The main skill that separates Bonsai beginners from advanced enthusiasts is the ability to train the tree - using wiring to bend the branches and trunk into new shapes, influencing the ultimate growth of the Bonsai. This is something everyone who's interested in Bonsai aspires to master.
However, one of the biggest "newbie" mistakes is to attempt training without properly protecting the branches and trunks from damage. You don't simply wrap wire around the branches directly, as this can cause the wire to cut deeply into the branches as well as risking major cracks.
Instead, the branches need to be protected with an underlying wrap. The traditional -and most common- way of doing this is with a product called Raffia.
How Raffia Protects Your Bonsai Tree
Raffia is basically just dried strips taken from the leaves of the raffia palm tree, which is indigenous to many parts of South America and Africa. It's been a traditional source of binding and weaving material in those parts of the world for millennia, being strong and yet still easy to work with.
Bonsai raffia comes in long thin strips a few feet long. Applying it to a Bonsai is simple. You soak it in water for about half an hour, which makes it soft and pliable, then wrap it tightly around the branch or trunk that's going to be wired just like a bandage. It's generally best to use three or four layers.
This provides several kinds of protection for the tree. First, it prevents the wire from cutting into the bark or the vulnerable wood beneath. It also spreads out the forces caused by training, reducing the strain on the branch and preventing cracks. Finally, it helps keep the branch hydrated which, again, reduces the chance of cracks in the wood or tears in the bark.
Then, once the training is done and the wire removed, the raffia can be unwrapped quickly and easily with no damage done to the branch.
Why Use Raffia Rather Than Modern Alternatives
If you look around other Bonsai blogs, you might see people saying "just use masking tape" to achieve the same effect as raffia. While it's possible to do this -and it certainly works in a pinch- there are several reasons we think the traditional approach is better:
1 - Raffia doesn't use glue. Depending the type of tape you're using, and the bark of your tree, you can do damage removing the tape from branches.
2 - Raffia binds better than tape. One key element of raffia is that by wrapping it wet, it constricts when it dries. This increases its protective properties, as well as further spreading out the strains throughout a branch or trunk. Tape, obviously, does not do this.
3 - Raffia is all-natural. There are few things more natural and bio-degradable than pure plant material. When one of the 'messages' of Bonsai is harmony with nature, using a plastic\chemical product to train it feels a bit philosphically false.
4 - Raffia is cheap. Raffia barely costs more than most tapes, especially good-quality tape. There's no real savings to be had by avoiding raffia.
5 - Raffia looks nicer. Sure, you're probably not going to be showing off a tree that's in training, but having it covered in black masking tape looks really ugly. Raffia has a far more naturalistic feel.
Safety Comes First When Training A Bonsai!
It's vital to always remember that your Bonsai is a living thing, and must be treated with respect in training. Otherwise, you could damage or even kill it. Raffia is a critical part of this protection.