Bonsai should ‘tell a story’

30th December 2015 - 4 minutes read

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Robert Steven’s ‘Mission of Transformation’ for Christmas (by dropping just enough hints). He is based in Indonesia and most of his examples relate to the tropical climate around him and the photos of his incredible trees are all of exotic species to us here in the UK. However several of his messages are translatable and adaptable to the trees that we are more familiar with, and this post will focus on his point that Bonsai should tell a story.

The story should be the one of how the tree came to look like it does, one that explain the life and events that shaped it. Above all the various elements that occur need to be consistent. The consistency must be both internal to the tree and chronological.

Internal consistency. This is how the species of tree would respond to the external event – a pine will not be able to respond in the same way as a beech due to the way the tree has evolved, the structure of its cells, the position of its buds, etc.

I will hope to demonstrate this with one scenario of a tree interacting with a neighbour. If a phototropic tree (see previous post for an explanation) has grown in the shade of a larger neighbour it is likely to have grown at an angle towards any available light from the time of its germination, causing a leaning tree. However if a tree starts in free light and becomes shaded it will start to bend part-way up a straight trunk. And if a tree initially growing in the shade has its neighbour felled and finds itself in free light it will stop growing at an angle at start vertical growth. In all cases this tree will have evenly spread roots as there has been nothing to prevent an even spread. This could be a story to explain a bend in a trunk, but you would need to continue the story and explain how the branch positions came about – you could not have a branch growing back into the shade from a trunk that leaned towards the light as it it obviously illogical.

Chronological consistency. The tree will show different patterns of growth in the way it responds to the various events, but it must be clear if, for example, the event that caused the deadwood happened before the tree was blown onto an angle. Getting this wrong can be like reading chapters out of order in a book.

So to continue the above story of a tree grown in shade that has had its neighbour removed. We have a lean on the trunk but the tree is now exposed to strong winds from which it had been previously sheltered, this wind can cause buds to die and so, over time, it can shape foliage pads. If the wind is really strong it could even snap the trunk or branch which would cause a very sharp bend

Overall image. It is all too common to find that people style trees without a clear idea, causing a confusion of information and the story gets garbled. The tree then may be skillfully done but still looks odd without you being able to work out why.

So once the story is carefully told all that is left to do, according to Robert, is to ensure the tree looks artistically beautiful… and that’s the hard bit.

Illustrative Photo’s to follow