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 Bonsai Symbolism

 By Erik A. Olsen

If you are interested in bonsai, you have a long but enjoyable task ahead of you to research the best bonsai for you and your home, to acquire it, and to tend it - probably for the rest of your life! Bonsai trees, if properly cared for, can live for hundreds of years. How beautiful it is to hand down a living legacy of beauty from generation to generation.

When you look at bonsai - from the standard "chokkan" or "upright" style to the "fukinagashi" or "windswept" style to the "ishitzuki" or "rock-dweller," you will see the results of hours upon hours, and indeed years upon years of work.

How can you possibly design such a beautiful tree yourself?

According to the experts, design sense is not "innate." In other words, you don't have to be born with the talent. By looking at dozens of bonsai trees - whether in person in Japanese gardens or in the many books on the subject, you will get an idea of what you want to do for yourself.

It is also important to not be too ambitious. Always begin with young trees (unless you're growing your tree from a seed), and practice, practice, practice.

There are many topics of bonsai that it is necessary to research. Most people in the West merely want a nicely designed tree that is suitable for their climate and has certain leaf colors and flower or fruit specifications. But there is a bit more symbolism in Japanese bonsai. (Just as there is symbolism in western flowers, that most lay people don't know about.)

This flower blooms longer than most others, and is thus the symbol of longevity.

Lotus flower:
Ths midsummer flower is the symbol of truth, perfection, and immortality. It is used as a symbol for the Buddha's life - "born in the problems and darkness of society, he grew to become pure and truthful, suggesting that a pure and lovely spirit can lift itself above worldliness to live in peaceful serenity."

Morning Glory:
This flower has a short life, and thus is associated with mortality.

This is called the "flower of twenty days" because of its short blooming season. It is considered a symbol of prosperity.

This is the hardiest of all evergreens, and symbolizes a healthy and happy old age.

Plum blossoms:
According to author A. Koehn, "The Japanese see the contrast between the knotted trunks and young green shoots as symbolic of age and youth - one bent and crabbed, the other fresh and vigorous, suggesting that in spite of age, the charm and joy of youth can always rise anew."

Bonsai trees are divided into four types, depending on why they are being grown, aesthetically speaking.

Shohaku - evergreens.
Zouki - deciduous - for the changing of the leaves during the seasons.
Hanamono - for the flowers.
Mimono - for the fruit

Before you decide on the kind of bonsai tree you are going to grow, you have to decide what kind of design you are going to use. Many trees are used in bonsai, but each one is suitable for a different kind of style. If you try to train the wrong kind of tree into an unsuitable shape, you'll end up killing the tree or growing an unattractive specimen.

Straight trunk - Chokkan style
Trees suitable for this style - perhaps the easiest of all styles - are evergreens such as the Japanese white and the Japanese black pine, juniper, and hemlock. On the deciduous side you can try gingko, beech, or r larch.

Curved trunk - Myogi style
This style is suitable for practically all evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. The most popular include pine, spruce, cherry and azalea.

Slanting - Shakan style
Experts suggest the pines, junipers and larches fity this style well.

Windwswept - Fukinagashi style
Experts suggest pines and junipers for this style.

Cascade and semi-cascade - Kengai and han-kengai

Literati - Bumjin-gi style
Traditionally, juniper, spruce and pine are used in this elegant style.

Broom - Hokidachi style
This style is best suited to deciduous trees such as ginkgos, Japanese gray-bark elms and Japanese maple.

Sinuous or root linked - Netsuranari
Plants suited for this style are five-needle pine, needle juniper, beech and flowering quince.

Raised root - Neagari style
Many plants can grow in the raised root style, including black pine, white pine, and serissa.

There are many different styles of bonsai, I have listed just a few above. But each of these different styles has a different symbolism, as you can tell simply from looking at the bonsai itself.

The straight trunk, for example, is based on the ideal: a healthy tree growing in an open field without crowding. The slanting style, on the other hand, is meant to evoke a natural tree that is leaning or toppling because of strong winds, or a storm. The windswept style is meant to evoke thoughts of a tree on a mountain peak, whipped by strong winds, and so on.

The pot or container in which the bonsai is placed is as important as the design of the tree itself. The containers should always have feet, allowing them to be raised up to make drainage easier. Also, a bonsai tree is never centered in the pot...typically the tree is placed at the rear of the pot. Pots with dull earth colors are usually best, although more colorful pots can serve their purpose. Whatever you do, don't use a pot that has glazing within, since this can prevent the roots from adhering to the sized of the pot and make them unstable.

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