by Henrylito D. Tacio
Believe it or not, bonsai – which has always been conveniently attributed to the Japanese – is really Chinese in origin. Ask Serapion S. Metilla, the country’s foremost expert on bonsai.
“It is highly likely that the Chinese were the first civilization to plant plants in pots because their paintings and scrolls, which date back before the 12th century, reveal images of plants in pots,” Metilla surmised, adding that it was the Japanese who really developed the art to perfection and gave its name: bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh, with accent at the end).
Actually, the word “bonsai” comes from the Japanese words “bon,” which means “pot” and “sai,” which means “to plant.” In simpler terms, bonsai is a potted plant. When miniature landscapes are created as a setting to the “sai,” the art is termed “saikei” (“kei” means “scenery”). But if the artists’ emphasis is strictly a miniature landscape, “bonkei” is the proper term.
If Chinese were the people behind bonsai, how come Japanese were the one credited for popularizing the art of bonsai? Robert Perry, writing for the ‘Science Notebook,’ contends: “For centuries, the Japanese have been practicing the unusual art forms of miniature tree and landscape culture.” In fact, bonsai figures prominently in The Karate Kid series.
“No one knows exactly how long it began, but it was known at least as early as the sixth century,” Perry continues. “Someone became intrigued by the tiny gnarled trees he found growing in rock crevices high up in the mountains of Japan. The small trees eventually were cultivated in the emperor’s yard.”
Trial and error produced an art of maintaining the training the miniature growth. Trees were grown singly or in groups and even as miniature forests. “Bonsai pieces are living artworks which are heirlooms in themselves,” comments Jose Mari Lacandula, a horticultural expert who used to write a weekly column for a national daily.
As wealthy patrons, following the cue from the palace landscape, began paying large sums for the best available specimens, others started the practice. The sudden monetary value encouraged perfecting a science of treatment that could produce such miniature. Today, bonsai has become a popular horticultural hobby.
Many kinds of trees are suitable for bonsai culture. The most common ones, according to Metilla, are mulberry trees, prodocarpus, “kamuning,” “mulawing-aso,” “kalyos” (known scientifically as Streblus asper), “balite” family (Ficus species), candle tree (Parmentiera cereifera), “bignay” (Antedisma spp.), pines and junipers, cydas, boxwood, narra, and China holly (Malpighia coccigera).
These fruit trees are also good for bonsai culture: rambutan, caimito, camachile, sampaloc, atis, and duhat.
Among shrubs, bushes and herbs, the following yield the best bonsai results: dwarf bamboo, “tsaang bukid” or Fukien tea, variegated gumamela, bougainvillea, sampaguita, rosal, azalea, santan, lantana, oregano, and chrysanthemum.
Propagation of bonsai material may be done by seeds, cuttings, air-layering or marcotting, grafting/budding and separation of runners or suckers. Seed propagation is the most common method used. “By seeds, it will take a longer time,” Metilla says.
There are four ways of propagating plants using the method of cuttings: stem cutting, heel cutting, leaf cutting, and rooting cutting. “For the propagation of materials for bonsai, the stem, heel and root cuttings are recommended,” Metilla says.
“Look for cuttings which are not too old or too young, ranging in size like a coconut midrib to thumb-size, depending on the kind of plants,” instructs Metilla. “The base must be clean-cut slant-wise.”
The use of cuttings has its advantages. They look older than those grown from seeds and that they come out true-to-type or form. The disadvantage: their rooting system might not be well-developed and that the tapering form will not be as nice as the specimen from seeds.
On air-layering or marcotting, Metilla advises: “From old existing trees look for branches which are not too old or too young, having the potential lines for a cascade, slating or upright style. At the point where you want to develop roots, remove the bark carefully around the stem like a ring about an inch more or less wide and scrape the cambium layer (the shiny transparent material between the bark and the wood).
“Then place moist sphagnum moss around the peeled part including some portions o the upper bark and wrap with plastic sheet. When roots develop, which take about a couple of weeks, separate the marcotted branch by cutting just below the rooted portion. Trim some of the branches and leaves and remove carefully the plastic sheet without damaging the roots. Have it planted in an ordinary pot, placed in a shady location and water regularly.”
Grafting, on the other hand, is the art of inserting a shoot or stem of one plant to another stem or branch of another species or variety but of the same family. If a bud is used, the term is called budding.
Grafting involves two parts. The desired part which you wish to graft is called scion and the rooted part to be grafted on to is called stock. Look for branch about pencil size or smaller, 4-5 inches long with 3-5 nodes having live buds. A budding tape or plastic strip can be used to wrap around the joints.
Meanwhile, plants that develop runners or suckers or shoots underground from the base can be separated from the mother plant when roots have developed.
Bonsai can also be acquired by digging. It means gathering plant materials from meadows, crags or other areas where the plants have been growing for many years already. Its trunk is from the size of a man’s arm, probably 20-50 years old.
“Choose one with multiple branches that have been dwarfed due to harsh elements such as droughts, strong winds, poor soil, or continuously cut or pruned by woodcutters, or trampled by stray animals, but somehow has survived,” Metilla instructs. “Those with partly decayed trunks and natural crevices as if termite-eaten would make good old-looking materials.”
If you have already found plant material you really like, have it balled. “Trim some of the roots and branches, retaining only the desired ones, and have the plant established first in a pot or can in shady location,” Metilla says.
“Cut unwanted branches growing at the base, up to about one-fourth to one-third of the whole plant,” he adds. “Retain branches in such a way that one grows at the right side, another at the left on a higher level, a third at the back, the next upper one again at the right, and so on upward, with the branches well-spaced and well-balanced, and no crossing, no overlapping. Trim them in such a way that the lower branches will be longer than the next upper branches, becoming shorter upwards, with the branches at the apex being the shortest. In other words, it is markedly tapered.”
As to the potting materials, Metilla suggests a mixture of one part garden soil, one part river sand, and one part compost. “Use a shallow appropriate container with sufficient drainage holes,” he says.
“Maintenance is the most difficult aspect in bonsai culture,” says Lacandula. After all, the care of bonsai requires daily grooming attention. It needs a sufficient amount of sunlight, air and water and a proper temperature. Bonsai plants reportedly are subject to many of the same pests and diseases as other plants. Their small size also makes them fragile.
While the plant is growing, the branches must be trimmed once every two weeks or a month, depending on the progress of their growth. “Study carefully the general form,” Metilla suggests. “Have the branches well-spaced through proper trimming, resulting in a tapering effect with a pronounced apex.”
Bonsai are classified according to size. The large ones measure twenty-five-and-a-half to thirty-six-and-a-half inches. Midway are the regulars, eight-and-a-half to twenty-five inches. The miniature or midget types called “mame” (pronounced Mah-may) measure two to no more than eight inches high. The price of bonsai ranges from P1,000 to P50,000 – depending upon the planting material and form. The older the bonsai is, the higher the price is.
Although the art of bonsai is of recent introduction in the Philippines, history records show that it was already practiced in the country in the late 15th century. According to a book, Relacion de las Islas Filipinas, written by a Spaniard in 1590, “The Chinese in Manila were fond of planting red ‘balete’ trees in the holes and crevices of coral stones and laced these in basins with a little water. When the plants have established their roots, these were placed on their altars.”
Metilla agrees. “I think the Philippines is the first country in Southeast Asia to grow bonsai,” he says. “Bonsai was introduced here by the Chinese centuries ago, only we did not develop it until the 1960s.” — ###