Displaying Bonsai with a Companion Plant – Is It a 20th Century Revival of an Ancient Practice?

It is now customary to display bonsai with a small companion plant, also called an accent or complimentary plant. In bonsai circle, a companion plant is often called a kusamono, but the correct term is shitakusa, an understory grass or herb, when it is displayed with bonsai. Such a display is based on the indoor tokonoma (alcolve) display of a Japanese home. Sometimes a suiseki viewing stone, a small art object or a scroll is used instead of a companion plant, and in various combinations. The guidelines can be very complicated. Morten Albek has a series of excellent articles on the display principles and guidelines.

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I displayed this Chinese Elm with an Oxalis companion plant at the 2013 Lone Star State Convention Show in New Braunfel. The tree was trained by the clip-and-grow method.

Reading bonsai books and articles, we may perceive this type of display has a very long and continuous history; very often the Keido-ryu is mentioned as the most famous school in Japan teaching the art of bonsai display based on scholarly concepts and aesthetics. The Keido school was founded in 1986 by Ichiu Katayama, and the current grand master, Uhaku Sudo, is a second generation master  An internet article said the term kusamono only came into use in the 1870s.  Thus the history of using kusamono in bonsai display as practiced today may not be very old as we thought.

十八学士card-001The above postcard (called a maxicard to stamp collectors, issued in 1984) shows a Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644) scroll painting from the National Palace Museum collections in Taipei. It depicts the gathering of 18 scholars. There are three more postcards and stamps in this painting series, all with penjing in the scenes. At the bottom left corner of this painting,  a conifer penjing, most likely a pine, was prominently displayed with two small companion plants!

The arrangement is very pleasing; there is a natural flow from the extended branch of the tree towards the far right companion plant, perhaps an Acorus grass favored by ancient Chinese scholars. The middle accent plant was positioned higher than the right one, on top of a green porcelain censer, and was slightly forward than the far right accent plant. From the front, or looking downwards from the top, the arrangement formed an asymmetric triangle, the same asymmetrical triangular principle taught in present day bonsai display. This painting shows that the three-point asymmetrical triangle display principle is at least 370-650 years old!

The Chinese do not use companion plants in their penjing exhibitions, at least in modern time.  Taiwan bonsai, which is heavily influenced by the Japanese, use companion plant sparingly in major shows.

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I attended the 2008 Han Feng (漢風展) show in Taipei, Taiwan. No companion plants.

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This is the only display in the show using a companion plant. It received a silver medal award.

In bonsai club shows these days, many people seem to scramble for companion plants to put besides their trees. My question for this post: Is displaying bonsai with a companion plant a long held and continuous tradition or a more recent, perhaps a 20th century revival of an ancient practice? 

This post was prompted by Jerozek2014 of Assortednoveltrees’s commented in my previous post on old Japanese bonsai postcard : “bonsai … (is) not static or ageless,…. it is subjected to the vagaries of fashions as in any other media”.  The Ming period Chinese painting of Eighteen Scholars likely points to an ancient practice out-of-favor in current Chinese penjing displays.  The practice may come back in China, who knows?

Perhaps some bonsai historian, such as Robert Baran of the Phoenix Bonsai Society, could give us insights into my question. Robert Baran has done a tremendous amount of research and has an excellent site on bonsai history, I admire his dedication and thoroughness in his research, all well documented with sources.

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