Bonsai Tonight

Evaluating bonsai

Posted in Styling by Jonas Dupuich on July 8, 2011

As we prepared to begin a judging exercise at this month’s Bay Island Bonsai meeting, Morten asked a good question. It was something to the effect of, “Is the highest scoring tree the most valuable tree?” I knew the two were closely related, but had to think for a moment before coming to a conclusion. The trees to be judged included three shimpaku, an azalea, and a stewartia.

Tree #1 - Shimpaku

Tree 1 – shimpaku

Tree #1 - Shimpaku, trunk detail

Tree 1 – trunk detail

Tree #2 - Satsuki azalea

Tree 2 – azalea

Tree #2 - Satsuki azalea, trunk detail

Tree 2 – trunk detail

Tree #3 - Shimpaku

Tree 3 – shimpaku

Tree #3 - Shimpaku, trunk detail

Tree 3 – trunk detail

Tree #4 - Stewartia

Tree 4 – stewartia

Tree #4 - Stewartia, nebari detail

Tree 4 – root detail

Tree #5 - Shimpaku

Tree 5 – shimpaku

Tree #5 - Shimpaku, trunk detail

Tree 5 – trunk detail

The BIB judging categories include (see “Evaluating Bonsai at BIB Meeting” for details): trunk (1-10); branches (1-5); rootage (1-5); pot selection (1-5); aesthetics (1-5). After members completed their judging forms, we reviewed our scores together. The sums of the scores were 25, 22, 18, 16, and 15. Can you guess which trees earned which scores?

These scores, it turns out, were a pretty good indicator of the relative worth of these trees. What the scores don’t account for is potential. If a great tree has rangy branches and an inappropriate pot, it will score poorly. That may, in some cases, indicate a good buying opportunity. I reflected, at this point, about my own criteria for buying bonsai. I typically ask two questions of the trees I consider buying:

How good is the trunk?

Can I fix the defects?

Healthy trees with great branches and great roots, even when potted in great pots, aren’t worth much if the trunk lacks age, character, and beauty. These are hard characteristics to fix, and hard characteristics to fake.

After the judging exercise, we set up sample bonsai displays. We had trouble finding the perfect stand for the pine below. In character, the slab on which the pine sits is a great match, but it’s thickness was a bit much for some members.

Black pine display

Shohin black pine

We tried pairing the pine with a star magnolia.

Star magnolia

Star magnolia

Star magnolia - trunk detail

Star magnolia – trunk detail

The magnolia is very full this time of year – so much so that it took a while for us to figure out which side was the front. That the rootbase was so good from both front and back is a clue that the mighty magnolia will look great when it loses its leaves this winter.


Posted in Exhibits by Jonas Dupuich on February 4, 2011

Bay Island Bonsai’s recent exhibit included a penjing display – a rare occurrence for the event. As time passes, I find I’m more concerned with improving the quality of the trees in the exhibit each year – and keeping the event fun. This piece has fun in spades.

Juniper penjing

Penjing with shimpaku




Cascade shimpaku


Shimpaku island

A number of figures have popped up in the past few BIB exhibits. The most striking example appeared in 2010. This year’s display boasts the greatest variety of figures.









Coy technique

Mise-en-scène with Golden Alligator

It takes a lot of work to get the details right. Kudos to Jeff for making the effort.

Coy technique

The curator at work

Like groves, penjing tend to be very accessible to visitors who are new to bonsai. While some bonsai are quite abstract in design, penjing and forest scenes are immediately identifiable – and fun!

Sunset on shimpaku island

Daisaku Nomoto – bonsai work

Posted in Before and after by Jonas Dupuich on August 13, 2010

Daisaku Nomoto has been busy during his brief summer visit to the Bay Area. Here are some of the trees he’s been working on, beginning with an old prostrata juniper.

Prostrata juniper

Prostrata juniper – before

Prostrata juniper – after

Although I’m familiar with his work, Nomoto continues to surprise me. One of the greatest talents bonsai artists develop is their ability to see what a tree can become. Keeping trees healthy is rarely straightforward, and bonsai techniques can range from non-intuitive to incomprehensible. It’s the artistic vision, however, that I most appreciate.

Shimpaku – before

Shimpaku – after

The work always begins with an evaluation, and often an adjustment, of the front of the tree. From there cutback, wiring and styling follow. One would think that getting the tree in the pot at a satisfactory angle is easy until one notices how much Nomoto’s adjustments improve the line of the trunk and the balance of the tree.

Sometimes the trees get entirely new fronts. The photo of the juniper below is shown from the tree’s original front. To make better use of the shari along the trunk, Nomoto suggested using the other side as the front.

