What’s Wrong – A Follow Up


I got a little feedback in the comments from this morning’s post. One reminded me that not everyone uses facebook. Making the links provided worthless to these non-facebook folks. So, I’ll fill in a bit…

The three trees on the left (above) are tropicals that are shaped like conifers. To Robert Steven and to many others, this a mistake. A common mistake to be sure, but still a mistake.

The three trees on the right have more rounded and therefore natural looking tropical tree crowns. This more or less rounded look is also generally found on deciduous (see below) and broadleaf evergreens.

Many very serious and highly accomplished bonsai artists (even bonsai masters) take these basic principles very seriously when it comes to designing bonsai. Other people don’t seem to care all that much.

rob2Two deciduous bonsai. The one on the left has a conifer shaped crown. The one on the right has a broad crown, more like what you find with most deciduous trees.

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What’s Wrong with these Trees (or not)?


This sturdy little Ficus may (or may not) have a problem.

Is there anything wrong with the trees shown here? Robert Steven, world famous bonsai artist, teacher and author thinks so. In his own words: “Have you ever made the same mistake I did on my deciduous/broad leaf/ tropical bonsai? …..and what are they?
(Don’t be ashamed, they are common mistakes being taught all over the world).”

Take a look at the trees shown here. Start at the top and look at the first four photos. Is there something wrong? If you can’t find what’s wrong (according to Robert at least) then look at the last two photos. If you still don’t see it, check the links just below.

All the photos shown here appear on Robert Steven’s facebook feed and on Komunitas Seniman Bonsai Indonesia (Indonesian Bonsai Artists Community).


None of the trees are identified, nor are the artists. I imagine this is because these are not germane to the issue at hand. Nevertheless, it's plain to see that this is a remarkably beautiful and well balanced Buttonwood. But what's wrong?



The photo is a little bleached out, but I'm guessing this lovely tree, with its remarkable base and beautiful pot, is another Ficus.



And yet another Ficus. This time it's all about taper (and something else?).



Robert's point is illuminated with these four trees...



...and with these two deciduous trees.



Want to know more? When it comes to the aesthetics behind bonsai design, Robert's Mission of Transformation will hold you in good stead.

No Watering, No Fertilizing, No Trimming, No Weeding…


Looks a lot like a Shohin bonsai display (this and the other photos in this post belong to Ken To).

We’ve shown Ken To’s magnificent little wire sculpture bonsai before. Most people love them, but we have gotten at least one complaint in the ‘they’re not bonsai‘ vein. But that’s okay, Ken’s skill and feel for what makes a bonsai beautiful is impressive. Right down to the finest detail.

There are some are real advantages, especially for our brown thumb friends… No water necessary. Indoors year round, no problem. Low light no problem. No fertilizers, no insects, no temperature issues, no trimming, no weeding, no wiring (ha!) nada. Best of all, worry free vacations (I once lost several shohin bonsai while on vacation [I never told the friend charged with watering that they were dead]).

Conversely, there are disadvantages. Mostly this has to do with time. They never change, so you don’t get to enjoy all the challenges involved in caring for (unless dusting is your thing) and styling bonsai (no watering, no fertilizing, no trimming, no weeding, etc).

All the sculptures shown in this post are from the hundreds of photos on Ken’s website and facebook.



This just might be my all time favorite Ken To sculpture, and I've seen hundreds. Not to say there aren't others equally as impressive, but this one is alive!



Another favorite.









Sheer Beauty – More Flowering Bonsai


The black background provides a perfect contrast to the sheer beauty of the white flowers. This spectacular Hawthorn bonsai belongs to Hans Van Meer. He doesn't say what the the variety is but the flower looks like a Common hawthorn* (Crataegus monogyna). The pot is by Brian Albright.

We’ve been featuring flowering bonsai lately so thought we’d keep going in that direction. It’s the right time of year and our facebook likes tend to explode whenever we put flowers up (facebook likes and click-through-rate are related).

