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Bonsai Trivia

DID YOU KNOW? …

… That the origin of Bonsai, while often attributed to the Japanese, is actually Chinese in derivation. Many experts agree that bonsai, know as Pensai in China, was practiced by scholars, monks and the noble classes of China as far back as 600 A.D. A few centuries later, bonsai, along with Zen Buddhism, and much of the best of Chinese culture was brought to Japan.

… That the word “Bonsai”, which is pronounced “Bone- Sigh”, is made up of the two Japanese characters: “Bon” meaning tray and “sai” meaning plant, which when literally translated means: tray plant. Of course, the cultivation of bonsai trees has advanced much since its humble start as plants in trays.

… That an earthquake is responsible for shifting the “epicenter” of bonsai cultivation in Japan. In 1923 an 8.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the entire Kanto region of Japan. Destroying vast portions of the two largest cities: Tokyo and Yokohama; along with a majority of the commercial bonsai businesses. As a result, the bonsai business community, in an effort to save their livelihoods, collectively purchased a tract of land outside of Tokyo, in the Omiya region, where their businesses once again flourished. Hence, a new epicenter of bonsai cultivation in Japan was created (which exists and thrives to this day).

… That in 1976 the people of Japan, in honor of the USA Bicentennial Celebration, presented to America 53 priceless bonsai trees and 6 remarkable viewing stones. These gifts were to become the foundation of our national collection. This magnificent group is housed at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, located within the U.S. National Arboretum, in Washington, D.C. It has since become the largest collection of its kind - housing bonsai from around the world!

… That the bark of a tree has three very important and practical functions: It is waterproof, so it prevents leaking from the phloem; It also houses small structures, called lenticels, that allow the tree to breathe; and the bark’s third function is to protect the phloem from all kinds of impacts, abrasions and attacks from pests; including: insects and fungi.

… That wounds on bonsai trees do not heal in the same manner as the wounds of humans and/or animals. That is to say, trees are not able to repair damaged tissue; instead they continue to manufacture a new layer of cells with each years growth, until the wounds is entirely covered over. The length of time this ‘healing’ process takes depends upon the size of the wound and the overall size of each new annual growth ring.

… That if you look at a cross-section of a tree trunk you will see rings and each of these rings indicates a full years worth of life and growth. Scientists can tell by the thickness or thinness of a ring in which year more rain and more subsequent growth took place. Accordingly, a thick ring indicates a year with more rain and more growth and thin ring indicates a year with less rain and less growth. This analysis is one method that curators of arboretums can use to tell when an injury occurred to an imported bonsai that is of an unknown age and approximately how many years it took for that injury to ‘heal’ or be completely calloused over. Scientific researchers and meteorologists can also use this method in their study of weather patterns from hundreds of years ago.

… That mature trees, both bonsai and those on the front lawn, develop what is known as a ‘collar’ around the base of the largest branches. This swelling takes years to develop and is caused by the up and down, forward and backward, motion of the largest and heaviest branches as they are pushed to and fro by the whims of Mother Nature. These collars are important to those of us practicing bonsai cultivation, because they help to quicken the bonsai’s healing processes by enabling wounds - specifically those wounds that are left after the pruning of large branches - to heal more rapidly.
… That the oldest bonsai in the national collection is over 300 years old. The bonsai is a White Pine that is affectionately known as the Yamaki Pine, in honor of its donor, Masaru Yamaki. The Yamaki began its life in the 1600s and, despite being less than five miles away from the impact site, it survived the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

… That several of the bonsai in the national collection were given as gifts to various Presidents of the United States. In fact, in 1998, the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr. Obuchi, gave President William Jefferson Clinton an 80-year-old Ezo Spruce. The gift was truly significant to the national bonsai collection for two reasons: the first and most obvious reason is the fact that it is a masterpiece and the second, and lesser-known reason, is that the gift of an Ezo Spruce - any Ezo Spruce - to an American president is significant, because the United States maintains a long standing ban on the importation of all Ezo Spruce and, as a result, the national collection has been without an Ezo Spruce specimen.