The tree’s orignal front after styling – now the back of the tree

Nomoto describing the benefits of the new front

Turning the tree around and tilting it forward made a striking improvement – I’m hoping to see it displayed at an upcoming exhibit. Here it is from the new front.

Shimpaku – new front after styling

The Sierra juniper below is quickly developing into a great tree. As Nomoto noted at last week’s Bay Island Bonsai meeting, planting the pot an inch or two deeper in the pot will reduce the reverse taper and make the tree appear more powerful.

Sierra juniper – before

Sierra juniper – after

Before letting me take any of these photos, Nomoto was adamant about getting the angle right. After snapping a shot of the shimpaku below, I showed the photo to Nomoto. Wasn’t good enough. Several adjustments and several photos later and he was finally happy.

Finding the front

Shimpaku juniper – after styling

Nomoto suggested shortening the jin on the right side of the tree. We’ll see if the tree’s owner agrees. You can see a shot of the tree before the styling at the end of last week’s post, Daisaku Nomoto bonsai critique. This post, as it happens, was featured last week by – the service I use to host Bonsai Tonight. It sent approximately 4,000 new visitors to the site, giving Nomoto a bit more exposure than he’s used to. He replied to this news with a grin: “Maybe 4,000 new customer?”

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Taikan Bonsai Museum

Posted in Excursions by Jonas Dupuich on April 12, 2009

The Taikan Bonsai Museum is the ward of Shinji Suzuki, onetime student of Hamano and now one of the better-known practitioners in the field. Located in Obuse, the museum is home to an outstanding collection of bonsai.

Visitors photographing each other

Visitors photographing each other

Benches anyway. The museum is in the process of moving from its original location to a new home across the street. The space is great, punctuated with little – or in this case huge – details that provide character to the garden.

Large stone with moss

Large stone with moss

But where are the trees? Obuse is near Nagano, home to the 1998 Winter Olympics. It gets cold enough to warrant winter storage for bonsai. Suzuki keeps the trees under his care in a series of greenhouses. Not ideal for viewing, but great for keeping trees alive until spring.

Show trees - Taikan Bonsai Museum

Show trees – Taikan Bonsai Museum

At last. And wow! Here are a few that I could see well enough to photograph.









A lot of trees caught my attention in this garden – almost all of them actually. As I walked from one marvel to the next I began to get a sense of Suzuki’s eye for bonsai. Almost any variety commonly grown as bonsai can be found here, and each is worth a closer look.

Posing with an awesome juniper

Posing with an awesome juniper

But there’s something else. I’d visited gardens where all of the trees are pretty. What I had not seen were gardens in which all of the trees were good. Suzuki has a knack for picking up quality trees, regardless of what shape they are in. And based on the trees he’s worked on for some time, it’s clear he can get them into shape.

An example. My face lit up when I recognized this white pine from Bonsai Today (story #31, cover #43).

White pine - previous work by Kimura

White pine – previous work by Kimura

The tree had clearly seen better days. But now, planted in a large wooden box and under Suzuki’s care, it’s on its way again.

Looks like a great place to study bonsai, doesn’t it? Turns out it is. Michael Hagedorn spent his apprenticeship here as Suzuki’s first non-Japanese student (read all about it). Michael’s senpai was a young man named Tachi who is now graduating and starting his own bonsai business. That makes this man the new senior apprentice.

Matt Reel in his element

Matt Reel in his element

Matt Reel of Portland, Oregon, has studied with Suzuki for some time now – and it shows (that’s his work on the black pine above). Matt’s planning to complete a full term apprenticeship with Suzuki. That means in a few more years, we’ll have another very capable professonal available to work on our trees. Outstanding news for anyone who wants to see bonsai in the US improve!

Boon, Matt, Jeff, Jonas and Vlad standing before two red pines formerly of the Imperial Collection

Boon, Matt, Jeff, Jonas and Vlad standing before two red pines formerly of the Imperial Collection.

Clockwise from far left: Tachi, Matt, Omachi, Boon, Yusuke (Matt’s kohai), Maciej ( Poland)

Clockwise from far left: Tachi, Matt, Omachi, Boon, Yusuke (Matt’s kohai), Maciej (student from Poland).

Jigokudani Monkey Park

Jigokudani Monkey Park (click monkey to see more pics from Japan)

One last note: if you get a chance to visit the Taikan Bonsai Museum, see if you can’t head a little further up the road to the Jigokudani Monkey Park where Japanese macaques watch tourists freeze from the comfort of their natural hot springs.

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