Some Thoughts on Bonsai Styling

Over the last month or so, I have spent an hour or so each day styling a lot of smallish Bonsai which have hung around my nursery for a some time. These were all the sort of trees which customers never seem to notice. What has struck me is the number of these trees which have then sold within a few days of rewiring. In no case was there a major reworking of the Bonsai, just an hour or so (usually less) of fairly obvious branch placement.

So what suddenly made these trees a magnet for customer’s eyes? They certainly have not gained anything in long term potential from their reworking. Nor was the work done beyond the technical competence of many people buying them. Perhaps the freshly worked on and cared for appearance had some effect in making them look more attractive but I am sure there is something deeper going on here. Put simply, a lot of British Bonsai enthusiasts seem to suffer an “imagination gap”, which prevents them seeing how a piece of material might be transformed into an arresting finished image.

Those who sell Bonsai material observe time and again how trees with less potential but a more “finished” look, sell in preference to high quality trunks which need more styling. This is not restricted to growers with less experience. I have recently spoken to another trader who was lamenting the fact that there was little interest in his large Chinese Quince trunks, despite their superb quality. It seems that no-one can see beyond the large sawn-off branch stubs to what these trunks could become in a few years with a properly trained branch structure.

A problem with field-grown raw material of less common species is the need for available models to inspire people’s Bonsai training. I know of no high quality Chinese Quince Bonsai in Britain (at least in comparison with those seen in Japan). Until such a tree is exhibited, it is unlikely that other enthusiasts will feel driven to emulate such quality in that species. I could say the same about Crab Apple Bonsai. I have long felt that the quality and ambition of styling Crab Apples is lamentable but again their are no (or very few) quality examples to emulate. I would have expected the availability of photographic examples in publications such as “Bonsai Today” would have pushed up our expectations for trees in less fashionable species but it seems that pictures are not quite the same as seeing a stunning tree in the flesh at an exhibition.

Visiting Bonsai Societies nowadays, I see that a lot of enthusiasts seem to have grasped the basic technical processes of Bonsai, while still having a long way to go in developing the visualisation skills needed. It is important to be able to use wire and tools but sometimes the most valuable work on a tree involves a comfortable chair, lots of cups of coffee and time spent just looking!