When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

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When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  fiona on Tue Jun 23, 2009 8:04 am

With apologies to Jim Lewis and others who hate these "pseudo-philosphical" threads, can I ask people what they understand by the need for a bonsai to be in a proper pot before it is considered a true bonsai as opposed to a potensai or a tree in training. This is in response to another thread where the poster will be growing three or four trees within the same wooden planter box. I had always been of the opinion that a bonsai was only "complete" when it had the elements of the tree iteself and a recognised bonsai container - pot for trees, suiban or marble slab for landscape. This has partly been because I thought the translation of very word bonsai indicates the need for a pot, and partly because any show of note I've been involved in would not accept a tree in anything other than a pot. Is this far too narrow a definition? How, for example, would we classify the slate slab my Buxus (below) is on for example? At the best of British it was labelled as "Pot: Dan Barton slab".

It's an interesting point. My gut reaction to the poster's question was that he/she might be carrying out all the other bonsai techniques - wiring, styling etc - he/she was not really creating a real bonsai. Maybe it's me who is wrong.

Thoughts?


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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  DaveP on Tue Jun 23, 2009 11:58 am

Hey, I'm willing to slide down the slope. Smile If we look at a more complete definition of 'bon', it could be read as anything that contains the roots - a pot, tray, slab, rock, etc. It becomes a bonsai when the element containing the roots harmonize with the tree. So a tree in a coarse growing box would not be a bonsai as the root-containing element doesn't harmonize with the tree (regardless of what stage the tree is at). On the other hand, I suppose that means it's completely possible to create a finely-crafted wooden container that harmonizes with a well-designed & executed tree, resulting in a bonsai. The elements are the same - a tree in a wooden box. But the overall impression given by the composition would be radically different between the two.

In the case of the slab planting above, the two harmonize very nicely and the roots are contained on the slab - this tells *me* that it's a bonsai, rather than "tree-on-slab nonbonsai". Sure, there's more to it when it comes to the tree (otherwise a topiary coordinated with a container would be a bonsai - which it isn't), but that's not the point of this discussion. :-)

Kindest~
-d

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when is a bonsai a bonsai

Post  Garykk on Tue Jun 23, 2009 4:46 pm

If I see a natural tree growing in the wild with all the right moves and scale, that is a bonsai to me. It could be growing in the mud, on a rock, on the side of a cliff, in a pot, in the soil, in turface, on a slab, in a wood box....if the tree has what it takes, ignore the rest because it passes the test. Laughing

__gary

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  Martijn Willems on Tue Jun 23, 2009 7:46 pm

If you take the word Bonsai apart, the defenition is tree in pot. Does that make all sticks/cuttings in a pot bonsai ? NO !
A better defenition would be (according to my interpretation) "landscape in pot". The tree itself has to reflect the image of it's big brother in the wild, there has to be maturity written all over it. When the viewer sees an image of a big tree in miniature and potted in a complementing pot/slab/suiban/rock, then the tree can be called bonsai.

The tree U present is in my opinion bonsai, it has maturity and reflects the hard circumstances it has grown in like heavy winds and rain. Very nice tree !

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  bonsai monkey on Tue Jun 23, 2009 10:22 pm

I'm with Martijn on this one I'm afraid. If you took Bonsai to it's true defenition I could open my own nursery with the "Raw Material" that I have in my back garden. All trees in pots but nowhere near the standard of Bonsai. Training boxes have their uses but they represent the early development stages of a tree becoming a Bonsai IMHO.

Fi, great tree by the way. It looks like a rattle snake (or similar) craning back ready to strike. Glad I'm not a visitor to your garden, it would scare me witless affraid

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  Will Heath on Tue Jun 23, 2009 11:06 pm

In an article I wrote over at AoB, I offered the following definition for a bonsai, "A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container."

However, it would seem you are attempting to define the word "container" or "pot" here....


The word bonsai, according to William Valavanis, translates directly as "to plant into a shallow container."

The word tree or pot is not part of the word at all.



Will

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Suppose there is a dwarfed, beautifully ramified tree in the forest and no one can see it: bonsai?

Post  Crispywonton on Wed Jun 24, 2009 12:59 am

Will Heath wrote:
"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container."