Of course the trick is to find worthy bonsai that happen to be in bloom. Otherwise, we’d just be pandering to the our human fascination with flowers. Not that that’s a bad thing, just that this is a bonsai blog and we pride ourselves in featuring the Crème de la Bonsai, or at least some close approximations.

Both of the bonsai featured here are from the bonsai blog of Hans Van Meer.



Another Hawthorn by Hans. Same species. This time the pot is by Dan Barton.



Wikipedia says these are Common hawthorn flowers, which pretty much cinches that the trees above are in fact Crataegus monogyna.

*Common Hawthorn is often referred to as English hawthorn.

Crème de la Bonsai

ko112012 Kokufu Prize winning Informal upright Shimpaku juniper (Juniperus chinensis var. shimpaku). This and the other images in this post are from Phoenix Bonsai.

Just back and trying to dig out (no good vacation goes unpunished), so once again we’ll dip back into our archives. This one is from 2013. It’s titled Kokufu: More of the Very Best Bonsai. Just in case you haven’t heard of Kokufu, it is generally regarded as the Crème de la Crème when it comes to Bonsai Exhibitons.

As long as we’re stealing images from Phoenix Bonsai Society we might as well pillage their text: “This now eight-day February national exhibit of bonsai is the largest and most prestigious of all bonsai shows worldwide. The Nippon Bonsai Association (NBA), the official sponsor of the event, has worked diligently over many years to insure that only the finest bonsai in Japan are displayed. To win one of the several prizes or sho awarded greatly enhances the career of the stylist and honors the owner of the outstanding tree. In a given year there may be anywhere from one to five of the prizes awarded. However, the Kokufu sho is not given if there is not a worthy tree. Once a tree does win the prize, it is never again eligible for another Kokufu sho but it still can be entered additional times for display only.”

You can visit Phoenix Bonsai Society’s website for more on Kokufu-ten and a wide range of excellent bonsai articles. It’s a link well worth clicking. You can also check a recent Bark post that features some Kokufu trees.


ko102012 Kokufu Prize wining informal upright Osakazuki Satsuki azalea (Rhododendron lateritium var. Osakazuki).


ko72011 Kokufu Prize winning informal upright style Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora); it also received the Prime Minister Award at the Taikan Ten Exhibition in November 2010.


ko62010 Kokufu Prize winning twisted-trunk Pomegranate (Punica granatum 'Nejikan')
ko32006 Kokufu Prize winning Shimpaku Juniper (Juniperus chinensis var. shimpaku)


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Robert’s Super Mini Bonsai


Several super mini Premna microphylla arranged on an impressive stone. This planting and the rest of the mini bonsai shown here are by Robert Steven.

All good things… Today is packing up and leaving day. The end of an excellent vacation. I’ve been trying to post every day,* even if it means dipping into our archives. This one originally appeared in 2010. I’ve made a few changes, but it’s still about the same amazingly small bonsai (all Premna microphylla).

The smaller the more difficult…
Robert Steven sent us these incredibly tiny bonsai a few days ago. Here’s what he has to say about them and small bonsai in general: “As you know, the basic concept in bonsai is to make a mature looking tree that is scaled way down. The smaller the bonsai, the more difficult it is to make. This is because it is difficult to form ramification (branching) and reduce leaf size enough so that the proportions evoke a mature tree in nature.
One of the best species to make super mini bonsai is Premna microphylla because the leaves size can be reduced significantly from its original of approximately 9 cm (3.5 inches) to only 2 mm (1/12th inch). Here’s proof from an earlier post.

This post shows some super mini bonsai in my collection. Their size is approximately 2 cm (a little less than 1 inch).”





Robert Steven
Robert Steven is a internationally respected bonsai artist, teacher and author. His widely acclaimed and trans-formative books are Vision of My Soul (out of print) and Mission of Transformation. In addition to traveling, teaching, writing, publishing, creating his own blog and developing his own trees, Robert has been kind enough to offer critiques of our reader’s bonsai. Send us a photo and Robert will generously offer you his critique.










