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How to Correctly Read Bonsai Heresy

 The following was borrowed word for word from Michael Hagedorn's Crataegus Bonsai blog.

"When a student sent me this photo I began to worry that others might be having similar reading malfunctions.

"We are here to help. If you can't make any headway with Bonsai Heresy, please---before calling, writing, or showing up on the doorstep---check that you aren't taking direction from Rich, a past Seasonal student. It was a long 2 years. Orientation of this product is up to you, though optimal performance is to start at the top, and read left to right.

"Order your own copy at Stone Lantern.

"Happy Holidays everyone!"

Here's what Jonas Dupuich, author of the The Little Book of Bonsai has to say about Bonsai Heresy: "This peerless work is our best hope for leaving outdated thinking about bonsai in the past. Ignore it at your trees' peril."

Tribute to a Tropical Bonsai Master

Jim Smith’s monster bougainvilleais a popular attraction at the gallery. Its pot is 4 feet long and the tree can only be moved by forklift!

I’ve long been a fan of Jim Smith. Both the bonsai artist and the man himself. Jim (sadly now deceased) was a true gentleman whose easy going, friendly manner left a positive impression with me each time I encountered him. So when I opened the latest online missive from the National Bonsai Foundation I was delighted to see a photo of Jim pruners in hand tending to one of his most famous trees, a Portulacaria afra that serves as the logo for The James J. Smith Bonsai Gallery at Heathcoat Botanical Gardens, in Fort Pierce, Florida.

We’ll start you off with a quote from the NBF article about Jim: “The world of bonsai is fortunate to encounter so many legendary artists, many of whom are immortalized in displays, buildings or collections at bonsai museums and gardens. For this installation of Bonsai Around the World, we highlight the bonsai collection of an eminent and accomplished icon in the Floridian bonsai community: James Smith. 

James Smith working on a 5-foot, formal upright Portulacaria Afra – the logo tree for the James J. Smith Bonsai Gallery in Fort Pierce, Florida. 

This magnificent Ficus exotica by Jim is 4 feet wide, has been in training since 1972 and was displayed at Epcot’s Flower and Garden Show in 2019.

Heathcote hosts a “Garden of Lights” event each year, bringing in 10,000 people to the bonsai gallery in a matter of weeks.

Podocarpus macrophylla by Jim that we featured on Bonsai Bark a few years ago. My best guess is that Jim used his own hedge shearing method to develop this tree. We found the photo at The Art of Bonsai Project. Speaking of the hedge shearing method, the first time i saw large one-handed shears being used was by Jim at his nursery (about 30 years ago). Because Jim had thousands of bonsai and bonsai stock he needed something fast to keep them in shape. Especially down in Florida where the growing season is year round. Since then I’ve discovered our Masters Koyo Sword Shears, which are quite similar to what Jim was using.

A mounded Buttonwood by Mother Nature and Jim. 

Another of Jim’s Portulacaria from the Heathcote Botanical Gardens.

This massive masterpiece that resides at the Heathcote Gardens is a Willow leaf ficus. Judging by what I saw at his nursery, Willow leaf ficus seem to be one of Jim’s favorites. 

This elegant Crepe myrtle by Jim also makes its home at Heathcote.

Bonsai Berries & Flowers

This sturdy Japanese fine tooth holly (Ilex serrata) originally appeared on our 2010 Bonsai calendar (speaking of, our 2021 Calendars are in stock and ready to ship).

Here’s another knockout photo from one of past year’s Japanese bonsai calendars (2017 in this case). The tree is a Satsuki azalea.

The Japanese name for this sweet little tree is "Mayumi," which is a common Japanese girl's name that translates as truth or beauty. The artist and owner is Katsumi Komiya.

The Japanese have two names for this type planting. It's a shitakusa if you use it as a companion in a bonsai display, and it's a kusamono if you display it by itself or as the focal point in a display. Katsui Komina's caption says "Chrysanthemum, yabukouji."  Translation: Spear flower (Ardisia japonica).

There's something about Quince flowers... Here's Bill Valavanis' caption from his Welcome to My Bonsai World blog...  "A small size Toyo Nishiki Japanese flowering quince, Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Toyo Nishiki’ with multiple colored flowers. Although red, pink and white blossoms are common for this great cultivar, I’ve often seen red branches grafted onto specimens to improve color distribution." Bill took this photo at the 2015 Kokufu Exhibition.