… That for many species of deciduous bonsai trees the size of the leaf is directly related to the type and amount of sunlight the tree is cultivated in. A bonsai that is grown in partial shade or in full shade will have longer and larger leaves, because the tree is trying to maximize the amount of sunlight it can absorb to enable it to continue its photosynthetic processes - a larger leaf has more surface area with which to gather sunlight. In contrast, a bonsai tree that is grown in direct sun, all or most of the time, will have smaller and more compact leaves, because it is receiving all of the sunlight it needs. As a result, it can devote its energy to growing. This is important for all trees, but more important for trees cultivated for bonsai, as smaller leaves are proportionate to the smaller scale of a bonsai tree; smaller leaves are, therefore, a positive trait, both aesthetically and from a horticultural perspective, because a tree is healthiest when it has access to all of the energy it needs to develop.

… That an evergreen tree, such as a pine (black, white, red, scots pine, etc….) does not keep its needles for-ever. In fact, while evergreen trees do not shed their needles in a blaze of autumn splendor, along with the deciduous trees, every fall, they do replace their needles in two or three year cycles. Accordingly, evergreen trees remain for the most part, always green, because younger needles remain on the branch, as more mature needles are replaced.

… That autumn is the most favorable season of the year to prune a majority of deciduous bonsai. There are at least two good reason for this: first, the fact that all of the leaves have dropped off of your bonsai is a good sign that it has entered dormancy and, therefore, will not ‘bleed’ or lose sap when it is pruned (although it is still advisable to apply ‘cut-paste’ or ‘wound sealant’ to all sizable cuts); and second, now that the bonsai is bare you can see and reach undesirable and/or dead branches that had been covered and made unnoticeable and/or inaccessible by the trees seasonal foliage.

… That bonsai trees, as well as, other trees and plants, are capable of absorbing synthetic nutrients through their foliage - oftentimes more readily then through their roots. When foliar feeding, be sure to carefully follow all of the manufacturers’ instructions and never foliar feed in direct sunlight, as leaves can burn quickly. While applying synthetic nutrient, use a spray to mist the foliage and be sure to check the undersides of the leaves, as there might be ‘pests’ hiding. This is also an ideal time to check the wires and make sure that they are not digging into the bark.

… That it is important to use both round and sharp shaped particles when mixing the components for your bonsai soil. The reason for this is that round components, which do not compact, provide good aeration, however, they allow a tree’s root tips to grow unobstructed and this encourages upright and very strong top growth – an unwanted characteristic for bonsai culture. On the other hand, sharp shaped components, which do have a tendency to compact, interrupt the passage of a tree’s new root tips, forcing them to divide, thus resulting in varied shoot growth and more sideways top growth, which is a positive growth characteristic for bonsai culture.

… That the two jumbo jets that very carefully carried the very generous Japanese gift of 53 bonsai trees and 6 viewing stones for our country’s bicentennial celebration were insured for over 5 million dollars and that after their safe arrival the bonsai were kept in quarantine for an entire year before they were put on display.

… That the trunk of a bonsai tree contributes more to the illusion of age than any other design element. Accordingly, you should first focus on developing a well formed trunk that has - depending upon the style objectives you are working towards - good taper, smooth curves, uniform slant, etc. The other design elements of your bonsai, such as: branch location and foliage distribution, root spread, leaf reduction and overall scale can be established later on in the design process.

… That there is only one exception to the “rules” that govern the pruning of flowering bonsai - and that exception is azalea bonsai. Azaleas are highly prized by bonsai enthusiasts around the world for many of their traits; one of them being that their flowers come in a very wide range of remarkable, and even multiple, colors. However, azaleas produce their flowering buds at the tips of the previous year’s growth, so pruning should not be done in late summer, like the rest flowering bonsai should, they should be pruned shortly after flowering - or you will be pruning off the flowering buds and, as a result, you will have no flowers.

… That you can provide a dormancy period for your bonsai by keeping it in the refrigerator. Temperate climate bonsai trees need a dormancy period, of at least six weeks, in order to maintain their health and vigor. If you want to keep your bonsai tree indoors, it must be supplied with everything it needs survive, including: proper light, temperature conditions, water, air circulation, humidity, and a dormancy period, if that particular species requires.

… That many of the health concerns that trouble bonsai trees, regardless of which species they may be, are much like those that trouble humans - in that they are easier to prevent then they are to cure. Being neat, orderly and vigilant throughout your daily “care and cultivation” routine will be more beneficial to the long-term health your bonsai than a closet full of chemicals or a room full of specialists, by enabling you to spot a problem for it becomes a dilemma.

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