In Part 1 of this article we took a look at the principle of non-static (asymmetric) stability, the overall shape of a bonsai and how it conforms to a visually pleasing silhouette represented by a scalene cone. In Part 2, we explored how the bonsai artist uses perspective to create the impression of a hundred foot-tall tree in only a couple of feet, by creating trees with trunks that taper from base to apex as well as foliage masses that likewise taper. In this post, we’re going to explore the third design principle used by the artist to make a bonsai look like a mature tree in nature: how to make your tree look older than it is.
Although we occasionally get to work with material that’s actually very old, there’s no such thing as a bonsai that’s too old(!) – so we always seek the appearance of more age in our trees. This can actually be accomplished in material that’s quite young. It just takes knowledge of how to apply a few key techniques.
First of all, we need to ask ourselves what it is about old trees that make them look old. It isn’t hard to list a few things: bark; surface rootage; thick trunk; height. These are things we either want our bonsai to actually exhibit or, in the case of trunk thickness and height, appear to exhibit as our brain sees it. Because the art of bonsai is essentially the art of illusion (albeit with a real live tree), we have to learn and practice design techniques that create or enhance the illusion we seek.
Your young bonsai may not have bark, so if this is the case you’ll need to focus on the other ways of producing the impression of age. Fortunately, we always have the ability to control the relationship between trunk thickness and branch spread. This is one of the easiest ways to make a tree look older than it is. It’s also one of the most overlooked techniques.
Here’s an example of how this technique works. This is a relatively young American hornbeam, which was much taller when first collected. The trunk base is only 1.5″ in diameter, and when collected it looked exactly like what it was, a young American hornbeam. In order to make this tree look older (and larger) than what it actually is, the first thing I had to do was chop it down which may sound a bit ironic. But this is where perspective and proportion come in.
Now compare this photo to the first one. See how I’ve brought the silhouette of the tree inward. Now the trunk base looks thicker than it really is. And the tree itself looks older than in the first shot. I’ve taken advantage of another design principle used all the time in bonsai: using proportion to create the illusion of size and, at the same time, age in a tree. This specimen is probably no more than 15 years old. But it’s well on its way to looking like it’s 50 years old or more. Had I left the branches overlong, this illusion would be shattered.
Another way to make your trees look older can only be accomplished with time – though fortunately not an excessive amount of time – and by this I’m referring to ramification. Ramification is the process whereby you force the tree to produce more plentiful but smaller leaves. Physiologically, a tree (of any size) doesn’t care how many leaves it has, it only cares how much total leaf surface area it has. Leaves produce food; food is survival. So the tree will gladly sport one giant leaf or a million tiny ones. When we grow bonsai, we’re deliberately restricting the amount of soil our trees grow in. With restricted room, the tree shifts its metabolic output to maximize its odds of survival and growth. Thus the leaves get smaller and more plentiful.
Here’s one of my favorite water-elms I’ve enjoyed growing, unfortunately a victim of Winter 2014. If you study the tree you’ll see that in just a few years I managed to achieve a good degree of ramification – plentiful, small leaves. It took time and effort to get the tree to this point, because branch development had to take priority. But in just about four years, I had a tree that looked as old as it actually was (possibly 75 years or more).
Just to give some perspective on how this process works to produce the impression of age, here’s the same tree two years earlier. You can clearly see the earlier state of development – juvenile shoots that had developed from trunk buds. It’s certainly a given that this was an old piece of material – the age of the trunk gave that away – but the bonsai in development looks very young in this state. So I began with old material and actually managed to make it look younger. Fortunately, I was able to do some fast development to bring back the appearance of age.
Building ramification is one of the last developmental activities we do with our bonsai. As this process continues, the tree looks more and more aged – just the way we want it.