This powerful old Satsuki azalea belongs to Boon Manakitivipart. The shot was taken just before spring pruning.

Another of Boon's Satsuki azaleas. I borrowed it from our archives. Here's our original caption... "This Satsuki azalea’s trunk reminds me of some of Antoni Gaudi’s sculptural architecture that graces the great city of Barcelona. Though in truth, the tree resides in Boon Manakitivipart’s impressive bonsai collection in the great city of Alameda, California" (Boon has since moved to the Sierra foothills).

Four of Michael Hagedorn’s Chojubai in flower (December, 2018). With Micheal it’s always best to let him speak for himself… “A couple weeks back we photographed all the Dwarf Flowering Quince ‘Chojubai’ that were looking fancy, as they all decided to bloom at the same time this year. Which is not textbook Chojubai, but it happened.”

Bark and Bonsai

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen bark quite like this. Its uniquely patterned texture and color adds an abundance of character and age to this live oak. Furthermore (and at the risk of excess word proliferation), have you noticed the pot? How much character it has (and how small it is for the tree)? No mention of who made it with the photo, but whoever did deserves some love. The tree and the pot are from the ‘My Trees’ section of Mauro Stemberger’s website.

There is no surer indication of a bonsai’s age than its bark. You can grow young trees with fat trunks and if you’re skilled enough, you carve deadwood and apply techniques that can make it look ancient, but you can’t create old bark. Only time can do that

At first glance I thought the rock that sticks out on the right was part of the trunk. But a closer look confirms the strong suspicion that it's a rock. There’s a story here for sure that has to do with how this tree grew over time. But it’s the heavy furrowed bark that chinches it. The tree is the King of bonsai, a Japanese black pine. We borrowed the photo from Micheal Bonsai an ongoing source for great shots of Japanese bonsai.

Bark like this is unusual on a Japanese maple, unless it’s this Rough Bark variety (Acer palmatum 'Arakawa'). The tree is approximately eighty years old and stands 70cm (almost 28") high. Walter Pall imported it from Japan as semi raw material. Walter has an excellent series of photos on the tree's transition on his Bonsai Adventures blog.

If you are skilled enough you can create the illusion of age by carving and applying other techniques with deadwood. But when it comes to bark, time and only time is necessary for that prized aged look. We borrowed this photo from Salvador De Los Reyes

More aged bark, this time on an illustrious old European olive that belongs to David Benavente.  It resides at his Estudio de Bonsái in Galapagar, Spain, just outside of Madrid. The photos are from David’s timeline.

Here’s one from Michael Hagedorn’s Portfolio. Because Michael is a gifted writer in addition to being a bonsai genius, we’ll let him do the talking…

“This Engelmann spruce was originally owned by a guy up in Seattle and I suspect it grew in a mica drum pot for a couple decades. Collected in the Cascades many years ago, it has nice flaky, mature bark and sports a healthy community of lichen up and down the main trunk.

“It was growing wildly and moppish when I bought it in 2008, and was styled in 2009. When wiring spruce, be careful to spray the foliage with water first. Otherwise many healthy needles might simply drop off, which really weakens a tree. Ezo spruce is especially sensitive to agitated needles; hydrating them first makes them more durable.

“I like the calm, peaceful feeling of spruce. This one would look good in a tokonoma display, maybe with a water stone to suggest a serene high mountain lake. Or, for the ironically inclined, a small figurine of a panting, exhausted hiker, leaning on a stick…”

Speaking of Michael Hagedorn, his Bonsai Heresy is a must read (and reread) for any serious bonsai enthusiast. I know of no better way to increase your bonsai understanding and ultimate success than to read Bonsai Heresy and then take your newfound insights and apply them to your practice of the art of bonsai.

Blazing Bonsai Brilliance!

Even though we weren’t able to find out who this tree belongs to or even who took the photo, I decided to feature it as out lead photo for reasons I hope you find obvious. It’s a Japanese maple in full brilliant fall color. You might notice the unusual mounded nebari as well as the outstanding movement in the trunks and branches.

We’re going to dazzle our senses with some fall color today. Almost all the photos shown here are from our Bonsai Bark archives, which dates all the way back to 2009.

There’s more to fall bonsai than just color however. Fall is a good time to fertilize, and though I know we’ve mentioned it before, nitrogen in balance with other key macro nutrients is important, even in the fall, contrary to an old and incorrect bonsai myth which says that using nitrogen too late causes top growth to continue into the colder months.