I like this, but some of the definition's components have relativity.
Living-Not relative
But whether or not something is artistically created or an "ideal" image is up to the viewers to decide and, ergo, relative. Therefore, I don't believe you really can pin down a universal definition for what bonsai is (as with many forms of art). I think the thing that really changes any old thing (hopefully tree) into a bonsai is a human's belief that it is a bonsai. While breaking up the word "bonsai" reveals that we need trees in containers I don't think that it completely covers what a bonsai can or can't be. Imagine a tree "contained" in a crevice in a rocky cliff. There's our container but I don't believe that tree becomes bonsai until a human recognizes it and thinks, "BONSAI!". As an art form, bonsai is subject to human interpretation, and possibly, only becomes bonsai through human interpretation. So, what is a bonsai? Whatever I want choose to think a bonsai is.

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Yes, bonsai

Post  Garykk on Wed Jun 24, 2009 1:50 am

I don't think one could promote or improve the growth of this plant by putting it in a container.

__gary

Image removed at Gary's request

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  fiona on Wed Jun 24, 2009 7:51 am

Garykk wrote:I don't think one could promote or improve the growth of this plant by putting it in a container

I think you are right about the promoting or improving the growth, but I also suspect that most people looking at the superb specimen are thinking along the lines of "That would make a great bonsai" and debating what sprt of pot they'd need. Very Happy Of course it doesn't mean that approach is right just because most of us think so. I myself have always gone with something akin to Will's definition, but the poster's question on the other board has got me thinking Why? Do we use ceramic containers for the most part because the Japanese and Chinese did or because it is an intrinsic part of the art form? Is the use of a slab such as that under my Buxus (not to mention a number of outstanding and award winning trees across Europe and America) therefore an attempt to buck the "rules" slightly? If so, it obviously works and most people have said they see it as bonsai. To return to the poster's scenario, if you take out the fact that they wish to grow several species within the one planter without any real regard to a harmonious whole, is the poster's wooden planter not an extension of the "rule bending" idea and with some validity? Or is it merely a planting trough in which to cultivate horticulturally some trees? In this circumstance, can these trees be called bonsai?

OMG Exclamation I think we're back into the Art vs Horticulture debate.

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  DaveP on Wed Jun 24, 2009 11:53 am

fionnghal wrote:To return to the poster's scenario, if you take out the fact that they wish to grow several species within the one planter without any real regard to a harmonious whole, ...

I think we're actually getting into a translation discussion more than art vs. horticulture. The word "bonsai" *can* be broken into constituent components, but the word as a whole is intended to convey more than the sum of its parts. "I have a container (of some sort) and I have a planting" does not equal "bonsai". I have a planting container on our deck. It contains several tomato varieties surrounded by smaller cilantro clumps. I happen to think it has a harmonious appearance, but I'm not about to sit here and call it a bonsai. Perhaps it's closer to a kusamono. Oh, wait .. see? There's a word to describe that. The word isn't "bonsai".

:: enable pedantic geek mode Sleep ::
"Bonsai" is five phenome word (well, both a word and a morpheme), and the phonetic spelling & pronunciation for a two-grapheme Japanese morpheme ("word" is incorrect here since written and phonetic Japanese are separate). We're doing it - and ourselves - a great disservice by breaking down the meaning of each grapheme individually to translate it as both graphemes are "free" - making the combination different than the individuals. Being that we're largely English-speakers (even if English isn't a first language, the vast majority of Western languages are phonetic), we are used to a language based on phonograms. The Japanese language (and Chinese, and Korean, etc) is based on logograms (excluding kana, which is phonetic), which can be quite difficult for the native English brain to grasp (not unlike someone with a logographic background trying to wrap their heads around "there", "their", and "they're"). The logograph pronounced as "bonsai" carries much more information than "bon" and "sai". While there *is* considerable room within the concept, the unwavering tenent is of a *single* harmonious image comprised of the two elements; plant(s) and container.

