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Ficus Bonsai

The Shape of Trees - A Study in Natural Design

The Shape of Trees

There are more tree species than you can shake a stick at. Trees are a woody perennial plant, having a stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches which produce leaves that orient to the sun. This is a simple definition of a tree. To define a few tree types, there are deciduous, broadleaf evergreen, conifer (coniferous), and tropical.

Deciduous means in Latin deciduus (from decidere to ‘fall down or off’) of a tree or shrub, shedding of its leaves annually. Deciduous trees and shrubs live in climates that have a winter of freezing or near freezing temperatures. They will go through a period of dormancy; this is in their genetics.

Broadleaf evergreens are a type of shrub or small tree with large leaves that hold their foliage year-round. These leaves are typically thick, flat and dark green, with strong veins running through them. Broadleaf evergreens are usually shrubs, there are a smaller number of trees in this category.

Conifer means cone bearing; also having scale-like or needle-like leaves that are typically evergreen. Both trees and shrubs can be coniferous. North America has many different types of conifers from east to west, coast to coast. In Kentucky there are 10 native conifers: Juniperus communis (Common Juniper), Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red-Cedar), Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress, a deciduous conifer), Thuja occidentalis (Northern White-Cedar), Pinus Echinata (Yellow Pine), Pinus rigida (Pitch Pine, mainly in the southern part of the state), Pinus Strobus (Eastern White Pine), Pinus Virginiana (Virginia Pine), Tsuga canadensis (Eastern Hemlock) and Taxus canadensis (Canada Yew).

Last on the list is Tropical. Tropical means trees typical of, or native to the tropics. These areas do not experience winter cold or frost.

The main goal of plants is to grow, feed from the soil and the sun, and produce fruit and/or seed to procreate or produce offspring. This discussion is about the natural design of trees. Why? We are discussing Bonsai as an artform. A long time ago, people from Asia (now China) grew woody plants in containers to grace their living space and their gardens. Over time, people grew the artform into an elegant design of nature in miniature. Now we see elaborate forms of trees all with a similar idea in mind, to make the miniature tree look like an old tree in nature. Bonsai is supposed to reflect age and the natural form of trees. It has developed a design in of itself. Because of its size, we cannot grow trees to mirror what nature creates but we can refine the principals of design to create a representation of old natural trees in the wild.

To create a high quality bonsai we need to look at nature. What does the tree do? How does the tree grow? What does the tree need to grow? Why and how does a certain species grow a certain way? These are some of the questions we need to ask if we want to create the best quality bonsai trees that we can.

First and foremost, bonsai are plants. To understand bonsai we need to understand plants. We start with Horticulture Science. This is more important than bonsai. So what is horticulture science? Horticulture is a branch or field of botany that deals with edible and ornamental plants and incorporates both science and aesthetics of growing and cultivating plants. It is the science and art of producing edible fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, and ornamental plants. Horticulture from Latin hortus meaning ‘garden’ and cultura from Latin meaning ‘growing' or 'cultivation’. A good source for learning about Horticulture is your local extension office. Extension offices are departments located in local counties and universities. These offices are run by university employees and volunteers that are experts in local crops, landscaping, soil, gardening, pests, and more. They will usually offer classes to the public on many topics from gardening to farming to cooking. This is one of the best recourses if you want to learn about horticulture.

Back to bonsai. Once you know some basic horticulture principals and feel comfortable with your green thumb, you can take a look into the creation of bonsai. I myself learned horticulture and bonsai simultaneously. I started collage learning horticulture for two years first and then I started learning bonsai and took that with me through my remaining years in the horticulture science program. I felt that it was pivotal to learning bonsai at the same time because bonsai culture is extremely involved in care practices such as designing principals like wiring and bending branches and keeping them growing healthy in pot/container culture. I feel that I learned more about horticulture because I studied bonsai at the same time. Also, I feel that there is a spiritual connection with nature when you practice bonsai. I learned to respect nature and all its interesting facets.

The design of trees can be viewed as simple or complex. The basic design is to form as many leaves as they can to reach as much sunlight as they can. Branches that are too small and are under larger branches usually dye due to lack of light. This is the trees natural way of forming the best shape for growth. Most old mature trees are large and round. In the Japanese bonsai style many tree form a triangle shape. In my opinion, evergreen trees and many conifers will mature to a conical or triangle shape. Deciduous and tropical trees will form a more rounded shape due to their flat wide leaves having more surface area and needing to grow wider and more open, so the sunlight can reach their surface. When trees get old, the branches become very heavy and tend to slope downward. As you move outward toward the branch tip, there is less weight and the branch tends to move up. Overall, as you move up the trunk the branches get smaller and lighter moving closer to vertical, creating a fan or pinwheel shape. Keep in mind, trees are three dimensional, branches will come towards you and away from you. Nature does not create identical linear lines or 2D shapes and a natural design means that branch tips may cross each other. I have learned that placing branches too perfectly looks unnatural. Learn from nature, look to the old trees in fields, on hills, hanging on to cliffs and growing over streams or rivers. Nature is the best teacher.

Trees are fascinating when you spend time with them. They are living beings. They create the air we breathe and they provide food, shelter and homes to wildlife. The many species of trees on this planet show the diversity of climate and environment types. Just looking at a tree, you can look into the past and into the elements that helped grow and shape the tree. Nature will tell you a story. Bonsai is exactly the same. The shape of the tree will tell a story and you are the designer. You can tell your own story with your bonsai. You can create living art. There is no other artform like bonsai. When you see a professional quality bonsai, you have seen mastery. Here, I have included some pictures of living trees in nature with their natural beauty for inspiration in creating and designing bonsai. Study the branches and study the trunks. Talk to a tree in you own back yard, that's what I do. I know they hear me. Also included are several drawings that represent the natural form along with some bonsai in training. Enjoy!


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