by John Atlyn
The Art of Bonsai has a long history prior to it being associated with Japan. Trees grown in pots date back to Egyptian times about 4,000 years ago when they grew trees in pots cut from rocks. Records indicate that most ancient civilizations had their own variety of “potted trees.”
Japan’s connection with bonsai has become known around the world, but it was the Chinese that truly began developing the art of bonsai about 2,500 years ago.
Through the Chinese Dynasty’s, the word bonsai had many different names. During the Chin Dynasty or Eastern Jin (317-420 A.D.) is when the term “P’EN-SAI” was written. The two Chinese characters “p’en” (pot) “tsai”(tree), translates to “potted tree” or “tree in pot.” It can also be pronounced, “punsai” or “pensai.”
The Japanese were introduced to “punsai” by Buddhists monks, between 1100 and 1300 A.D., 1,000 years after the Chinese started. The Japanese translated it to “BONSAI”, “potted tree.”
Many people believe bonsai is a special ‘dwarf’ variety of plants that do not grow to full size. This is untrue. They’re all around us. Just walk outside and look around. They’re the juniper hedges below us and the trees that tower over us. If you take any tree (e.g. Ginkgo Biloba) and plant it in the ground, in 50 years it would be 40 feet or taller and has a possible life span of around 1,500 years. Keeping trees miniature is the art of cutting the foliage, branches and roots back periodically.
Ginkgo Biloba created from common nursery stock begun in 1998)
Most bonsai sold commercially are Juniper, Pine, Oak, Ginkgo and Maples. These varieties MUST be grown outdoors for if kept inside, they will die. Varieties suitable to be grown indoors during are; Ficus, Podocarpus, Cycad and Pachira (Money Tree) they are usually twisted into each other. This information should be sold with any bonsai or you should be informed of it by any reputable bonsai dealer. If some bonsai dealer tells you otherwise, I suggest you turn around and walk away.
BEWARE: If you see bonsai for sale at any of the large “Box” stores, please inspect the soil. If the rocks are glued down and together on top of the soil, this bonsai is already dead. Because the rocks are glued down (this is done so the bonsai factory that mass produces this kind of bonsai can transport them without losing any soil) it becomes almost impossible for any water to evaporate or air to get to the roots. This causes root rot which will kill the tree very quickly. Also, they are planted in peat moss, and once peat moss dehydrates, it nearly impossible to rehydrate. If you can, it is always best to purchase a bonsai from a bonsai nursery where you can visit.
I have grown all of the varieties and more, mentioned above but my true passion is Japanese Maples (Acer Palmatum). As most of you know, Japanese Maples have different names, colors and sizes and periodically, new varieties arrive at your local nurseries. All of them, are stunning all year around due to their seasonal changes.
Working with Japanese Maples, I always begin bonsai with trees I’ve purchased at local nurseries. I do not recommend this to the novice but as you develop and “eye” for bonsai, it becomes very easy to spot a potential gem of a bonsai. This is what my Maple looked like in 1997 when I purchased it.
When I find a Japanese Maple “gem,” most times it’s in a large nursery pot. Usually from 5 to 15 gallons or more.I know and see with my minds eye, how long this project will take in years. Most bonsai created from nursery stock take from 3 to 5 years to get it into a bonsai pot depending on a few things:
1.) The caliper of the truck compared to the height of the potential bonsai.
2.) If any branches are already growing down near the trunk but above the graft.
3.) How dense the root ball is.
Most Japanese Maples growing in large nursery pots, are root bound, and the roots cannot be drastically cut during its first season. This would definitely kill it. So the process of reducing its roots is the most critical in its survival. If you wish to remove thick woods roots, it is best to be conservative and remove an inch or two depending on where the tiny feeder roots are. I ONLY use proper and sterile concave bonsai cutting tools to cut both the roots and branches. A concave cut will heal much quicker than a regular pruning scissor. I also apply root tone to the cut to promote new roots. The sterile cutters (a dip into rubbing alcohol) will also eliminate any kind of pests or diseases from attacking your potential bonsai.
Smaller Japanese Maples grown in one or two gallon pots are much easier to begin bonsai, but the trees are usually small. I have created bonsai using all different containers, so it’s up to the bonsai enthusiast in what they want to create.
Below, I’ve included my instruction information I always give my clients who purchase bonsai of any kind from me.
Daylight: Keep in indirect or filtered sunlight all day. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight will scorch the leaves turning them brown and dried out.
Temperature: Japanese maples in bonsai pots, can tolerate heat and cold temperatures to 27 degrees. In colder climates, there are several ways of storing your maple. One method is to place it in an unheated garage or an unheated greenhouse. Or you can remove it from its pot and plant it in the ground in the shade in a shady spot. Apply leaves 3 to 4 inches up and over the lateral roots so as to keep it warm during the winter months.
