This article was written by Mr. Xuenian Han (韩学年), a well-known Lingnan penjing master. It was published in Mr. Shaohong Liu’s (刘少红) “The World of Penjing” (盆景世界), the most widely read online penjing magazine in China with over 135,000 subscribed readers. Both Mr. Han and Mr. Liu gave me permissions to translate this article and share it with English readers on how this new style was developed.
Ficus microcarpa is a native tree species in the Lingnan region. As a fast growing tree and an ability to grow in a broad range of habitats, it is widely cultivated in urban and rural areas. In the Pearl River Delta, especially in villages and towns along the river, banyan trees with broad canopies provide shades and are popular with villagers, where they could gather and cool themselves during the hot summer days.
Ficus has large, powerful tree trunk and wide spreading, old gnarly roots. Since Lingnan penjing practitioners often model their trees based on close-range observations of how trees grow in nature, thus, the Banyan style was born. Ficus is a popular species for Lingnan penjing, whether the material is field grown or collected, key banyan features are artistically recreated and portrayed in a grow pot. There are many excellent examples of banyan style penjing.
Ficus have aerial roots, when these roots touch and anchor themselves onto the ground the tree would continue to grow outwards, creating a forest-like image even though it is just a single tree; and this is the familiar banyan image. Since ficus is a strong survivor and adapts to myriads of environments, there is another tree form from which these two “root-on-wall” penjing were based upon, and I will discuss how I created them.
Ficus thrives in our hot Texas Zone 9 weather. I have several large Ficus microcarpa, whenever I removed a thick branch, I tried to root it. Over the years, I have obtained a number of second generation ficus, some grew into large trees, some were trained as shohin in different styles: banyan, informal, sumo-style shohin and Lingnan penjing.
I recently defoliated some shohin and wired their main structures, they looked naked but some had put out new buds and leaflets.
A banyan style shohin:
In the US, a lot of people like short and fat shohin, the so-called “sumo” style. Some may say that is not how a ficus tree grows in nature, but it is fun to style them differently instead of all in their “natural” shapes.
I purchased this Tiger Bark Ficus microcarpa as a pre-bonsai in 1997, and had worked on it for about 19 years. Over these years, it transformed from an ordinary looking pre-bonsai to one which won a place among the 25 Exceptional Tress Award in the 2013 World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) Photo Contest. It also won the Best Tropical Bonsai and Best of Show awards in the 2014 Lone Star State Bonsai Convention. I thought I would document its journey; and shared what I had learned working on this tree, both the good and the bad, and what would I do in the future to improve it.
When I was shopping for a pre-bonsai in the nursery, this tree caught my attention because it had a rather big trunk base, about 3″, and it tapered nicely with a low first curve suitable for a moyogi style bonsai. Although the front looked good there was a severe flaw at the back, the back trunk base beveled inwards, no exposed roots at all. The whole tree looked highly unstable as if it would fall backwards with a slight push. Several large and disproportionate branches were at undesirable positions for a moyogi bonsai design. The attractive part of this pre-bonsai was the good looking front with a tapered trunk. It was also inexpensive and had potentials.
Last weekend, we had our Lone Star (Texas) State Bonsai Federation education seminar, and the topic was literati bonsai. All participating trees must be a bunjin. My wife and I exhibited a small, 24″ x 18″, Japanese toko-kazari display.
Many attendees liked the display and commented how simple it looks, refreshing, quiet, peaceful, cute, and the lightly finished wood allows viewers to see all the elements clearly.
I will explain how we came up with the idea, why we selected the items and why we arranged them this way. The thoughts put into the process was a great exercise.
In the 2009 Bonsai Focus magazine, Issue #122, there is an article by Peter Thali on how the Indonesia’s Bali bonsai master, Gede Merta, used fusion technique to create large impressive ficus with spreading nebari from young seedlings. He did it in two stages: (1) using nails and tapes, 25 1½-year old seedlings were fused together to form the main trunk; and (2) after the main trunk has formed, 50 more 6-month old 24- to 32-inch long seedlings were added to the lower section to create taper; several of these seedlings were bundled together, wrapped with tapes and bent to form future side branches. Using this fusion technique and with Bali’s year-round tropical growing climate, the fused ficus quickly developed into a beautiful large bonsai with impressive nebari and thick branches. Please see the article for detail descriptions and photos.
Last October (2014) I visited Master Gede at his nursery, please see my earlier post: Gede Merta – A Multi-Talented Bali Bonsai Master. Besides having a wonderful time with this friendly and cheerful great artist and his family, I asked about the status of the fused ficus trees featured in the Bonsai Focus article; and here they are five years later:
My wife is an avid gardener. She tends to away from bonsai (most of the time). To quote her words: “I let my husband works on big trees, I stick to the small stuffs like kusamono and anything palm-size.” Here are some of her small stuffs:
She might not call this flowering jasmine a bonsai, but to me it is a bunjin shohin. The fragrance filled our kitchen when she brought it indoors.
This cabbage is a kitchen left-over. After stripping off all the leaves for food, she planted the stem in a cup filled with expanded shale and water. It rooted and grew into a small cabbage ball with curly leaves. Eventually the regrown cabbage will be eaten, and perhaps the stem will be regrown. She has other kitchen left overs, such as potato eye, yam, onion etc., grown into what I called, kitchen-scrap bonsai.
In 2013 my wife and I joined a tour to the Silk Road in Western China. After the tour we stayed and explored Beijing for 10 days on our own. We visited old friends, made new friends, visited a large private bonsai collection with over 500 trees, went to the viewing stone market and ventured outside of Beijing to places that are unlikely to be included in most tour package routes.
We enjoy going to museums and prefer to see things leisurely at our own pace, and in more details. We went to Beijing’s Capitol Museum which was having a special exhibition, called Treasures of the Palace Museum – Empress Dowager Cixi’ Porcelain. Since I am also interest in Chinese porcelain, it was a rare opportunity for me to see one hundred pieces of late 19th century imperial porcelains and their related archived documents on public display in one place. A special treat for bonsai enthusiasts is to see more than ten antique bonsai and flower pots among the displays. I have visited the Palace Museum in Taipei several times, but no photography was allowed. At least I could take pictures here, but no flash or tripod.