*One of the reasons I’ve been trying to post everyday is to promote the business that supports all this. It’s called Stone Lantern. Right now we’re featuring a couple tool sales that will end tonight.

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Our 25% off Roshi and Bonsai Aesthestics Tool Sale ends tonight at 11:59 EDT. We are also offering FREE Shipping on U.S. orders of 40.00 or more. This too will end tonight.

The Biggest Challenge with the Smallest Trees

minifruitI won't guess the species this time (crabapple?), I'm not good at it anyway. What I will guess is that these are fairly normal human fingers, which means this is a very small bonsai. This and two other photos in this post are from Eric Sin's facebook page.

Last two days of vacation. Rather than actually work at putting together a new post, we’ll dive back into our archives. This one appeared just over three years ago (Tiny Bonsai). We’ve done some essential editing, enlarged the photos and added one tree.

The biggest challenge with the smallest trees
Mini bonsai provide challenges that you don’t find with larger trees. It’s about showing something that’s compelling with a very limited number of branches to work with (you can almost always forget secondary, let alone tertiary branches). There are other challenges too, such as working in such a small format, and keeping something alive in such a small pot, but I think that such severely limited branching is the biggest challenge.



This is the one we added. It's one of my all time favorite mini bonsai (it's at least the third time we've shown it). You might recognize it as a Haruyosi bonsai. You might also figure out from the flower's blazing brilliance that it's a quince.
Almost grotesque, but pretty cool too. I don't dare guess, but if I did, I'd say it's a Winterberry (aka Japanese holly).
That's a pretty compelling trunk, taper and all. And talk about limited branching... Again, I won't guess that it's a crabapple.

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Minimizing Aggravation



I’m on the coast of Maine. You might even call it a vacation, though work tends to follow me. The wifi here isn’t so great, so to minimize aggravation, I’m just gonna show you some nice pics and leave it at that. Except to say that they are all Satsuki azaleas and all the photos were lifted from Omiya Bonsai Museum. One of our favorites. Enjoy.









Robert Steven Critiques a Black Pine and Offers Some Insights into the Five Schools of Penjing


Robert Steven’s simulation of a Japanese black pine that was submitted by Mike Liu  (Mike’s original is below).

I’m on a vacation of sorts, so we’ll dip back into our archives. This one is from 2010. I picked it for a couple reasons: first, Robert Steven is one of those bonsai artists that bothers to explain how he gets from point A to point B and why he takes the path he does.

The second reason I chose to re-post this one has to do with Penjing and its place in the world of bonsai. Much of what we do with bonsai and how we see bonsai is influenced by Penjing, which provides a nice counter point to the strong influence of Japanese bonsai.

Mike-500x480Mike’s original photo that was submitted to Robert.

Robert’s Critique

The Five Schools of Chinese Penjing

The above black pine bonsai is sent by Mike Liu from China. Since Chinese bonsai is called penjing, I will offer a brief discussion of penjing.

The main difference between penjing (Chinese: pen = pot; jing = panorama) and bonsai (Japanese: bon = pot; sai = plant), despite the terminology, penjing is more about artistic nuance in portraying natural phenomena; and bonsai is more disciplined in technical skill with the objective of suggesting the physical perfection of an old tree. Penjing is more symbolic as well as a media for the artist in expressing his emotional ideas. To a certain extent, bonsai is rather bounded within its convention and rules; where penjing is more free as personal expression.

As the above bonsai was created in China, I will give my critique from the Chinese penjing’s perspective; and at the same time, give readers better understanding about Chinese penjing, especially of the different schools.