If kept in its pot, the risk of the pot cracking is much greater due to expanding water/ice in the soil. If placed in a heated room, it will initiate growth, and disturbing its growing cycle. It’s best to keep your tree dormant during winter months. During the growing season you can take your maple indoors for display, but only for a day or two. Japanese Maple is an outdoor tree and will DIE if kept indoors.
Ventilation: Keep your tree out of gusty winds, but it does need ventilation. High winds or persistent winds will scorch and dry out the tips of the leaves. Good ventilation will protect your tree from developing powdery mildew.
Growth: Slow to Moderate.
Pruning: Pruning Japanese Maples is a relatively easy procedure. During spring and as the buds open up and begin to grow, it is best to allow the new shoots to extend to at least three sets of leaves before pruning. If you choose to do any wiring, apply the wire before bud burst so as not to injure the tender young leaves. If you do wire, it is important to remember to remove any wire before the branches begin to swell up. This is usually late July or early August. If you leave the wires on too long, the cambium will expand around the wire creating ugly lines on your branches. This can be repaired if it does occur, but it will take time.
Leaf Color: Will be determined by which variety you may select.
Repotting: In spring before the buds open: February – March or depending where you live and when you see the buds beginning to swell. Every three years for young trees (3 to 5 years of age) and five years for older trees. Remove tree from the pot, and trim the roots back by one-half. Always replace with new soil mixture, and fill in the empty space (it’s best to use a chopstick to perform this task). Keep your tree in a protected area, out of the sun and wind, for two weeks.
Soil: Loam (potting soil), sand (never beach sand) small orchid bark.
Watering: It’s always best to water any and all bonsai trees from the top with a special watering can. If not available, during the growing months mist the soil of your bonsai tree until it appears very wet. Once or twice a week or when necessary, place your bonsai in a bowl of water, but not over the top rim. Let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes. The holes on the bottom of the pot will allow the water to be absorbed into the soil. Japanese Maples like moist/dry soil - NEVER SOGGY. From spring to fall, water when necessary. If the soil feels moist, don’t water. If you mist the leaves, do not mist in the evening, this will promote powdery mildew.
Fertilizer: During growing season, once a month, with any reputable fertilizer. For best results, dilute fertilizer with more water, and fertilize over two days. This will allow the roots to absorb the fertilizer. Do not fertilize during winter months. Wait six weeks to fertilize after transplanting. Otherwise you can damage the roots.
Important Note: Almost all hybrid Japanese Maples are grafted. You can usually see some sign of the graft towards the bottom of the tree. If leaves sprout out BELOW the graft, remove them. This growth is from the regular Japanese Maple root stock. This will take energy from the hybrid, and eventually kill the hybrid on the root stock.
Varieties suitable for bonsai: Please consult the experienced associates at Maplestone Ornamentals for their suggestions, from novice to experienced. No matter how you grow your Japanese Maples either as bonsai or garden trees, their amazing beauty will enhance your life for a life time.
We live in an age of computers, cell phones, plastic, speed and everyone is as John states, “in a hurry to go nowhere.” John knows this lifestyle all to well for he lived it while working as an art director for Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank California. One morning a thought entered his mind, “What am I doing to myself?” The stress level at Warner Bros. was so intense John felt he may have a heart attack or worse. It was then that he decided to study the fine art of bonsai. Always having an affinity for the arts and gardening since the age of 7, thanks to his grandparents in Brooklyn NY., learning the fine art of bonsai was a natural transition for him.
Bonsai is an art form which requires patience and is really never finished. For the past two decades John has dedicated himself to the fine art of bonsai.
Studying with bonsai artists, Henry Miyazono and Ben Oki, in California, Nick Lenz in Massachusetts, author of, Bonsai from the Wild, and Robbo Holleran consulting forester in Vermont, John’s experience continues to be extensive. “Sometimes the best way to learn is to just sit and watch.”
Donating dozens of bonsai trees he designed to the Durfee Conservatory at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, John has done lectures and demonstrations at bonsai gardens, Horticultural societies, museums and leading Universities.
Over the decades, he’s collected wild trees from the bogs of Maine, the bluffs of South Dakota to the mountains of California.
Having studied the fine arts and animation at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he’s worked as an art director at Warner Bros., Universal Studios, Graceland, Kellogg’s Corp. and others corporations. His artwork hangs in galleries, museums and homes around the world.
Currently he’ is writing music for movies, painting landscapes in oils and collecting Japanese Maples for his Maple Sanctuary, “Maples on the Pond.”
ALL photographs copyright John Altyn 2012. Not to be copied or used without written permission.
Gregory, P 2009. Japanese Maples; The Complete Guide to Selection
and Cultivation – 4th Edition. Timber Press.
Adams, P. 2006. Bonsai with Japanese Maples. Timber Press.
Liang, A. 1991. The Living Art of Bonsai; Principles & Techniques of
Cultivation & Propagation. Sterling publishing..
Koreshoff, D. 1984. Bonsai Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy.
Naka, J. 1973. Bonsai Techniques I. Bonsai Institute of California