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The Bunjin Form   Leave a comment

My Thoughts on Bunjin.

By Jim Osborne

“Bunjin is probably the most miss-understood of all the bonsai styles. Actually, it is not really a style at all but more of a feeling. All good bonsai should evoke some feeling in the viewer, and this is especially true with Bunjin. In most other styles, you look at the roots first, then the trunk. In Bunjin, you look at the trunk, the branches and roots come second. Bunjin is all about the trunk, in other words, the line of the tree.

Bunjin can trace its beginnings back to China, over 1,300 years ago. One can easily see a kind of abstract shape in Bunjin, which brings to mind the art of calligraphy and landscape paintings of the Southern School of China. I learned that the men, who painted in this way, were from the ruling class and turned their backs on the government and courts in order to dedicate their lives to things like poetry, philosophy, calligraphy and painting. They sought freedom for the individual man of culture. These men became known as the “Literati,” meaning educated ones. The literati felt that in their wild landscapes the entire man was revealed, even more than the mountains he painted.

Bunjin bonsai reflects this freedom. In other bonsai styles crossing branches or trunks would be considered incorrect. In the Bunjin style, such crossings are not only permitted, but it can give a powerful tension and drama to the design of the tree. Look at the landscape paintings of the literati. Crossing branches, and odd twists and turns of the trunk are prominent features of their work.

According to Frank Nagata, former dean of the Southern California bonsai masters, “Bunjin is the last of the bonsai styles for the student to appreciate.” As I’ve stated, Bunjin is not really a bonsai “style”. There are few rules, and everyone makes what they feel is right. However, if it’s not done correctly, the tree just looks funny. Therefore Bunjin is very difficult to do.

It is even hard to describe what makes a Bunjin bonsai, because it is more of a sprit that invests the tree than some thing physical. There are some rules however. The most important of which is that the trunk is tall and slender with little or no taper, and it is never straight. The trunk should have interesting twists and turns. In some Bunjin, the apex can be a 180 degree turn in the trunk itself. The branches on Bunjin are asymmetrically arranged and few in number. The first branch being, in most cases, two thirds up the trunk and sparsely greened. Most Bunjin have very little or no surface roots at all.

My bonsai friends and people who know me know that Bunjin has long been my favorite style. I do not really know why this is. Perhaps, it is because of the true freedom that one can enjoy when creating a Bunjin bonsai. I do not have to concern myself with all the rules of the more conventional styles. With Bunjin, I am free to create as I see fit, as long as I take into mind the sprit of the tree. I have found that with Bunjin, you either love it or are indifferent to it. Most people look at a Bunjin and don’t see too much. They think that it must be easy to create, because of the simplicity of the design. Whatever the reason for my love of the style, it gives me great pleasure to create and enjoy them.

People often ask me what is the difference between a Bunjin bonsai and a literati bonsai. Nothing, they are one and the same. New-comers to the art of bonsai learn about the heaven, earth, and man triangle and the arrangement of the branches; first branch second branch, back branch, ect. Then, just when they are beginning to feel sure of themselves, they see a tree that breaks all the rules, and they feel uncomfortable. They don’t like it. When the novice no longer has to think about the rules in bonsai, then maybe they will at some point develop a taste for Bunjin. It has been said that Bunjin or literati bonsai is the most sophisticated of all the bonsai styles and sometimes the uninitiated may see them as artificial.

The great John Naka says this about Bunjin. “The Bunjin style of bonsai is so free that it seems to violate all the principles of bonsai form. The indefinite style has no specific form and is difficult to describe, however, it’s conformation is simple, yet expressive. No doubt it’s most obvious characteristics are those shapes formed by old age and extreme weather conditions.”

What type of pot can be used for Bunjin? As with the style itself, less is more. A round, drum, or a nail head pot could be a good choice for the Bunjin bonsai. Another good selection would be a natural-looking crescent or boat shaped pot. In most cases, the pot will seem somewhat undersized. As in any bonsai, the tree and pot must harmonize with each other. The same rules for color and glaze apply to Bunjin as in any other design.

