Bonsai: Equal Parts Science, Art, and Philosophy

Would you give your friend a baby or a puppy? That’s the stock reply from local bonsai expert, Julian Adams, when people ask him to

Would you give your friend a baby or a puppy? That’s the stock reply from local bonsai expert, Julian Adams, when people ask him to sell them a bonsai tree as a gift for a friend. Julian, a master grower of bonsai, knows first-hand from 47 years of experience the tremendous amount of nurture and perseverance it takes to keep a bonsai thriving. He knows it requires daily time and attention and an appreciation of just what bonsai is and means. To Julian, it’s 50 percent horticulture, 50 percent art, and 50 percent philosophy. Yep. That adds up to bonus points for those who are passionate about bonsai. And he is.

What is bonsai?
To Westerners, it’s the Japanese name for a small, stylized tree typically grown in a shallow container.

The word bonsai in Japanese translates literally into “planting in a container, dish, or tray” and was developed as part of the practice of Zen Buddhism. From there, it caught on in more recent times in Western countries—first in Europe, and then in the United States.

Today, bonsai aficionados practice their science, art, and philosophy across the United States, with several experts right here in Lynchburg.

Prior to its refinement as a horticultural practice and art form in Japan, most sources trace the derivation of bonsai back to China, where it is called pen-sai or penjing. Some sources even claim that before traveling to China, the practice originated in ancient India where ayurvedic physicians collected medicinal trees from the wild and grew them in pots in miniature form.

Whatever the roots of bonsai tradition, it’s been around for well over a thousand years, and it’s all about roots and shoots—and controlling them to create the tree you desire given the nature and characteristics of the specimen. Bonsai trees are not genetically dwarfed plants. They have the same genetic properties as their kindred full-sized trees but achieve their miniature size through human control.

The goal is to create a realistic representation of nature in the miniature form of a tree while keeping the height under four feet, with most bonsai typically even shorter than that. But size classifications are disputed. One source declares that to be a true bonsai the tree cannot exceed one meter (3.28 feet), while another classification scheme declares a range from minute Keshitsubo (1-3 inches) up to Imperial (60-80 inches).

Picking a Specimen
Since most bonsai trees are grown outdoors, they experience the same seasonal and weather conditions as their full-sized relatives. Your specimen here can be one of many different deciduous or evergreen species if it can be grown in Climate Zone 7 and in your own micro-climate and conditions (sun, shade, windy, protected from wind, etc.). Native trees and exotics that share our climate preferences are a safe bet for growing outdoors as bonsai in our area, but if your preference is a tropical tree, it will need protection from our winters in a greenhouse or indoors with sufficient light.

Growing bonsai successfully requires sound horticultural practices and techniques. That’s the 50 percent science part of the practice, and I think that’s why most successful Lynchburg bonsai growers with extensive collections are those with scientific curiosity and background, such as engineering and medicine. This scientific approach is especially required of growers such as Julian who embrace the full range of bonsai practice. He propagates his own trees from cuttings, air-layering, grafting and seeds, and cultivates hundreds of specimens to maturity.

On the other hand, many enthusiasts don’t attempt to start from scratch, but rather select small already-rooted trees with potential directly from the woods, their yards, or other available sources to create bonsai. The important criteria are that the plant has a woody trunk or stem, grows branches, has leaves that can be reduced in size, and can be grown in a container. For most trees, it’s best to transplant in its dormant season.

Then there are some bonsai enthusiasts who want only to maintain with minimal manipulation one or more trees and begin with already mature and basically-trained plants. I was at that end of the spectrum when 30-some years ago I became enamored with bonsai and purchased a lovely decades-old Hinoki Cypress. My highly-valued bonsai was easy to grow and maintain. It wasn’t fussy about pH, required little more than full sun, daily watering and good drainage, and was fun to progress with pruning and shaping the already established composition. But after three years of success with it, I managed to bring it close to death.

Back to Julian’s point about babies and puppies, I learned the hard way that I wasn’t a good candidate for bonsai ownership. My family and I started spending summers at a cottage at the “Rivah,” and I entrusted my prized bonsai to an employee back at home in Danville who let it sit in a pan of water for days on end rather than following my instructions to check and water it daily. Without drainage, root rot almost claimed it.

I was horrified by the sight of it when I thought back on all the years of tender care that had brought it this far. The good news is that a local bonsai expert restored it to heath, and I gifted it to her in humble gratitude and appreciation for her skill and superior stewardship. She then was gracious enough to allow me to borrow it for display in my home on special occasions.

Getting Started
I hope you’ll take my almost-disastrous experience with bonsai as a lesson learned, rather than discouragement, and will try it. It’s a fun practice offering a stunningly rewarding product for those with time, patience, and dedication. First envision the shape, style, and design of your specimen as it matures, gleaning inspiration from the natural inclination of your specimen.

Then after trimming roots and branches to achieve the desired effect, plant it in a container that most effectively displays your composition and restricts roots and food storage capability.

Simple and understated earthenware Japanese pots and more decorative Chinese pots are traditional, but anything works if it can support the tree and frame it unobtrusively.

