Sunday, December 7, 2008

December 2008 'Literati Style'

Bonsai, like any hobby or art form, needs to grow with us if it is to retain that “feeling” you got when you bought your first tree. Remember that? If you just continue to do the same old thing you will get bored, stale and become tired with bonsai.

The older we get the safer we tend to become. Risk is vital to remain energized. You don’t grow if you stand still.

I have included some pictures of a simple literati that I completed recently to show you what can be done with a pretty normal tree. I have about 50 of these trees in stock and purchased them because of there amazing trunk shapes. Trees such as this are really difficult to find as the work involved in getting them to this shape is quite arduous. They are a type of juniper and at first glance appear to be procumbens, but some of the foliage is developing scale foliage so may end up being a sergeant juniper.

Firstly these trees present excellently for literati. Now “literati” means “men of the books” (hence the word literature) and only the higher gentry were permitted to grow and shape this type of tree. Whilst it retains some facets of the guidelines of bonsai, it also breaks them. It is a little like jazz music, it follows set principles, but it breaks boundaries. This is the type of thing that will get you thinking outside the box, and stretch you to develop your artistic approach. Now the specimen shown is by no means a perfect one but is merely used as a demonstration as to what can be achieved. This tree will go on to develop into a nice tree all the same.

Your tree should tell a story, in this case it is showing signs of a fight to survive and reach light, in years gone by older branches have given up the ghost but in its incredible struggle it has managed to survive. Most literati’s are very sparse in their foliage, showing the extreme duress they have endured. Literati usually have only 3, 5, or 7 branches, and these are also kept sparse. The branches are always close to the apex (unless the apex is jinned) and are kept in the traditional positions at the extemes of the bends. You need a trunk that has lots of twists and turns in it to make it interesting. Litetarti can be slanting or cascade or even windswept.

Trees such as junipers, pines, cedars and elms can be used as literati. The older and gnarlier the better. I have recently done a beautiful black pine into this style because it sat there with scars all over it, poorly distributed branches, yet it made a great literati! Now everybody wants to buy it, and no its not for sale!!

If you want to have a go at one ask next time you are at the nursery if you would like assistance picking one out.

The other thing I would like people to think about is creating that beautiful tree you have seen in a book. Usually it is something like an old elm or maple with an amazingingly thick trunk with great taper and awesome branch structure.

You don’t get this by buying $12 twigs (sorry but you don’t!) I encourage people instead of buying lots of little trees, save your money and buy 1 big one. What you need to be bold enough to do is get yourself something with a great looking trunk. The bigger the better. Don’t worry about branching that will come later. All the early years in the growth of the tree goes into growing the trunk, branches can be grown in a few seasons.

You can cut an old elm or maple back to nothing, and then start growing your branches. Yes this will take a few years but so many people put it of and lose precious time.

You can have a tree like you see in the books, it’s a matter of starting with the right stock, and then being patient.

Usually patience is the biggest problem, people want it now, but this isn’t going to happen!


Defoliating is the term used to describe the removal of all foliage. This is only done on broadleaf varieties. Trees such as figs, maples etc are ideal for this.
This is practiced in bonsai for a few reasons. By removing the foliage, the tree goes to work developing new leaves to keep the process of work happening in the plant. The tree cant survive without leaves.

One of the reasons for doing this is that it will increase branch ramification, (more branching and sub-branching) as there is more light allowed inside the tree. This stimulates growth on dormant buds back along the existing branches.

The second reason is leaf size. By cutting all the leaves of, the tree will prematurely produce new leaves which will be reduced in size. This is one of the other aspects we are trying to create in bonsai, small leaves.

Now a word of warning, (or 2) don’t do this to sick trees, it will put them under to much stress, and they may die. Also do this only in December as this is the optimum time for the tree to produce new leaves, left to late and the tree may not be able to produce new leaves if the temperatures drop. Again you may lose your tree. When you cut the leaf stem cut it just above the joint between branch and stem, and always use sharp scissors!! (That’s another story for another newsletter)

Have a go this December, and watch the results. Remember to back of on the watering as they will not be transpiring as before, feel the soil before watering each time.