Thinking about trying to create your own Bunjin bonsai? What type of plant material can be used? Just like other bonsai, you have many choices. The most often used material is some type of pine, because they can be found growing in nature in a Bunjin style. Juniper would be another good choice, but really you are only limited by your own imagination. Whatever you choose, it should be a material that will allow the harsh pruning and sparse foliage that is the hallmark of Bunjin. It should also be something that does well in our Western climate. Bunjin are mostly grown in small pots, which is something to consider in the heat of our summers.

I love this style. It is a challenge to create, and I find that it epitomizes the very sprit of what we as bonsai artist try to create. Bunjin is about the struggle for survival against great odds. It has great age, and displays fantastic movement, and as such, great drama. It tells a story. It surely evokes a feeling in the viewer. It clings to life, year after year, despite itself, in the most adverse conditions. What is not to love about this wonderful style? What more could one want from a bonsai?”

I have found the form very intriguing and began dabbling with Bunjin in about 2012. It is rather difficult to perfect the form and it takes the perfect material to be successful.

I few of my own.


The Trees that Throw Apples?   Leave a comment

Early in my life I saw a movie that scared the bejeezus out of me. The Wizard of Oz. As a small child the beautiful parts of the movie ended up taking a back seat to the scary parts of the movie. I mean, who could ever forget that green witch with her evil cackle and scary looking broom. Later, we would see the team skip down a yellow road and into a spooky forest only to be molested by evil apple throwing trees. That image stuck with me until this day.

Now I have talked many times about a term called “mental model”. A mental model is a term used to explain why people are drawn or not drawn to certain images in their life. Due to my age, BI (before internet) my first exposure to bonsai was the first book I ever purchased. I bought it on my honeymoon and read it cover to cover many times during that week. The pictures in that book set my mental model of what bonsai should look like. I didn’t have the internet to look at and be exposed to countless thousands of images of bonsai from around the world like so many do today. That book was my world and that is what I knew, and bonsai for me was contained upon 50 pages in a small book. Of course my horizons broadened greatly as I found out about the bonsai scene within the state and began to see images of trees not in the book

This modified single trunk tapering “S” curve trunk was my mental model of what bonsai should look like. If only everything we find in nature could look like this!

This photo also captivated my imagination due to my proximity to the trees in nature near me.


This is how I thought bonsai should look. I thought based on the pictures I saw of how to develop bonsai and a finished product, that all bonsai were shaped like an “S” , had massive taper and finished in a pointed triangle.

The subject of this article started in 2011. I was invited to Steve DaSilva’s home for the first time to dig some material from his field. The maples we were digging at that time were about five years old. They had been started in 2006. Up to this point I had only one really big, and good trident maple in my collection. When I saw these in the ground I allowed my awe to get the best of me. I wanted the biggest one I could find. I wanted the tallest, the fattest and digging it gave me so much satisfaction.

I had that puppy out of the ground, Planted in a cut down ten, and filled it with my soil mix. That is just how this tree has sat for the last nine years.

I have moved it around my yard countless times and tried this and that. Started some pine tree type branching on it, but the tree never became all consuming to me. It was always just watered and cared for, without doing much bonsai work to it. Last year after a look at the tree and what I was able to take out of the top, I decided to layer out that top.

That top had made a turn to the side and a new leader was chosen and it looked as if it could be something.

The top removed and planted out.

After removal of the top, I had this stump. Many of the branches left on the trunk have not necessarily been trained in that shape, they are mostly there and that way due to me cutting them back so they didn’t stick out into a travel path. They many times presented a trip hazard and I would just lop them off.

Cesar Ordonez, a new guy to bonsai but eager to learn, asked if he could come over on a Sunday due to his work, and help out with what ever it was I was doing. This past Sunday was a good time for that as I had some things that needed tending to. I put the big monster on the bench and we looked it over. I had it on a turntable and I asked Cesar if there was anything he saw in the stump. We turned it different directions and looked and looked. It had branches but they were in not so good places

I began working the top with a rotary tool. I removed wood from between branches in an effort to add some taper to the stump.

Based on various indicators around the stump like branches, taper, or lack there of, nebari, large roots and future refinement I kept coming back to this one place. I indicated that by placing a sharpie mark on the base of the trunk. While there are places that the trunk looks fatter, it comes with other things that ruin that look. I liked what was going on but was unsatisfied with the shape of the trunk. For this thing to be believable it would need to look like it had lived thru harsh storms and rough living. Nature would have tapered this thing all by itself.

