was not given an official name until the 1800s. They’re not, as some people think, genetically dwarfed trees, but rather trees that remain small with techniques like wiring and pruning. It’s derived from an ancient Chinese horticultural practice started by in 700AD, and were first brought to Japan around the 12th century as religious gifts from visiting Chinese monks. Bonsai trees quickly evolved into a symbol of prestige and honor: they were gifted amongst members of the aristocracy for their delicate frame, and became a highly refined art form. Although these days bonsai trees are not limited to the wealthy, they continue to be a classic symbol of Japanese culture and ideas.
There are many different types of bonsai trees, and each one has its own story. Here are three breathtaking species that we spied at the Flower Show:
Chokkan bonsai have a specific formal upright form that recall a miniature cypress or cedar tree. They are meant to elevate and rejuvenate the spirit, as its form shoots straight up in a swift majestic motion. It’s the base design of all bonsai forms, but its rigid uprightness is surprisingly difficult effect to achieve.
The shakan bonsai’s branches will have a strong slant to either the left or right side, meant to represent trees that grow in harsh environments (like a windy mountain or a stormy seashore). It represents action in nature, both aggressive in their movement but calming in their representation of the billowing natural winds that sweep over every living thing.
The Kenagi trees are grown so that the trunk and branches extend below its base in a cascading motion, drooping down from their pots. The drooping form suggests the unshakable will to survive even when facing dire conditions. These species illustrate strength and perseverance through misfortune.
Taking Care of your Bonsai
Although we can’t speak for the beautiful, laborious works of art on display at the exhibit, we can show you a few simple tips to take care of your little trees at home.
Watering: make sure your bonsai never dries out completely. Once a week or so, water the base of your bonsai until bubbles rise to the top –most bonsai pots have holes in the bottom for filtering out excess water, which keeps the soil from drowning. Ask around at the marketplace vendors for the right soil for your bonsai tree –it should drain quickly but also retain its water. Fertilizing the soil is important too, since they are kept in such small pots. You can use any regular fertilizer, but there are also specialty bonsai fertilizers for the real aficionado.
Pruning: Prune your tree often with shears or concave cutters to maintain its desired shape. Take your time with this, as pruning can be the most calming part of bonsai maintenance. Our Smart Scissors Plant Pruners from FD Style are a perfect way to do so stylishly.
Wiring: Wrapping wire around the branches of the tree allows us to bend them bendable and into specific shapes. This is your time to be creative! Fix them securely (but not too tight) to the stems and branches of your bonsai tree for the best effect.
Placement: Keep your bonsai by a window with lots of sunlight, and don’t forget to replant your tree once every two years! This replenishes nutrients in the soil and keeps the tree nice and healthy. For the truly theatrical type, fashion a moon gate –a wooden circular display case, often white– and show off your hard work!
The Pennsylvania Bonsai Society is a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia and dedicated to to promoting the art of bonsai throughout Pennsylvania. They offer lectures, demonstrations, workshops, meetings, and outings for its members, as well as sponsoring shows and exhibits. For more tips on how to take care of your bonsai, visit their official Bonsai Facts page. The 2015 Philadelphia Flower Show runs March 1st through March 8th and is open daily from 10am to 9pm. Visit us at booth #607 in the Marketplace by Hall A.
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS SETTY