The Hwa Fong Show is the most prestigious bonsai show in Taiwan. It is held once a year in November. Exhibited trees went through rigorous selections and this is where one can see some of the highest quality Taiwan bonsai in one place. This year’s 22nd annual show was jointly held with the 14th Bonsai Club International (BCI) Asia-Pacific Bonsai and Viewing Stone Convention from November 4-6. My last visit to Taiwan was eight years ago. With this major show, Professor Amy Liang’s invitation to attend the opening ceremony and banquet of her bonsai garden, “The Purple Garden”, opportunities to meet old friends and several Facebook friends for the first time, and shopping for bonsai accessories, especially bonsai stands; my wife and I decided to take a two-week Taiwan bonsai journey.
Defoliating ficus bonsai can be tedious as there are literally thousands of leaves to remove. For a shohin, this could be easily done in half an hour or less but for a large tree, it would take several hours depending on how big and how ramified the tree is. When I prepared the Ficus microcarpa (19′ H x 36″ W) for last year’s 5th US Nationals , it took me 6 hours, spread over two days. But there are short cuts.
This microcarpa measures about 54″ across and is a large tree. I have been working on it for at least 15 years from an imported raw material, basically a cut-down bare-rooted tree with stubby trunks. I have been concentrating on developing branches with good taper. The tree has developed reasonably good secondary and tertiary branch ramifications, and now is the time for finer ramifications to fill out gaps between those branches.
Summer is a busy time for people who love and grow a lot of sub-tropical and tropical bonsai. I live in Southeast Texas, and start to repot, defoliate and wire my ficus in June. By this time the Texas heat is intense, daily temperature is in the 90s with heat index over 100ºF; it is very hot working outside even under the shade. I repot my ficus later than what most people living in Zone 9 would do because I want my trees to take advantage of spring growth spurt before doing any major maintenance work. You may have read advises such as repot tropical trees when the night temperature is above 60ºF. That is correct for safety reason but it does not mean you have to plunge right into it when the weather warms up. Just take it easy and let your tree grow, let them become healthy and strong before repotting and defoliation.
Our last frost date is around third week of March. In early April I moved my ficus out of the greenhouse and let them sit under full sun in open air. Ficus grows virtually year round for us, when over wintering in greenhouse they just slowed down their growth, hardly noticeable but definitely continue to grow. That’s why I do not remove my fertilizer in winter. Once outside, with plenty of sunshine, fertilizer and water, there is a sudden surge in new growths. I let them have about 2 months of growth to gain vigors before starting any work.
The next penjing garden we visited was in a Daoist monastry, Qingsong Guan (青松观) or Ching Chung Koon in Cantonese dialect used in Hong Kong. It is located a little out-of-the-way in Tuen Mun (新界屯门) in the New Territory area. The late abbot, Mr. Hou Baoyuan (候宝垣 1914-1999) was one of the early pioneers of Lingnan penjing. As a Daoist monk, his penjing were steeped into his philosophical thoughts and believes, they are unpretentious and follow the Daoist Way of harmonizing with nature. His penjing also tell stories and have distinct personalities. Their compositions are not from the typical old school teaching.
Instead of showing photos of penjing after penjing, I am going to select a few and describe my impressions the way I saw them.
A Twin-Trunk that Broke the Rules
In 2010, my wife and I took a month-long trip touring South China on our own. We started in Hong Kong and ended in Shanghai. We saw a lot of penjing and viewing stones, and I will share their photos in a series of travel blogs, starting with the Nan Lian Garden (南莲园池) in Hong Kong.
It has been three years since I wrote my first blog on air-layering a Chinese Elm mallsai into two shohin. It turned out to be one of my more popular blogs with over 2,600 views and had been reblogged twice by others. I think it is time to update how these two shohin look after three more years of care.
This is the original S-shaped Chinese Elm mallsai in 2009:
Air-Layered Top Section
August 4, 2009, after sawing off the rooted air-layered top section and potting:
I repotted it into a high-end Chinese olive-green crackle glazed bag-shape oval pot made by Jiang Xiaoling (江小林). This is the fall color in January 21, 2016:
This is how it looked about 10 days ago with spring leaves:
This shohin was trained as a Lingnan penjing using the clip-and-grow method. At first glance, it looks like an informal upright bonsai, but it is not. The main trunk, instead of moving to the left or right as in a typical informal upright, leans backward to the northwest corner of the pot before it bends back slightly to the right and forward with the apex falling within the trunk base. Since photography flattens the tree into a two dimensional image, perhaps one can better envisage the backward movement with the aid of the below side photo.
When I attended Pedro Morales’ Tropical Bonsai School’, he emphasized in the Japanese informal upright moyogi style, the first movement of the trunk is either to the left or to the right; it is a no-no for the first bend to go backward, otherwise the tree would have a Jay-Lo’s butt! Well, in Lingnan penjing, that is OK.
The late Lingnan master Mr. Liu Zhongming (刘仲明) said in his book, “Lingnan Penjing”, since South China has a hot weather, people tend to be easy-going and lackadaisical; and such traits show up as one of the characteristics of Lingnan penjing. So Lingnan penjing has a “reclining” (卧式) style tree, sort of like someone taking a siesta. In this shohin, the trunk movements resemble a person leaning on the far end of a sofa, a couch potato. I jokingly told friends this tree reflects me when I watch TV.
The Bottom Section
This is how the bottom section looks after cutting off the air-layered top:
And this is how it looks seven years later from a stump:
This one is a sumo style informal upright with a fat trunk and sharp taper, and trained with wiring; what a big contrast to the air-layered top section. I potted it into an oval blue glazed Chinese pot by Zhu Shuiming (朱水明 阳明交趾) to soften up the tree.
I have a lot of fun transforming this mallsai into two very different looking trees: a Lingnan penjing with an easy-going trunk movement and somewhat more natural looking branches ramifications, while its younger “brother” grows up as a serious looking squat-like informal upright bonsai.
This is my wife, Soon’s landscape kusamono. It was shown in the 2014 Houston Chinese Bonsai Society show. Our friend, Shaulin Hon, an architect turned professional photographer, took these photos.
Soon likes to create a mixed planting of herbaceous plants and weeds, the end result is a kusamono that looks like a natural meadow juxtaposed with plants of different colors and textures. I am not surprised there are more than ten species of plants on this lace rock.
She named this landscape planting: “A World Beyond the Cave“ (别有洞天).
This landscape kusamono is an allegory to a Chinese fable, the Peach Blossom Spring (桃花源记), written by Tao Yuanming (陶渊明) in 421 about a fisherman who came upon a grove of blossoming peach trees growing along the river banks. He was captured by the beautiful peach blossoms and kept rowing until the river ended at a spring. There was a cave on the hill side of the spring, he ventured into it and after passing through a narrow opening he emerged and saw a scenic village with cultivated fields and fine houses. The villagers were living happily and in harmony with each other. They produced everything they needed. The villagers told him their ancestors settled in this secluded place after escaping ravages of war during the Qin dynasty (around 200 BCE). For hundreds of years they lived in peace without outside contacts. After spending several days there, the fisherman left and marked his route so he could find his way back, however, the villagers erased all traces of the markings and the fisherman could not find this Shangri la again.
Don’t we all wish we could find our Peach Blossom Spring village on the other side of the tunnel?