..ok, you can wake up now, the really boring crap is over. cheers

Just as a car cannot be a motorcycle, despite both being a "vehicle", a plant in the ground or in a container that does not create a single, harmonious image cannot be a bonsai. If someone wishes to point to a plant and call it a bonsai, I'm not going to stop them. I'm not the language police. king But it's a bit like someone pointing to a chicken and shouting "flamingo!". Is there a place for a more generic use of the word "bonsai"? I suppose. Perhaps it's easier when explaining things to a non-bonsai person. It's certainly less typing and less of a mouthful than "bonsai-in-training" or "potensai". On the downside, it sets that person up for a misunderstanding of the *real* definition should the bonsai bug bite them. ;-)

Yours in pedantry..
-d

some references, for the truly bored...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logogram
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grapheme
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morpheme

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  Garykk on Wed Jun 24, 2009 2:13 pm

Ok pedantic -d, it's starting to sink in. Let me try.....wow that tree is going make a great Niwaki! "No gary....the new owner is going to put it into a container." Oh..I see. Crying or Very sad

__gary


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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  DaveP on Wed Jun 24, 2009 2:34 pm

still a great tree no matter what it's called ;-)

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Plant + Container = Bonsai

Post  Rob Kempinski on Wed Jun 24, 2009 3:12 pm

A plant in a container is a bonsai. Whether it is a good bonsai or not is a different question.

The container can be any material. Ceramic containers hold up well in the weather, are fairly inexpensive and readily available. Metal, wood, concrete, and other tried materials don't hold up as well.

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  Walter Pall on Wed Jun 24, 2009 3:33 pm

Oh great Rob, then I buy myself thousands of bonsai for cheap at the garden center. There they have all plants in plastic containers.

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  Rob Kempinski on Wed Jun 24, 2009 3:52 pm

Walter Pall wrote:Oh great Rob, then I buy myself thousands of bonsai for cheap at the garden center. There they have all plants in plastic containers.

Well you'd have lots of bonsai but they might not impress much.

One can buy all kinds of paintings at the local discount store, but did you buy art?

Bonsai by definition is broad. Good bonsai or bad is subjective and host to a much more complicated questions, criteria and choices.

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  DaveP on Wed Jun 24, 2009 4:29 pm

I don't think there's any disagreement that the quality of a bonsai is subjective. Because the concept of container and plant harmony is in the eye of the composition's creator, good or bad falls to the opinion of the viewer. My understanding of the definition is that there's at least an effort at harmony, not merely someplace to put the plant's roots and something for them to grow into. The material used for the container is also up to the composer, regardless of costs or limitations of that material, with the caveat that it is sufficient for the survival of the plant (regardless of the duration - it could be for just one show or could be until the next repotting).

-d Smile

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  Martijn Willems on Wed Jun 24, 2009 5:33 pm

Rob Kempinski wrote:A plant in a container is a bonsai. Whether it is a good bonsai or not is a different question.

So U claim that an accentplant is really a bonsai, not kusamono. The plants I buy at a gardencentre for indoor use like a "lucky bamboo" are bonsai only because they are planted in a container ?

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  Rob Kempinski on Wed Jun 24, 2009 5:50 pm

Martijn Willems wrote:
Rob Kempinski wrote:A plant in a container is a bonsai. Whether it is a good bonsai or not is a different question.

So U claim that an accentplant is really a bonsai, not kusamono. The plants I buy at a gardencentre for indoor use like a "lucky bamboo" are bonsai only because they are planted in a container ?

Yes - grass plantings in a container are a form of bonsai. Go look at Kyuzo Murata's book "Four Seasons of Bonsai."

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  John Quinn on Wed Jun 24, 2009 6:19 pm

..ok, you can wake up now, the really boring crap is over.
Dave, actually, that was pretty interesting! Thanks for the insights.

_________________
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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  mike page on Wed Jun 24, 2009 6:25 pm

Just as every graphic image is not art, every tree in a "container" is not bonsai.

Mike

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  DaveP on Wed Jun 24, 2009 6:28 pm

I'd concur with Rob that kusamono are a form of bonsai - but only when the plant and its container form a cohesive, harmonized image. The wide definition of bonsai does not dictate the type of plant material. It could be woody-stemmed, grasses, annuals, moss, tubers, etc. Heck, you could even create a bonsai out of a moss ball, assuming the ball and whatever it's on harmonize. To me, that's stretching the definition a bit, but I can see how it would be included.

I think a good many people presume woody-stemmed plants when hearing the word "bonsai", but I've got plenty of books from Japan that offer a wide variety of plant material. The one thing all have in common (beating what I suspect to be a dead horse here), is the cohesive image presented by the combination of plant and container.

Kindest~
-d

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  Rob Kempinski on Wed Jun 24, 2009 6:44 pm

mike page wrote:Just as every graphic image is not art, every tree in a "container" is not bonsai.

Mike

This is like debating which came first the chicken or the egg.