However, the truth is that plants determine when it’s time to stop growing based on light and temperature, not on whether or not there is nitrogen available (thanks to Michael Hagedorn for exposing this commonly held misconception in his groundbreaking new book Bonsai Heresy).

You can also trim in the fall once summer growth has stopped, but don’t do it too soon. If you trim while your bonsai is still growing, it might be inspired to push out some tender new growth which won’t have time to harden off before winter sets in. 

Here’s a brilliant tree (and lovely pot) from back in the early days of Bonsai Bark. It belongs to Wolfgang Putz and the pot is by Ingrid Kralovec. The tree is a Korean hornbeam. The botanical name is Carpinus turczaninowii (though you’ll sometimes see them referred to as Carpinus coreana).


This Japanese Maple was donated to our National Bonsai and Penjing Museum by Ryutaro Azuma. It has been in training since 1906. The photo is from Capital Bonsai.


This strikingly colorful Ginkgo with its thick and uncommonly well tapered trunk (especially for a ginkgo) is from a Bill Valavanis (International Bonsai) facebook post from way back in 2010.


Berries can provide fall color too. Not only does our friend Bill Valavanisis style and raise top quality bonsai, he also takes great photos. This one is from the 2016, 90th Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition in Tokyo. No variety is given.


The luminous red/pink leaves, set off by the purple pot with strong red undertones, work its magic to perfection. The tree is an aptly named Burning bush euonymus (Euonymus alatus form ciliatodentatus) that belongs to Haruyosi, who in addition to being our favorite tiny bonsai master (not him, his trees!) is also a master bonsai potter.


Maro Komsta's Sumac showing off its fall color. Sumac are everywhere here in northern Vermont, including outside my window and this is exactly how they look. Well, not exactly... they're much bigger and growing in the ground. l don't know anything about the scroll, except that it's beautiful and works with the tree.


A rough bark Japanese maple in full fall color. Though you can only see part of the base of the trunk, still, you can get a pretty good idea just how powerful this tree is; with or without leaves. This photo is from Luis Vallejo's Bonsai Studio (Bonsai Estudio), at the Bonsai Museum Alcobendas in Spain.

Shunka-en Japanese Bonsai Gallery

This Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume) is from Kunio Kobayashi’s Shunka-en Bonsai Museum. I borrowed the photo from Bill Valavanis' Bonsai blog.

When it comes to photographs of the best Japanese bonsai Bill Valavanis' Bonsai Blog is hard to beat. We found all today's photos there. And all the trees are from Kunio Kobayashi’s Shunka-en Bonsai Museum.

A muscular old Camellia full of flowers and buds. This photo and a couple others below were taken by Bill Valavanis during a 2018 visit to Shunka-en Bonsai Museum in Tokyo.

More color. This one looks like a Persimmon and the pot looks like it has a story to tell. Like the Camellia this photo was taken by Bill Valavanis during a 2018 visit to Mr Kobayahi’s Shunka-en Bonsai Museum.

Some people complain about highly stylized bonsai and in many cases I get the objection. But please don’t complain about this one. To my eye, It belongs in the pantheon of highest quality bonsai art. A masterpiece of movement, harmony and creativity. When I first featured this tree a couple years ago I wrote the word Embrace. Now I don’t remember if it was my idea or if the name came with the tree. No matter, I think it works.

Quoting Bill... "There are over 12 alcoves for formal bonsai displays. Mr. Kobayashi always shows his creativity in creating distinctive bonsai displays."

A closer look at just the tree.

One of many powerful Shimpaku at Mr Kobayashi's Shunka-en Bonsai Museum. Here's a quote from Bill, "There were many large grafted Sargent juniper bonsai, all wired and just waiting to fill out for future sales." Bill consistently refers to Shimpaku as Sargent junipers. He is of course correct, even though most of us in the bonsai world refer to them as Shimpaku (there is a lot more that could be said about this, but we'll leave that for another time).

This would be a remarkable bonsai even without the flowers. In addition to Japanese black pines and Shimpaku junipers, Mr. Kobayashi is known for his Satsuki azaleas.

Here’s a great little Satsuki root-over-rock.

Another Satsuki in full bloom and another of Mr Koybashi’s tokonama.

