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Accent and Companion Plants for Bonsai

Bonsai are often displayed with accent plants, also called companion plants or by the Japanese terms shitakusa and kusamono.

A bonsai companion should act to enhance the display of a bonsai while not detracting from the main exhibit which is of course the bonsai itself. Traditionally bonsai companion plants should let the viewer know something about the season and where the bonsai itself grows.  To be clear accent plants are planted most often in their own container or in no container at all. 

In this first example the companion plants are ferns and strawberries which evoke a sense of a dense forest. This companion planting would pair extremely well with deciduous trees. Companion plants should not look freshly planted, and should never have any visible soil. In order to show your bonsais in the best possible way you should have a number of companion plant arrangements to pick from and pair with your bonsai depending on the setting.


Companion plants should follow a few additional guidelines, first they should be shown in containers that are shallow, and not flashy.  If you choose to use no container or a container with very small walls you need to be sure to use a sticky soil with almost clay like qualities to ensure it stays in one place. In order to ensure your plants look well established you should plant your containers a few months ahead of the time you wish to show them; at the very least try to plant a few weeks ahead of time. In order to give your companion plants a fully finished look you should mulch them, or completely cover the soil with a groundcover like moss.


Lucas Barnes is an avid gardener and enjoys writing about a variety of topics related to the cultivation of plants. Lucas has a BA from the University of San Diego and is the writer of Plantdex

Japanese tea and its benefits

The history of Japanese tea began when it was first introduced by a Buddhist Monk to Japan in early 6’th century. By 1200, the famous Japanese priest Eisai, wrote a detailed book on this tea (Kissa Yojoki), meaning a “Book of the Tea”.

Aside from telling all about the plant from which this tea originates, he further explained ways to process its leaves. He also informed about its various health benefits for various body organs such as the brain and the heart.

Today, around 56 percent of Japanese green tea is produced in world famous Shizuoka prefecture, situated south of Tokyo. Other regions where this tea is grown are Kagoshima and Uji.

Types of Japanese tea

Various types of Japanese green tea originates from Japan, such as Sehcha green tea, and Gyokuro green tea which is grown in shade. With 4-5 harvest periods in a year, the tea leaves that are pluck in the first round have the highest quality. Sencha is the most common type of Japanese green tea and its leaves are plucked in the first and second round.

Sencha is prepared by first steaming it for preserving its aroma, color and taste. Its  leaves are dried using hot air and are then rolled tightly into a long needle like leaves. Once they dry, they are fried to increase their shelf life and also to add some flavor to the leaves.

It has a fresh grassy, and refreshing aroma. Aside from taste, it is loaded with vitamins and can be easily recognized due to its needle like shiny leaves that have strong fragrance and aroma.

Another high quality Japanese green tea is Matcha, which has many medicinal properties as well. Although other teas are produced around the world, Matcha is unique to the Japan where it is grown by local farmers using traditional farming processes. This tea is primarily used in tea ceremonies. These days this tea is also used for flavoring and dying foods.

Health benefits

Japanese green tea has several benefits due to its high antioxidant levels. It helps in preventing acne, cancer, boosts your metabolism rate helping you in reducing weight, also lowers your blood pressure, and reduces kidney stones, helps in fighting depression, constipation. It also helps in increasing fertility, reduces risk of alcohol and smoking and helps people suffering due to the diabetes.

Japanese poets in the garden

For centuries Japanese poets have been influenced by the beauty, magnitude and mysterious quality of gardens from their country. Their is an evocative yet subtle quality to Japanese gardens, that are usually depicted in an ideal landscape with a very stylized aesthetic and a precise perspective. Both in terms of the form and beauty, one can see the influence of these gardens on poets from Japan.

In general, nature has been a profound influence on Japanese poetry. Particularly, the rich and delicate landscape of Japan mixed with their ever changing climate. However, in a Japanese garden, nature is depicted in a highly stylized way without the intention of being artificial. On the contrary, a Japanese garden is supposed to appear real and an authentic landscape, as if it has grown there, organically on its own. The Zen monk, Kokan Shiren wrote about Japanese gardens. Most of Shiren’s writing depicted the connection and relationship man had with nature and the landscape. Further, Shiren was interested in how the garden could actually purify or cleanse the senses and soul of a man. So, in this sense, the effect the garden produced on this poet was of a spiritual quality which evokes a more imaginative and mysterious quality of influence.

One form of poetry that has been linked to the work of gardens is Haiku. Haiku’s specific structural form and precise historical context makes it an easy target for comparison with the Japanese garden. Many Japanese poets have used the influence of Japanese gardens within the realm of the poetic form of the Haiku. The 20th Century Japanese Haiku poet, Shuoshi Mizuhara was preoccupied with gardens and their effects to man. It is obvious how much Japanese gardens played a role in the poetical works of the past few centuries. Like sculpture or painting, Japanese gardens became a type of natural artwork that become an influential source of inspiration for many poets, architects, musicians, and teachers.

Japanese gardens not only influenced the poets of Japan but poets from other countries as well. The influence was international and widespread. It has also dominated in the works of architecture and other art forms both in Western and Asian cultures. Above all, Japanese garden making is a tradition built on centuries of knowledge and wisdom that has been passed down from generation to generation, very much like Japanese poetry.



Summer Walks in a Japanese Garden

When my soul is in need of quiet reflection, I know where to ease the anxious mood that keeps sweet calm from my restive condition. Before I even pass the alluring doors guarded by statuesque lions, my pace slows and the garden begins to whisper…

A Japanese garden is my intermediary to peace, connecting with that part of me designed to find in nature what I cannot find in myself, to lift my spirit upward so my thoughts might glide mindfully amid things above. I am charmed and even stunned by its beauty, in love with an art form that is the Japanese garden–pathways, stones, ponds and bridges that are all so familiar, and yet all so decidedly unique.

