Archive for the ‘drop branch’ Tag

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.


How can I make my bonsai look old?   Leave a comment

I have been asked this question many times. The easy answer is start with an old tree. This can be accomplished thru many ways. Start with old material from someone else. Start with collected material from nature. Maybe start with an older tree from a growing field. This material may not look old from the get go, but the trunk and branches may already have the older bark or patina of age such as rotted scars and dead stub of old branches. This gets us moving in the right direction.

So what is the image we wish to produce? For me, I think some of the native oaks in my foot hills moves me in the right direction. This image can be conveyed on many species of material.  Good for maple, pyracantha, elm, oak, and many fruit and nut trees.

What is it that these trees have in common? Sagging heavy branches. The sheer weight and the decades of age have weakened the branches and moved them downward from the sheer force of gravity. Just one of the large oak branches extending outward and 25 feet long could weigh as much as a 1000 pounds. The tree is just not equipped to handle that much weight extended out that far from the trunk.

The tree didn’t always look like this? As a tree sprouts fourth from the ground it grows straight up and fast. It need the sun to make food and so builds branches fast. This tree is young and the branches grow outward in an effort to see it’s own sun. They are young and do not weigh much at this point and the wood is strong and able to handle the load. Notice on the trees below that the branches are still upright and show youth in their feeling.

How might this process look thru the decades? It would look much like this below. One of the things to notice is that even though the older tree has sagging branches, notice that the attachment to the trunk will often show the angle of the branch when it was young. It will show the signs of growing upright, and then sagging from the weight often showing a bowing fashion.

Showing our branches bent in a downward fashion is a sure fire quick way to introduce age in a bonsai. Other than a broom shaped bonsai I can’t think of another reason to have all upright shaped branches. Sure some near the top being young could exhibit this phenomenon, but most of the lower half of the tree would exhibit bent down branches. Dan Robinson has used this technique to his advantage over the years by exaggerating the bent down gnarly branching he is known for. For me there are too many small branches in the top of the tree showing too much age, and it would not be very effective to have a large number of small branches in the top sagging? But the contrast of dead wood against the lush foliage is dramatic.

This elm makes good use of lower branches beginning to sag. While most of the tree looks young, there is just enough sag to convey the image of age. A very good use of aging technique.

Drop branches are a dramatic and interesting way to convey age. Of course the tree could not support the weight of the length and so sagged. Though still alive, it becomes part of the story.

Drop branches can also be jin. They don’t need to be alive to help tell the story. Many times I have wired a branch after I have stripped it of bark and bent it into a drop branch to help show age.

Here I have wired a branch after the jinning and have used it to move downwards to help convey age.

This pine has multiple techniques to help convey age. Not only are the branches sagging downward, we have the look and feel of the aged bark. Heavily plated bark on a pine is a great way to help assure the illusion of age. It does take many years to achieve that look and so it is a true indicator of it’s age.

Another indicator of age is a flat spreading nebari (root mass). These examples show the pancake nebari that some in Japan specialize in. These dinner plate roots take many decades of work to achieve and although the branches may not droop, they don’t have to because the roots and ramification in this case say all there is to say. I’m old!

Have fun guys and gals

Throwback Thursday – Trident Neagari Style   Leave a comment

This small maple started as a cutting in 2006. It had an unusual bend in the trunk which I accentuated and decided that I woud train it into a neagari (exposed root) style. I planted it out in a half gallon milk jug to grow the roots long. I grew the roots in straight pumice with the top of the jug backfilled with akadama. The roots went straight down in the pumice. sitting in a water saucer.

The tree did not grow that well in the jug and while it did grow roots pretty well the top never really developed. It kinds grew all willy nilly, with heavy branches and not much shape.

In 2012, I decided that maybe it could become a trident on a stone. The stone had a …er..unique shape. Very masculine.



I tried bubble wrap as my wrap for affixing to the stone. My thought was that the bubble would help push the roots into the shape of the stone and get good adhesion. Also the wrap would last a few years and not fall apart so fast.


So here is the tree all wrapped up ready to grow and make a smashing bonsai. Well the top was pretty bad and looked like hell. no branch structure and the tree really was about the base and not so much the top. Over the next three years I would prune and snip wire here and there.


Last winter in Jan. 2014, I took the wrap off and the rock fell out of the roots. WTF, something went wrong. By now I had a better canopy and I was able to start removing branches and wiring others. It was repotted in the Bunzan semi cascade pot. The tree recieved more attention last year due to the Keppler Snail Scourage of 2014. It was moved to the safety of the patio untill the snails died off.

Tonight it gets a photo of the new look and nine years work. More work on the drop branch on the right but its getting there.



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