I turned the tree a little off my mark and carved some more. It was looking better and more of the feeling I wanted. The trunk didn’t look so blocky this way and had a subtle turn. I asked Cesar what he thought and I just nicked it with my grinder to seal the deal. No turning back now.

The only thing that kept me from working more was that damn eye poker branch.

With that branch gone there was nothing stopping me from really getting to work on the trunk.

In my research for spooky trees I found some pictures. Of course we have the Wizard of Oz, which had the creepy talking apple throwing trees that scared me as a child.

In my research, which means I look to the internet for inspiration. I found a common theme in scary trees. They all tend to be blocky trunks, cut off square and branches coming out of the top. Perfect, I’m on my way.


More grinding with the Arbor Tech and more woods turns to sawdust. At this point I am adding some texture to the removal of the wood. This will become much more prominent in the future as the interior dries out and texture can be carved with fire and things like that.

I did some cleaning up of branch stubs and buds on the trunk ready to pop.

The tree was popped out of the can and the roots were exposed to the air nine years later. Unfortunately I did not get any pictures of that, though Cesar may have pics on his phone. The tree was prepped up and planted into the colander to build a better root ball and the tree was planted more slanted to accentuate the creepy nature of the tree. Most of the pictures above show the subtle curved trunk at an angle in the soil.

Though the branches are large and unbendable, I was able to move a lot of them. Some of the big ones will be carved down later as smaller new growth, that can be wired into twisty spooky shapes, can be done.

Cork Elm, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly   1 comment


The Good

This elm was dug in 2015, and was grown out in a field. It was pruned and shaped for taper but was dome in segment unfortunately What this does is branches but from one area on the trunk and they are grown all year and a bump forms, then in the fall a leader is chosen and it grows another segment and buds push and another bump is formed and so on.

Showing all the growth segments. Each one has formed a ball of cork, each one getting small forming some taper, but it is intermittent.

I played with it for a few years to no avail.

I felt the best thing to do would be to layer off the top and at least get a good shohin tree out of it.

The layer is removed and is now on it’s own roots, lack luster as they may be, it’s a  waiting game now.

The Bad

The middle portion of the trunk was cut away and only the base and roots saved. The rest was thrown away. The base portion has been planted in it’s own container for grow out. Much of the trunk was sawn away at an angle to induce some shape in the stump. Later on if it grows well the sawed portion can be carved into something unique, a deadwood feature of sorts.

The bad news is that with no other branches except what is left on top, the trunk below the sawed portion will probably die. Only the part of the trunk with a living something above it will continue to live. The water lines will dry up and will leave a stump like I have drawn with the red portion still alive and the blue area dead. Now if the stump pushes buds out of the old wood and really tries to save itself, it could continue living. That means branches could come out of the trunk below my cut line. In contrast the layer to the right has branches all the way around the cut portion so it has a much better chance at keeping an entire live trunk. On the other hand, since it only grew roots in three places around the trunk, it is those places that will remain alive and branches above the vacant area of roots will wither and die.

The Ugly

The stump if it lives and pushed growth could look like this ugly rendition of an elm. I may change my strategy if it grows on top and pushes buds out of the old wood. If it does, I will have to draw a new virtual of my idea.

Posted February 7, 2020 by California Bonsai Art in Styling Trees

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Black Pine Candle Cutting   Leave a comment

A clear and concise video of the process. It is so easy.


Posted January 31, 2020 by California Bonsai Art in Styling Trees

Layers, Root Cuttings and other Stuff   4 comments

Today was a great day. The sun was out, I wore shorts for the first time in 2020, and the day was ripe for some serious radical bonsai. I am a pretty patient guy but when a tree starts getting the best of me, I get down and dirty and just take it within an inch of it’s life and cuss at it and say, “there, deal with this bitch!” Today was one of those days. I had these three big air layers on two tridents and one cork elm. The cork elm is two years old as a layer and the tridents were started last Spring. The elm is such an aggressive grower it bridges in a week or less and stalls. I have recut it so many times that I was just plain tired of dealing with it.