Walter Pall’s Embarrassment of Bonsai Riches

“What a monument of naturalistic bonsai art you have Walter - a charismatic ajan spruce —- like a walk in a microcosm of enchanted trees - a place to linger for a fraction of eternity” This quote is by Frank Krawiecki from the comments about this tree appears on fb. It’s an old (estimated over 300 years) Ezo spruce (Picea jezoensis) that was originally collected in Japan. The artificial rock is by Avicenna. 

Walter Pall’s bonsai collection is so rich, varied and astoundingly numerous, that we could feature one of his bonsai every day for a year and still have only scratched the surface. All this without sacrificing any quality. Not even one whit.

Almost all of Walter’s trees fall into what you might call Naturalistic bonsai. A term used for bonsai that look like they’ve been barely touched by human hands, even though this natural look requires a high degree of skill and human involvement with the entire process. Especially in the case of the top quality trees shown here. Or really, shown wherever you find Walter’s trees.

The other side, this time with a grey backdrop.

There can be no doubt that Walter likes spruce and ditto here, especially Walter’s spruce. In this case, it’s a Picea abies (Norway or European spruce). This photo appears in Bonsai Today issue 106 (Nov/Dec 2006). 

Speaking of Walter Pall and Bonsai Today magazine, here’s Walter’s naturalistic Scot’s pine on the cover of issue 104. Unfortunately, both 104 and 106 (see above) are sold out. But the good news is that we still have quite a few back issues in stock.

We’ve been featuring Walter’s bonsai for over ten years and I’m pretty sure this is the first tropical variety of his we’ve seen. One thing that stands out about this tree is how natural it looks. More like a tree than a bonsai, which is something Walter might say. This photo is from Walter’s fb timeline.

This Grape vine (Vitis vinifera) was originally collected in a vineyard in Croatia. It’s around 40 years old and stands 55 cm high (approx 22”).

A small piece of Walter’s garden taken this August.

A massive naturalistic Trident maple that was originally imported as raw material from Korea. The pot is by Tom Benda.

Natural and relaxed. This one has Walter’s naturalistic style written all over it. Here are some specs (from Walter’s website): Norway spruce. 75 cm high. Around 150 years old. Pot by Derek Aspinall. From a tree which was collected in Switzerland in 1998.

This European beech (Fagus sylvatica) was collected in Germany in 1995. It’s 50cm high ( about 20”) and its estimated age is around 70 The pot is by Lubos Skoda.

I’m not sure you’d see this tree in a top flight bonsai show. It’s too rough and the branches need some time to catch up to the trunk. Still, if you put aside preconceptions, Walter does it just right with this Japanese maple’s scarred old trunk and its contrasting smooth flowing movement. 

Just rediscovered this in Walter’s fb photos from last winter. Also discovered that I had left a comment at the time… “So natural… a gift!” There’s no information with the photo (if you wanted to work your way back through Walter’s timeline, you might find it). It looks like a single species Spruce forest with trees of varying ages, but that’s just a guess.

FInally, a great tree enhanced by a wonderful Lubos Skoda pot. It’s Mugo pine (the tree, not the pot) that Walter says is about 100 years old. It was collected in Austria in 1995. It’s 40 cm high (about 16”).

Root OVER Rock Bonsai

The sheer beauty and power of Suthin Sukosolvisit’s roots-devouring-rock bonsai is a good example of why Suthin has long been one of our favorite bonsai artists. Over time, roots can virtually swallow rocks, especially with trees as vigorous as this Trident maple, which happens to be the most popular type tree for root-over-rock bonsai. 


No source is given for this colorful 'Seki-joju' Azalea. My best guess is that the tree and photo are originally from Japan; it's not uncommon for Japanese trees to remain unattributed.


 This Trident maple root-over-rock by Wolfgang Putz has to be on my top 100 bonsai photos list (if I had such a list). It originally appeared in a 2014 Bark post.


Here's a brilliant Trident that started as a root-over-rock and slowly morphed into a root-swallowing-rock (like root-devouring-rock, this not an official designation, just an observation). The photo is originally from Kaede Bonsai-en (Kaede is Trident maple in Japanese).


A strange sort of root-over-rock. You might imagine that it started more or less like other root overs, but because the rock is so small, the roots grew under it and pushed it up, while also growing around one side and creating a firm grip on the rock. Though I originally thought the result might simply be a happy accident, upon reflection I think it was the intention of the original artist 40 to 50 years ago... It's just too perfect the way most of the rock, particularly the bowl is left uncovered and even emphasized. Like so many root-over-rock bonsai, the tree is a Trident maple. I borrowed the photo here from Peter Tea’s blog back in August 2012. 