Many growers use a special potting mix to encourage drainage and control nutrients. Specific care relates to the species, but typically, fertilizers are used sparingly. Watering regularly and draining that water are essential, as well as placing the bonsai in the proper location for sun or shade, etc. Placement may change as conditions and seasons dictate to afford protection from storms or harsh winter weather. Julian displays most of his bonsai collection on raised benches at a good working height except in hard winter when they are placed on the ground for root warmth and shielded from potentially damaging winds.

Training the tree to your desired composition includes periodically trimming roots, pruning and wiring branches with a specific type and grade of copper wire, and pinching buds to redirect healthy growth. Once the copper wire has been wrapped around a branch that you wish to train in a specific direction, you can carefully manipulate that branch (within reasonable limits of course) to suit your composition. Step-by-step tutorials are available for those ready to take the plunge, and Julian will be happy to sell you just the right grade and quantity of copper wire.

You might also want to follow Julian’s lead and grow bonsai from cuttings, air layering, grafting, or seeds and experience the joy of nurturing your bonsai from its beginning into a mature creation that fulfills your design vision. Just remember that newbies are very fragile and require constant attention since they must not be allowed to dry out. And we all know what summers are like in Lynchburg.

So, here’s where Julian’s engineering background and ingenuity kick in: He’s invented a fascinating Rube Goldberg type of device that’s hooked up to an outdoor water faucet and triggers a thorough misting of the newbies when a delicate paddle dries out and kicks the water on. On a scorching August afternoon, this might happen every 20 minutes or so. And tiny sun-loving, outdoor plants are thriving.

The point isn’t to replicate the growth pattern of the full-sized tree in nature, but rather to create your own artistic design. While some bonsai artists prefer a more natural look or even believe that the primary goal of bonsai is to create a realistic depiction of nature, others prefer a more contrived or dramatic effect through human intervention. There’s no absolute right or wrong answer. It’s a matter of preference.

In bonsai, there is a delicate balance between nature and nurture. You are controlling nature within the bounds of what’s humanly possible—stretching limits, while remaining sensitive to, respectful of, and constrained by nature.

Some specimens, especially very small ones, become quite abstracted from nature, and the smaller the specimen, the more fragile its existence. Bonsai can be so abstracted that they only suggest a tree. As with any work of art, differences in aesthetic determine preferences in composition, style, and the degree to which the grower manipulates the plant. Styles can be upright, slanting line, weeping or cascading, and more. And a popular shape is the asymmetrical triangle.

An amazing aesthetic pleasure of bonsai is the character and beauty of twisted and gnarly trunks and branches of aged trees that still produce robust foliage intertwined with deadwood and intriguing bark patterns. Bonsai artists carefully prune back selected foliage to expose interesting trunk and limb structure. Tip: Compositions are usually easier to manage with trees that have smaller leaves in nature. Leaf size will be further reduced through pruning limbs and roots. Bold surface roots also add visual interest, and some exposed roots can be trained to grow over relatively large rocks or in a variety of interesting patterns.

Many bonsai enthusiasts take their artistry to another level with additional elements to create miniature landscapes with more than one plant and include rocks, ground covers, small figurines, and other accoutrements. Some are detailed enough to represent miniature cliffs, mountains, islands, and other natural phenomena that add interest. The ideal is for each tree to be viewed in its overall relationship with the elements surrounding it.

A bonsai is never completed, and it may be remodeled if the age and health of the tree or style preference of the grower dictate a different path. Or there may be many caretakers for one tree over the span of its life, since with careful care and attention, some bonsai live for hundreds of years. One prize-winning specimen owned by a bonsai master in Japan is reported to be over 800 years old and is a work of art worth a small fortune.

Beyond Science and Art
Bonsai is much more than a successful melding of science and art. Each tree is unique and invites personal reflection, interpretation beyond the physical creation itself, and inspiration for poets and essayists.

Every aspect of a bonsai is laden with symbolism and meaning—the type of tree selected, the container, and aesthetics of composition and style. While some of the symbolism rooted in Eastern mythic and religious thought may be a bit obscure to us, other symbolism is easily grasped. For example, knotty, gnarled trunks and branches evoke consideration of the passing and toll of time.

With each change of season, bonsai offers new delights in shape, size, color, and meaning. Emerging spring green leaves, lush summer foliage, vibrant fall colors, and bright winter berries all offer fodder for appreciation of life’s mysteries in a journey though time.

Bonsai as a horticulture and artistic practice, hobby, or obsession is a challenge on many levels to our gardening and horticulture capabilities, aesthetic and design sense, patience and perseverance, and time. Yet as a reward, it offers endless hours of pleasure, beauty, and spiritual growth.

As we learn from Zen Buddhist practice, countless hours of meditation in the presence of bonsai can lead to enlightenment. Celebrated Japanese Bonsai Master and philosopher Saburo Kato’s hope for bonsai is that it will “keep the torch of peace burning throughout the world.”

Contact Julian Adams at (434) 384-7951 or

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