Due to the climate difference, local species, culture, interest, habit, history, value of appreciation and other local aspects, there are many distinguish styles of Chinese penjing from one area to the other. But in general, they can be divided into five main schools: Lingnan (Lingnan Pai), Shuzhou (Shu Pai), Yangzhou (Yang Pai), Sichuan (Chuan Pai) and Shanghai (Hai Pai). Beside these, there are some other minor schools formed later as interest in penjing grew in China e.g. Nantong (Tong Pai), Zhejiang (Zhe Pai), Wei Pai etc. But these relatively new schools are not considered among the main schools because they have neither strong historical background nor obvious distinction in concept and style.

A school is formed when a certain distinguished style is identified and recognized as being practiced by followers in a certain area or community, and after having gone through a long processing period before being admired by the national penjing community. Some schools keep developing through refining the technical aspect without losing their specific characters and identity; but some are transforming as the consequence of global cultural interaction.

The above penjing (I use “penjing” in this context) is a mixture of Lingnan Pai and Yang Pai. Beside the famous “clip-and-grow” form, the other most distinguished character of Lingnan penjing is the long lower branch as seen on the above tree. But normally such a branch in Lingnan is not so straight and flat, but rather will show curving lines to suggest a flowing image.

Such straight and flat foliage pads are only found in Yangzhou (Yang Pai) penjing and are called “clouds”.

This branch in this penjing is quite disturbing. It looks unnatural without suggesting any morphological reason. Long one-sided branches on pines (in nature) are normally formed on trees that grow on high mountain sides where branches grow away from the mountain towards the sun light. These pinse normally will not have a rounded crown because the heavy snow will disturb the apical meristem to form a flatter apex, and force flatter pads on the dominant branches. Understanding plant physiology and morphology helps with bonsai design; you can read more about this in Mission of Transformation.

Another reason why this penjing does not look good can be explained by an aesthetic principle. The line and form of this flat straight branch is not integrated to the line and form of other physical elements, so it looks like it doesn’t belong to the same tree. For more on lack of consistency and unity you can read about about aesthetic principles in Vision of My Soul (out of print).


Typical shape of pines which grow on mountain sides in the Yellow Mountain in China

At the top of this post is my simulation without the long straight branch. This penjing is more of the Shanghai (Hai Pai) penjing which looks closer to what we understand as Japanese bonsai. The reason is that Shanghai was one of the first cities in China with more contact and interaction with the outside world and more influenced by foreign cultures including bonsai and other art forms.


There’s lots to talk about Chinese penjing. My third book The Five Schools of Chinese Penjing is in the works. It will describe of each schools, the history, concept, technique and styles (note from the present: Robert is a very busy person, so things don't always happen as planned; including this book, which is not yet available).

General comments
There is more than one way to design any bonsai and my critiques and recommended solutions might not always fit your taste because of personal preferences. But I always try to give my opinion based on artistic and horticultural principles.

To understand my concepts better, please read my books Vision of My Soul (out of print) and Mission of Transformation which are available at Stone Lantern.

You can also visit my bonsai blog.

3 BooksThree relevant books. Masters Series Pines, Robert’s Mission of Transformation and Penjing, The Chinese Art of Bonsai.

More Bonsai Berries

caltreeThis sturdy Contoneaster with its rich berry display is from our 2010 Bonsai calendar. Bill Valavanis just informed me that this an Ilex serrata (he calls it a Japanese fine tooth holly). I'll always defer to Bill, though I've never seen a Japanese holly that looks like this tree.

Last post featured Pyracantha bonsai with its inedible (some birds love ’em though) berries so we might as well feature another bonsai variety with inedible berries. This time it’s Cotoneaster (well, sort of – see above).



Another sturdy Cotoneaster bonsai with berries, only this time a little one. It's the cover tree for Morten Albek's Shohin Bonsai, Majesty in Miniature.



There might be a few berries hidden amoung the rich fall colored leaves on this Sinuous root style Rockspray Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) by Bill Valavanis of International Bonsai.



Couldn't find that many specimen level Cotoneaster but thought this little tree might serve to show some more berries. The photo is from Pinterest.



Shohin Bonsai with Morten's Cotoneaster on the cover. On special at Stone Lantern.