BTW, look at the link, here on this web page.

http://ibonsaiclub.forumotion.com/bonsai-questions-f7/palm-styling-t883.htm

Rob Kempinski
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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  fiona on Wed Jun 24, 2009 7:00 pm

John Quinn wrote:..ok, you can wake up now, the really boring crap is over.
Dave, actually, that was pretty interesting! Thanks for the insights.

I agree with John. But then again I have a black belt in pedantry myself expecially linguistic pedantry. Laughing

To return to the topic, maybe it's that human thing to compartmentalise, pigeon-hole or whatever other classification cliche you want, but I suspect most of us (though not all) have put "bonsai" in the category of an artistically created tree which harmonises with an artistically created container. We then tend to make further differentiations as to what constitutes a "container". The two trees below are both maples in glazed containers which have had some level or other of styling but my brain instictively unscrambles them as:

1. maple as a patio container plant


2. maple as a bonsai


Maybe it's because most of us have metal pictures of "classic" examples of a patio container and a bonsai container. But the edges get even more blurred if you bring into the mix the pots used in Chinese Penjing which can be (and often are) every bit as big and deep as the type of pot above in the patio container example.

My own feeling is that a bonsai (whether it's a tree, or a non-woody stemmed plant as Rob and Dave suggest) must be in a recognised bonsai container, with the "rules" on that now extended to include the slabs and rock pots that are common now. When I put a tree into anything else (plastic, soil box, or even mica) it is usually a short term temporary move for some sort of remedial or development reason.

The original question was about whether a wooden window-box type planter filled with three or four random trees could ever be considered bonsai. Wood may not be common or popular as a bonsai "pot" but does that mean it can never be so? I remember once seeing a bonsai in a large piece of burr - to me it was clearly a bonsai. And since it was in a reputable exhibition, obviously the owner and show organisers thought so too. If the planter harmonises with the planting does it matter if it came flat-packed from B&Q, Lowes, Home Depot or whatever hardware store? Or is this merely container gardening in which the participant manages to miniaturise a few unrelated trees?


Last edited by fionnghal on Wed Jun 24, 2009 7:03 pm; edited 2 times in total (Reason for editing : grammar error - I must now run on my sword!)

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  DaveP on Wed Jun 24, 2009 7:11 pm

Rob Kempinski wrote:
mike page wrote:Just as every graphic image is not art, every tree in a "container" is not bonsai.

Mike

This is like debating which came first the chicken or the egg.

I would respectfully disagree. I'll use Japanese, if only because it's appropriate here, but the example exists in other languages as well.

Hypothetically, let's say the English word "jeans" doesn't have an equivalent Japanese morpheme (I don't think it does - but would happily be proven otherwise). In that case, they would use some form of kana to spell it phonetically, rather than assigning a new word because it does have a meaning already and there is no need for a morpheme. Inversely, the morpheme pronounced as "bonsai" has an existing definition, in place long before the English use of the phonetic version. Because most Western languages are phonetic, we use the word "bonsai". To communicate in a universally understood context, it must carry along the implied definition based on the morpheme it originates from (since Japanese is based on logograms, not phonetics, the *meaning* is in the morpheme, not the phonetic pronunciation of the word).

If a person fluent in Japanese called and said the word "bike", when what they meant was "jeans", then until they point to a pair of denim pants, there is no universally understood meaning. When we say the word "bonsai", I believe it would be most correct to convey the meaning based on the originating morpheme - at least to the best of our efforts.

Since we know the origin (Japanese morpheme), there isn't any chicken or egg. Very Happy

Kindest~
-d

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Re: When is a Bonsai not a Bonsai?

Post  DaveP on Wed Jun 24, 2009 7:19 pm

fionnghal wrote:If the planter harmonises with the planting does it matter if it came flat-packed from B&Q, Lowes, Home Depot or whatever hardware store? Or is this merely container gardening in which the participant manages to miniaturise a few unrelated trees?

To my mind, you answered the question with "a few unrelated trees", as this conveys a disharmonious image - making it a container garden. Although since you earlier state that it does harmonize - there's a bit of a conundrum in my mental image. If the plant(s) and container do indeed give a cohesive image, then flat-packed or otherwise, it would indeed be a bonsai. Good or bad is, of course, subjective. It merely fits the definition is all. Very Happy

Kindest~
-d

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