Displaying your Bonsai

Viewing your trees on their benches, while rewarding, is not the ideal way to appreciate them. Traditionally bonsai are viewed isolated from other trees, or visual clutter.

Many houses in Japan have a special alcove used to display objects that are significant to the time of year, or perhaps have meaning for a guest. Often Bonsai are displayed in this 'Tokonoma', the tree being chosen for it's beauty at a particular time of year may be a Cherry in flower in the spring, or a Maple in autumn leaf.

Bonsai are shown isolated from other bonsai, to help you clarify the picture of the tree. In a formal setting, either a Tokonoma, or at an exhibition, a bonsai may be shown with some other object to complement it and add to the overall impression of a tree in a landscape. The other object may be either a viewing stone, or a small plant in a pot, referred to as an 'Accent' plant, or some other ornament, relevant to the time of year.

While we love our bonsai, it's not unusual to put on a diplay without one, I've seen many at friends houses (and put on a few) and they often turn up at display workshops I attend. A large Plant that flowers at a particular time ( perhaps a pot of Iris's) and a Suiseki, or scroll, or both can create a wonderful scene.

The bonsai is usually displayed on a wooden stand, called a 'Shoku'.

A Tokonoma, with a Bonsai, a Suiseki and a Scroll.

Smaller trees can be displayed on stands like the one to the left. As you can see they may be shown with suiseki, accent plants, or ornaments.

You can take advantage of spaces around the house. Here we see a nice little display on a bathroom windowsill. The owner usually puts on a display when guests visit and the size limitations really make you think when setting it up.

Accent Plants

Almost any plant that can give the impression of being larger than it is, may be used as an accent plant. For example grasses are often used to 'mimic' a grove of bamboo.

Alpines are a good source of suitable plants and flowering plants often make the display that much brighter. Flowering plants should not however be used with flowering trees.

Accents should be treated with the same respect you would give your trees, fed and watered as well as the bonsai, bearing the particular species needs in mind.

They will be kept in smaller versions of bonsai pots.

A Sedum, usually found in the Alpine plant section of garden centers. This one is planted on a slab and displayed in a hardwood oval.

Here we have a nice little accent Hosta put together by Bryan Albright the potter, it's an ideal scene setter for a display with a tree which grows close to water where the hosta grows, perhaps a Willow, Alder, or Swamp Cypress

Another accent, this time a Rhodohypoxis, pretty yes, but it would overpower any display with a tree in it. It would work fine in a display with a scroll (misty Sun), and a Mountain Suiseki.

Viewing stones or Suiseki

Viewing stones, or Suiseki as they are correctly called are an art form on their own right. When displayed with a bonsai, they are used to give the impression of a mountain in the distance, making the tree seem that much larger.

As part of the 'Formal' display the stones are shown on stands.

Ornaments

The chosen ornament should have some relevance to the season you are trying to evoke. The figure of a man at rest under a tree, or perhaps a water buffalo are appropriate for spring/summer. Autumn is the season of harvest and an appropriate ornament should depict this.

Under no circumstances should the ornament be placed on the bonsai.

Birds are popular ornaments, and are often available in shops. Birds such as the heron shown to the left (made by me) and ducks are used to indicate a water scene.

Here we see a bronze crab, on sand, a definite seashore image, perhaps used with a windswept tree, a cascade, or one over rock. Not something you would see with a formal upright.

The ornament can be a netsuke (pronounced net-ski) a Japanese ornament used to hold a purse or other item suspended from the belt of a kimono.

Netsuke are traditionally carved from either ivory, or wood.

Mice on corn cobs (x 1.5)

Scrolls

Scrolls may be used in a display, or not. The example to the near right is far to detailed and at 1.5 x 0.5 Meters would overpower the display. The scroll to the far right, at about 1 meter tall, is based in a Japanese scroll and a picture can be inserted under the tapes in the middle panel, allowing the scroll to be used throughout the year.

As I say the scroll should be of a simple image relevant to the scene you are creating, scrolls with calligraphy should be avoided, as most non chinese/Japanese will not understand them.

Some examples of the sort of artwork to look for.

Moving the cursor over the pictures will give you a better view of them

Viewing your tree

Ideally a bonsai should be viewed from as close to eye level as is possible. Looking down on a tree will do nothing to enhance the overall impression of size.

Bonsai tend to be displayed at table height, however even this is too low to properly appreciate the tree and bending, or kneeling is the best way to view the tree at the proper height.

In a formal display, a bonsai would be shown on a stand. This is particularly important with cascade and semi-cascade trees, as well as being careful with the pot you chose, you should have an appropriate stand. On the near right, we see a good selection of pot and stand.

The tree looks well in balance with the pot and the stand giving the tree height, evoking the image of a tree on a cliff face. The combination to the far right does none of these things.

Here we see a display with stands. The two cascade stands at the back were chosen to lift the trees closer to the viewing height.

Preparing a tree for display

If you do intend to show a tree, either at home, or at an exhibition, it will need to be prepared. That preparation will probably include:

Removing any damaged or oversized leaves.
Carefully cleaning and washing off, any moss growing on the trunk, or branches.
Removing any debris and weeds from the soil surface.
Washing the pot to remove dirt and lime scale.

With unglazed pots you may wish to give them a light smear with olive oil. This will give the pots a sheen. The best method of doing this is to pour a few drops of the oil into the palm of your hand and rub them together, coating both hands. Then rub them lightly over the pot, coating it.

An outdoor display of bonsai, at the RHS gardens at Wisley, south of London. Each tree is shown on its own stand. This is a reasonable way of keeping and showing trees, but ideally they should have a plain background to view them against, as its difficult appreciate the elements of each tree when viewed against the background clutter.

Larger displays

A display at an exhibition. It's the sort of exhibition clubs put on to introduce bonsai to the public, often at horticultural, or county shows. As you can see the trees are shown on stands with accent plants and where appropriate ornaments.

Moving the cursor over some of the items will give you a better view of them

Composing a display

As I've said above, a formal display is the ideal way to appreciate your bonsai, so let's look at how to get the best from that display.

The scene should give the impression of space, a tokonoma is usually the size of a 'Tatami', or Japanese sleeping mat, about 6' by 2'6". Not everyone has trees that can do that size justice, but the more space the better.

The background should be light in colour, perhaps a pale buff, pure white would be to 'strong'.

A display where the elements come together. The tree flows to the right, so should be positioned to the left of the scene, forming a triangle with the suiseki. The trees stand is about the right height.

The suiseki should be placed about the same distance from its side wall as the middle of the tree is from the other side, but further back. Suiseki are used as icons for distant mountains and would look odd at the front of the display.

Accent plants, or figures would be positioned forward of the center line, evoking a close scene and emphasising the stature of the tree.

Here we see a display that doesn't work. The tree moves to the left and out of the picture.

The tree has been moved to the right of the scene and now it works.

If you use a scroll, with a bonsai and accent or suiseki, it is always placed in the center of the display. If you set up a display with just a tree and scroll. the scroll should be placed in the middle of the space left by the tree.

The scroll or print should be simple. For example a print of Hokusai's great wave would be too much and in most cases inapropriate to the scene you are trying to create.

In winter, a well ramified tree can be displayed out of leaf, showing its fine branch structure, although it should not be kept indoors for more than a day or so.

Try to avoid displays like this, its far to cluttered, giving no impression of space, nor allowing you to draw the mental picture of a tree in a setting.

Allen. C. Roffey 08:29 30/06/2008