The Rules Of Bonsai

I have thought long and hard about the rules of bonsai. There are rules for almost every aspect of the bonsai. These rules specify what a Bonsai tree is supposed to look like and what can and cannot be done.

For instance:

  • The bonsai can never be placed in the exact center of the pot.
  • The trunk should lean slightly.
  • The trunk should flare at the bottom and the roots should radiate from the flare.
  • Branches should not cross the line of the trunk.
  • Branches should not come toward the viewers viewpoint (foreshortening)
  • The first branch should be one-third up the tree so that the upper two-thirds of the tree have branches and the lower third is bare.
  • The branches should alternate left then right up the tree.
  • The pot should be a certain thickness depending upon the radius of the tree.
  • Etc, etc, etc.

All of these rules! There are a hundred or more. Are the rules accurate? Maybe. Are they necessary? I don’t think so.

When we create a bonsai, what are we trying to do? Follow rules? No. We are trying to make a specimen tree in miniature. Let me say that again. We are trying to make a SPECIMEN tree in miniature!

Unless you live in the desert, I know you have seen couple trees in your lifetime. Have you ever seen a tree that had branches near the base of the tree? I have! Here in Atlanta, Magnolias come to mind. Almost every old Magnolia I see has branches very close to the ground, if not touching the ground. In fact, it would be odd to see a magnolia with one-third of its trunk bare. Lodgepole pines, on the other hand, have long trunks and only have a little vegetation at the very top. I’d estimate that only one-eighth of the top of this type of tree has branches and needles.

Every species of tree has a different look and has different growth characteristics. A dogwood looks different from a cherry and a maple and an oak. There are similarities, but there are also differences. As the French say: Viva la difference!

I have seen some trees that look just like a Japanese painting. Gorgeous! Yet, they look more like topiaries than trees. You see, in my opinion, there is a difference between stylized trees that look like the ancient trees in Japanese paintings and a tree you see in the wild.

Where many people are placing stringent rules upon what a bonsai is and is not, I accept all styles as bonsai. In fact, if I had to place rules on the art, I would only have this statement:

A Bonsai should look like a miniature specimen tree in a pot.

Yes, I know this opens the door too wide for some who are more dedicated to the old ways. But to me, if it doesn’t look like a tree, it’s missing the point.
The hobby of Bonsai is on some level, the living of a fantasy. The goal, is a perfect tree in miniature. Sometimes, perfectly beautiful specimen trees in the wild have branches pointing at you, or branches in the lower third. My suggestion is, do what looks right to you. Forget the rules! You know what a tree looks like. Your bonsai should be your perfect tree. The one you see in your mind. If you are afraid to thin a branch because it goes against a rule, but you know it will look better, my suggestion is to thin the branch.

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