A Robert Steven tree. We’ve shown it before, but it's been a while and it's worth another look. 

Root on Rock Bonsai

This is what can happen when you have a great rock and excellent plant material to work with (a little skill doesn’t hurt either). It’s by Norboru Kaneko, from our Masters’ Series Juniper book.

 Needle junipers and companions growing on a rock. Like the photo just above, this one is by Norboru Kaneko and also from our Masters’ Series Juniper book. Given what we’ve seen so far, it’s safe to say that Mr Kaneko has achieved a degree of mastery when it comes to root-on-rock bonsai.


With bonsai, it's usually the tree that dominates, even though the pot, (stone, slab or whatever) is considered a critical part of the whole. In this case however, you might decide that it’s the rock that dominates and elevates the planting from very good to extraordinary. The tree is a Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica). The tree, rock and moss belong to David Benavente.


Here's an equally impressive and improbable Benavente planting. The main tree seems so relaxed and natural given its precarious position. It's a Scot's pine (Pinus sylvestris) and the others are Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica). As with the planting above, there are also ferns and moss. I'll guess the convex slab is man made. 


A planting by Marc Noelanders. No mention is made of the type tree or what the rock is made of. 


Three robust Shimpaku junipers on a stupendous rock. We’ve shown this one more than once, but it’s good enough for at least a fourth or fifth encore. From the Omiya Bonsai Museum.


Kimura rocks! I don’t think it’s a good idea to feature a bunch of root-on-rock  plantings without at least a quick visit to Masahiko Kimura (aka  the Magician), the grand master of root-on-rock plantings and almost anything to do with bonsai innovation. The photo is from a facebook posting by Alejandro Sartori that he took during a visit to Kimura’s nursery. The trees are Shimpaku junipers.


Another root-on-rock by the Magician that was taken by Alejandro Sartori. It looks like the trees might be Hinoki (Cham. obtusa), a tree often used by Kimura for rock plantings.


Beyond bonsai… Here’s an unusual and quite compelling rock planting by Colin Lewis. It’s hard to tell, but it’s likely that some of the roots have found their way down into the soil in the pot via the mossy channels you can see, which might make this one a combo root-on and root-over.

Mixed Bonsai Forests & Other Wonders

 This magnificent mixed forest is by Saburo Kato, who was one of the original old masters of Japanese bonsai. You can find it and other remarkable trees in his timeless classic Forest, Rock Planting & Ezo Spruce Bonsai (see below). You can also find some of the most comprehensive how-to bonsai instructions anywhere. The trees are (more or less left to right) Japanese maple, Japanese beech, Dwarf Stewartia, Japanese red leaf hornbeam, Kyushu azalea and Desojo Japanese maple. The planting was about 30 years old when this photo was taken. Its height is 41 inches (104cm). In other words, it’s a lot bigger than you’d think just looking at this picture.

We’ve got four uncommon forests for you today, the first two are mixed forests and the other two are unique in their own way. Forests with mixed species can be a little tricky; not only does the planting have to make sense aesthetically, particularly when it comes to questions of scale, but the various types of trees should make sense growing together (would you find them growing together in nature?)

Not that you can’t experiment with trees that normally might not grow in the exact same locations, but the more different their natural habitats are, the more unnatural the planting might seem and the more difficult it might be to keep all the trees healthy.

This mixed forest/landscape is from Spain. The Museo del Bonsai Marbella to be exact (from Bonsais del Sur). It's too bad the pot is chopped off and the whole photo is cramped, but that's the way we found it. Still, from what we can see, it looks like a very ambitious project with numerous types of trees, smaller plants and other features to integrate. No mean feat to pull off.

When I first caught site of this planting on Quoc Viet Tran‘s timeline I was immediately struck by how powerful and realistic it is. I wish I could tell you more but no information is provided. I guess we’ll have to settle for simple appreciation of the artist’s mastery.

Bonsai Empire's caption says "Buxifolio Bonsai forest, planted on a rock, by Luisa Alfaro." The Buxifolio part is a bit of a mystery. Buxifolia (with an a) is a species name, but without the genus, it could be any number of things. The leaves look tiny, so we'll try Neea buxifolia.