Bay Island Bonsai held their 13th Annual Exhibit this past weekend at the Lakeside Garden Center in Oakland, CA. The exhibit featured a well developed shimpaku juniper.
Before reading any further, which way do you think the tree points – to the left or to the right?
When setting up exhibits, we often start by identifying trees that point left or right and put these at the ends of each row where they can point toward the center. Cascade and semi-cascade bonsai often end up at the ends of rows as they are strongly directional trees. With the exception of formal upright bonsai, most trees tend to point or lean a bit to the left or the right. When trees point to the left, we tend to place accent or companion plants to the right in the attempt to create balanced compositions.
The apex of the shimpaku pictured above points strongly to the left, as does the first branch on that side of the tree. My inclination was to display the tree on the right and place an accent plant on the left. Daisaku Nomoto, a bonsai professional visiting from Miyazaki, Japan, however, wanted the tree placed on the left. I winced at the suggestion, and appealed to Boon. Boon seconded Nomoto’s opinion. While we stood there discussing the matter, the tree’s owner set the tree on the right. This made sense to me and I liked the resulting display.
Displayed on the right with accent and scroll
At the end of the day, I found myself very curious about the direction of the tree. Maybe if the trunk or branches were arranged differently I could see what Boon and Nomoto saw. The next morning I asked Boon and Nomoto for an explanation. Simply put, they typically find the movement in the lower part of the trunk to be the most important element in the determination of direction. What about the apex or the key branch? Not important, Nomoto replied. It really is all about the lower part of the trunk. Tilting the tree a bit to the right would increase the movement of the lower part of the trunk and move the apex to the right. Growing out the lowest branch on the right could further this movement.
What does the tree look like displayed on the left?
As displayed on the left
Turns out the tree looks good on the left too.
Armed with new knowledge, I found a new way to look at bonsai. Like the Ponderosa pine below, for instance. Surely it points to the right?
No such luck. Nomoto insisted the tree points to the left, just as the owner had displayed it.
Close by the Kokufu bonsai exhibit is the Green Club, home to a massive bonsai vendor area set up to accompany the event. Inside, some spectacular trees are for sale, including the shimpaku below.
What makes for good shimpaku bonsai? In addition to age, character, and beauty – general qualities that apply to all bonsai varieties – I’d say movement. Turning, twisting, even writhing formations of entangled live and dead wood characterize good shimpaku bonsai. Some of the better trees for sale at the Green Club this past winter have awesome movement.
Some of the trees for sale are quite refined, others are less so. And even though each of the these trees could easily be shown at most of the exhibits I’ve attended, all will benefit from further refinement.
Another awesome shimpaku
No matter how good the wood, bonsai really stand out when the branches exhibit the same age as the trunk. And the better the branch placement, the less likely we are to be distracted by imbalances that can draw our attention away from trees’ best features.
A graceful shimpaku
There’s also some room for fun when styling shimpaku. As the variety that best lends itself to abstract designs, shimpaku make great candidates for creative designs. I’ll admit it – I would not have thought to keep the lowest branch on the tree so far below the rest of the foliage.
Shimpaku with low branch
And I don’t know that I could have come up with such a well-balanced design for the shimpaku below.
Tall shimpaku bonsai
Of all of the trees pictured here, the following shimpaku reminds me the most of trees I’ve seen in California. Not unlike some California junipers, this tree has one main twist around the trunk and good deadwood.
Shimpaku with a twist
Finally, the shaggiest shimpaku of the lot. Less refined trees have been showing up more and more in Japanese exhibits as a trend towards more natural looking trees seems to be gaining traction. I would love the opportunity to decide how much work to do on a tree like this to best show off its unusual trunk.
Fun Shimpaku bonsai
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 – trunk detail
Tree 2 – azalea
Tree 2 – trunk detail
Tree 3 – shimpaku
Tree 3 – trunk detail
Tree 4 – stewartia
Tree 4 – root detail
Tree 5 – shimpaku
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.
Shohin black pine
We tried pairing the pine with a star magnolia.
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.
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.
Penjing with shimpaku
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.
Mise-en-scène with Golden Alligator
It takes a lot of work to get the details right. Kudos to Jeff for making the effort.
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