I cut the first trident as it had the most roots. Pretty good all the way around and I am confident that it will make it till summer and will have made enough new roots to compensate.

That tree will be planted out in a colander for keeping the new roots compact, but still allow for good air exchange.

It’s a scarred up mess, and frankly even as a layer I don’t know if it has any merit as a bonsai. Time will tell.

The next one was this cork elm. This thing has been a thorn in my side for two full years. I have recut it so many times there is hardly any wood below what roots it does have, which is not many. It only had root in three places around the trunk, they were pretty good clumps of roots, small but numerous, not as good as the trident. It is an elm and if it’s as aggressive as it was before removal, then in live or die mode, should create roots. That’s the plan and I’m sticking to it

Now what I had was this big stump left from the base of the tree the layer came off of. It’s large, 5.5 inches across and mean.

These are my cut lines on the stump

Below on the right was a large double root that needed to come off. It was too high on the trunk and would never allow the stump to be planted correctly.

I just sawed it off with the sawzall

I’ll plant that later, and meanwhile, throw it into a tub of water. Now I cut the stump in half and cut it back to a branch and make the cut with massive taper to get somewhat of a bonsai trunk out of it. Based on spring push and looks of what I see, all the open wounds from the root cut off and the large taper cut will be hollowed out and carved to give a Wizard of OZ type feel to the old tree.

This is just trash now and found it’s way onto the fire wood pile.

 I had a couple large root cutoffs and planted them out in clay pots.

Prior to planting the base of the elm I did an extensive root pruning on the bottom end. All of these were thrown into the water bucket to keep wet. Each one is looked at, root hairs trimmed from it’s roots and wired for shape and planted out with the tip sticking out of the soil. The tip is cut straight across with sharp shears to facilitate shoots growing, which they will.

The roots are wired and planted in soil after bending into interesting shapes. Most of these will be Neagari (exposed roots) style, like the ones I did several years ago.

Choose a good one

Clean the roots of small root hairs.

Wire them up and shape.

Plant them out.

I wanted to repot the elm that started it all with the Neagari style root cuttings. This is the plant I won in a raffle and took home, only to be amazed at the root ball this thing had. How I managed to get it this small and live is a testament to the aggressiveness of these cork elms.

I finally got it out of the inturned lip pot which I new was going to be difficult but did  it anyway.

Once again this tree ended up being a gold mine of small root cuttings that I could wire and bend up into all sorts of cool little shapes and grow out. I may end up using these for a workshop at the Shohin Seminar in Santa Nella going on this weekend. It happens every two years, so in about four years I could do the workshop and have some real nice material for the Seminar.

A root like this is a gold mine for making elm material. For about ten minutes of time I can start something that will give years of pleasure playing with these.

So a lot of the cuttings were small and I planted six or seven in a small colander to grow out. These can be transplanted any time of the year and if these get crowded later I can break them up.

I had one more trident to remove and this one was a pistol. I think this tree may have been cut two years also. It has bridged way too many time to count and I was tired of dealing with it. I’m not in love with any of these and put much more stock into the small elm root cuttings than I do in these three layers that may or may not make it. I think the elm will, but that’s all I’m sure of. The top of this trident looked so great while it was on the tree but after removal it does not have the same feel it had on the tree. I’ll give it a couple years and see later.

So I wired up the top of the big elm stump with lots of roots. I know this will grow like a striped ass ape and I will be pruning branches in no time. Carving to come later when it firms up in the pot, which at the rate it grows will be in about 60 days.

The small elm after transplanting, this time into a rectangle pot with traditional rim.

The root cuttings I made from the small elm clump above made some nice plants. I had access to about two hundred roots and I have no Idea why I only made about five of them. This is how they look now, five years later.

An Impassioned Plea to Growers   Leave a comment

I don’t think I’m at all alone in this area. Some how over the years, living in Fresno, I became more of a deciduous tree engineer. I say engineer because, due to the fact of a lack of suitable deciduous material that looks like a deciduous tree, I have had to engineer suitable material to make a deciduous tree. I am not a grower. I have no idea what it means to be a grower. I have never gone into a field of developing bonsai at 7 in the morning and came in at 6 at night after a day of pruning in the field. I do know that there are two ways to prune a bonsai. Like a pine tree, and like a maple tree. Each should look like their counterparts. This is a pretty universal way to prune a maple tree in a field. I start with the maple first because pine tree can only be, for the most part, pruned like a pine tree. It is OK to prune a pine like a pine. Why is it not good to prune a maple like a pine? Thats a good question.

