Bonsáis Art and Nature

More than two thousand years ago, in the tranquility of China’s Taoist monasteries, humans began to reshape small trees into miniature replicas of natural giants via the painstaking art of bonsai.

Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón

Nothing in nature is more artful than a tree: some rise straight and tall, standing proudly above the forest; others are chubby and twisted, with sculpted trunks fit for a museum; a number are barrel-shaped and produce a hollow sound when tapped; and a few are so smooth that folklore considers them the arboreal version of a naked ape.

It is not surprising that humans have sought to share in the creation of these magnificent works of nature, putting their mark on them in some way. Indeed, the 2,000-year-old art of bonsai tries to reproduce nature’s giants in miniature. In ancient China, a tree symbolized eternal life, representing a bridge between divine and human, heaven and earth. The painstaking art of bonsai was developed in the tranquility of the monasteries, where Taoist monks grew to venerate these tiny trees. They carried their most beloved specimens with them on treks up the mountains in the summer and down into the fields. Some people believe that this image perfectly reflects the idea of bonsai, and they may be right, since bonsai means “tree on a tray.”

Panama City possesses a small world hidden amongst the giants in Metropolitan Park: the Bonsai Gardens. Here, Constantino Tserotas preserves the secrets of the tropical forest’s most picturesque species. The most interesting thing about the garden of Dino —as Constantino is usually called— is actually seeing these dwarfs amongst a forest of giants.

The tradition of bonsai may have originated in China, but its now classic manifestation developed in Japan, where the goal was to achieve perfectly symmetrical trees. Dino works freestyle, since he feels that everything in nature is rough and asymmetrical, and that is precisely the beauty of it. “When you see something symmetrical, you know that humans have been there.” In contrast, the Chinese go into the mountains, look at the trees around them and try to replicate how the tree grows in its natural environment, which is why they prefer freestyle bonsai.

This art goes back two thousand years, but there are 4,000-year-old cave paintings in Tibet that show four men carrying a wooden box containing a fruit tree (an orange or lemon tree). For Asians, the art of creating bonsai is mystical; every part of the tree has a different meaning: the first branch represents the earth and the tip, God.

Westerners see bonsai as an artistic offshoot of horticulture and the resulting tree is essentially a decorative object. The first Western book written exclusively on dwarf trees was published in French in 1902, with another book in English following in 1940. In 1957 Yuji Yoshimura and Giovanna Halford published The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes, considered the bonsai Bible. This book linked classic Japanese manifestations with the Western approach.

Dino says that twenty-eight years ago, when he wanted a bonsai, he couldn’t find one anywhere in Panama. He joined a Panama City association of experts on the subject and studied the secrets of the art with the group for six years. Pushed by his passion for bonsai, he rented space in the Metropolitan Park and set up his business. Dino sees the art of bonsai as both exciting and relaxing.

How to Create a Bonsai

According to Dino, there are four ways to create a bonsai. The first involves growing the tree from a seed, which is a slow and tedious process that takes many years to produce a result. The second entails planting a cutting that will, with luck, grow into a tiny new tree. The problem is that there are trees that do not take easily, but when they do, a more robust tree is produced.

The third way is to forage for trees in the wild, preferably in an area with unsparingly harsh winds that make the trees grow stunted and twisted, in other words, perfect for bonsai. You need to wait for the right time of year and uproot the tree very carefully. The tree cannot be planted immediately in a pot, but must be placed in a larger container. Wait until the tree recovers from the transplant, while shaping it to the characteristics you prefer.

The fourth way is a process known as air layering, which consists of taking a branch from a large tree, removing the bark, cutting off an inch-wide ring and then covering it with a layer of wet moss and rooting hormones. Since the tree is a living being, watery nutritious xylem sap flows upward and a sugary phloem sap flows downward between the wood and bark. Nutrients from the soil run up the tree to the leaves, which serve as photocells where photosynthesis takes place; this sap then runs downward and nourishes the tree. In air layering, the sap running down is halted by the ring, and the moss layer encourages the branch to form a sort of callus, from which roots grow. After no more than six weeks, a new adult tree is ready to be cut away and may be placed in a bonsai tray and shaped.

Tree shaping begins when the tree is placed in the bonsai tray. Certain basic concepts of tree growth must be taken into account in order to correctly prune the trees and transform them into miniatures. Trees have a tendency to grow upward, and the shoots will grow in the same direction. This growth pattern (known as “apical dominance”) is actually a competition for light in which the tree tries to avoid being shaded by other trees. This results in growth being dominant in the upper branches. The effect is undesirable in bonsai and must be considered in design and shaping.

For structural pruning, we must first decide on the style of bonsai, since the effects of a cut are irreversible. There are many styles, most of which evoke forms similar to those found in nature, including broom style, formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade, literati, windswept, and forest. However, all styles are open to personal interpretation and creativity. After structural pruning comes maintenance pruning, which not only preserves the tree’s appearance, but keeps the tree healthy, notes Dino. Since bonsais imitate nature, they always have larger branches on the bottom and smaller ones on top, an arrangement that allows sunlight to reach all the leaves. It is thus important to prune the tree accordingly for its appearance and health.

Dino wraps things up by reminding us that creating bonsai is a slow process. “You can’t hurry a bonsai.” Practitioners of the art must be very gentle so as to not damage the tree. Bonsais are living beings in constant evolution. Painters or sculptors finish their work, put away their tools, and that’s it. A bonsai artist’s work is never done, since the tree is a living being that continues to grow and change over time.