Lets compare the two. A maple tree and a pine tree.

Both have really good taper and both have branches in the correct places. Whats wrong with them? Absolutely nothing. They are both top notch trees and would be proud to own either of them. I don’t get it, whats wrong with a maple looking like a pine tree? There is nothing inherently wrong with the maple looking like a pine. It’s just that the maple tree does not look like a maple tree.

Recently I went out collecting seeds for trident maples. I ran across this tree at a local college and collected seed from this tree. It looks like a maple tree. The trunk comes up and divides into sub trunks and then continues to divide all the way up building a billowy canopy.

Here are some maple type images that convey a more appropriate form for a maple.

This shape should also follow for tree types like Elm, Hornbeam, Zelcova, Quince, Olive, Pomegranate and especially Crape Myrtle. These trees should look much like they do in nature. It is nice to have a few pine tree styled maples, but after 7 or 8 you get tired of seeing the same old form for all the maples in your collection. Why? Because if you purchase your material from growers they have been taught that we want fat trunks with taper and movement. This is what you have to choose from.

So you get to work on it. You put a branch on the outside of the first curve. Then you put a branch on the outside of the next curve up. Then you make sure you have a back branch. Then you continue this up the trunk until you have no more real estate. Voila! In the spring it buds and leaves develop and you trim it to a pleasing out line and that’s it, instant pine tree maple. I’ve made dozens, they are pretty text book. Three I have styled with the tapered trunk.

So this is what I have bought over the years. This is a group of maple trunks I purchased several years ago and they all have been grown the same way, tall, tapering and fat. These are all from around 2008/9. At what point do you stop growing it tall? How about shorter and with better taper and better branching? Just making an observation here.

The one on the far right I grew from a cutting about big as a pencil. I killed it but it was making a nice specimen of the form. So what happens is the tree is allowed to grow a couple years. It’s gets big and a chop is made. A side branch is trained as a leader and now we have taper. The process is continued until it is as big as a grower wants. They grow fast in the ground.

I searched and searched every convention and seminar I went to for appropriate material for a maple looking maple. I bought this maple from a friend as an experiment in trying to change a form from one to the other.

This is where I am so far. at least it doesn’t look like a pine tree, which is how it was grown. I will play with it for a few more years and see how it develops. So far I kinda like it. Kiyohime maple.

Once again I searched in vain for correct material. In 2013 I had an idea from three crappy tridents I had as graft donor specimens. They were never going to make a decent tree on their own, but if I could graft them together and make one tree it might be something.

So I grafted the trunks together and built this Frankenstein trident maple that I feel looks much like a maple should. I still have a core of a tapering single trunk, but now it splits and divides half way up the tree into sub groups of secondaries and tertiary branching.

So I plead with the growers out there, could we please see some branching maples out there and leave the pine tree shape for the pines.

Posted January 23, 2020 by California Bonsai Art in Styling Trees

Black Pine Added to the Bunker.   Leave a comment

This black pine was dug from Steve DaSilva’s field. It has gone thru major root work and foliage reduction to balance. It has been wired and is ready for summer. Read about it here:

The tree after wire

Not being able to leave well enough alone. I continue to tweak on the look and feel of the tree. I am not satisfied with the photo above because it does not convey the true feeling of the pine. A photo never will, because the loss of that third dimension of space, but I know it can be better.

I turn the tree 5 degrees counterclockwise and adjust some branches. Now the tree gives us a slanting tree with a much more dynamic feel. The trunk now has action moving off to the right and even though the canopy is sparse it will fill in in a couple years. I like the slanting aspect of the trunk and the previous photo showed a nice curve and then the trunk bolts straight up. This was not what I felt. The form is set and now it will just bask in sun that is coming.



Posted January 22, 2020 by California Bonsai Art in Styling Trees

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