Trees and shrubbery, cedar, hemlock, barberry and yew, play with scale and perspective to create illusions that become realities in a universe of complex simplicity, a world extended beyond the space that would be its boundary, engendering an experience of peace and feeling of rest I know will stay with me after I leave. A pond dotted with small islands is home to rocks emerging to hold in place life in constant motion. Nearby, vivid colors of flowering greenery glow like modern mosaics, with irises and azaleas offsetting low growing companions with muted-colored blossoms.  In leaving an elegant structure, I slide back delicate frames to reveal, not water, but a substitute of pebbles in curved lines bathed in broken light. Rocks, gravel and sand playfully integrate elements of design to bring fun and lightness to austerity.

On a platform suspended above uncertain currents I study the koi and then follow the restorative sound of falling crystal water. Trees with weeping canopies bend low to cast shadows that lightly touch the rippling surface beneath, and I notice a warm breeze playing with my hair, feather touches like falling petals caressing the air. A pathway circles the pond, mimicking the path of life, or perhaps, the path of enlightened existence: left to right, diagonally, but seldom in a straight line. Walking up the path, my eyes are drawn to textured surfaces, sweet flag, baby’s tears, spurge and mosses on and around artfully place boulders.

This is my meditative sanctuary, where I come to walk, or sit, and let my soul relax as I wonder how I might coax my life to blend with this landscape. This is the Japanese garden.

Centreforce abdominal acupuncture

Abdominal Acupuncture is the greatest revolution in acupuncture and is taking China by storm. Called “Miracle therapy” because the results can be better than regular acupuncture. You will find it is particularly good for acute injuries, trauma, chronic, stubborn and painful conditions. Therapeutic effects are rapid (often within minutes) and long lasting.

Following on from the hugely successful first Centreforce’s Mastering the art of Abdominal Acupuncture course run in February. This course will run over 2 days and will equip you the acupuncture professional with an understanding of Abdominal Acupuncture and how to use it to get the best results for many channel and muscular skeletal problems. It will be approximately 50% theory and 50% supervised hands on practical. You will learn the subtle nature of Abdominal Acupuncture’s needling techniques.

Conditions covered will include;

  • ·         Sciatica / Back Ache (chronic / acute)
  • ·         Bi Syndrome
  • ·         Rheumatism / Arthritis
  • ·         Stiff Neck
  • ·         Frozen shoulder / shoulder pain
  • ·         Tennis elbow / elbow pain
  • ·         Repetitive strain injury (R.S.I)
  • ·         Carpel Tunnel syndrome
  • ·         Hip / pelvic problems
  • ·         Knee pain
  • ·         Sports injuries
  • ·         Headache / Migraine

You will be confident to treat all the above and many more on completion of this course.

The 2 day course comes complete with course notes and comprehensive DVD is €295.00 (€265.00 if you avail of the early bird discount).
Places are limited to ensure maximum participation.

Here’s how CentreforceTM Abdominal Acupuncture benefits you and your practice;

  • You will experience better results than with traditional acupuncture alone, therefore you have more satisfied customers, increased goodwill and attract more clients.
  • Your needling will become practically pain free. 
  • 95% of clients prefer this method.
  • You will achieve faster results.   Your client’s will generally experience a decrease in their pain within minutes.
  • The method employs safer shallower needling.
  • This modern, revolutionary technique is based on thousands of years of TCM development.
  • You will find it especially good for painful, stubborn and chronic conditions.
  • It is an incredibly powerful new technique for your practice.   Difficult conditions respond to Abdominal Acupuncture where other methods fail. 
  • You will discover that it is easier to administer and allows you to treat more complaints at once.
  • Its gentle nature makes it ideal treatment for your clients with weak or deficient constitutions.
  • This course is eligible for 4 CPD and 14 points from the A.F.P.A. and A.C.I. respectively.
  • Certificates will be awarded upon completion

From the leading exponent of the art of abdominal acupuncture

Dave Shipsey was the first acupuncturist to bring Abdominal  acupuncture to Ireland in 2001. He has completed 3 internships with the revered Dr Han in Nanjing over a six year period. Internships were of 12, 6 & 4 weeks duration, allowing Dave to nurture and develop the sensitivity and intuition necessary for this form of acupuncture.
Dave recently completed a Train the Trainer course and is FETAC 6 accredited.
Location of course:

The Ripley Court Hotel
37 Talbot street,
Dublin 1.
Saturday 22nd of Sept 9.30 a.m. – 5.30 p.m. Sunday 23rd of Sept 10a.m-.5.00p.m.

Centrally Located Venue with great public transport services (Beside Connolly, Bus Aras and Luas stations)

Contact Dave Shipsey on 0879618344 or [email protected] for more details.

Japanese woodland favourite

Kirengeshoma palmata is a late-flowering rhizomatous perennial up to 1.2m high with arching stems and is native to the woods and mountain lowlands of Korea and the Japanese islands of Shikoku and Kyushu.

The unusual name? No, it doesn’t come from an obscure Danish botanist called Kirengeshom. It’s really just a Latinised version of the original Japanese name. Palmata, a common specific epithet, means shaped like a hand and refers to the foliage.

Formerly classified in its own family, it is now a member of the hydrangea family, although its flowers, which are around 3cm long, are more reminiscent of those of a single-flowered Japanese anemone. The flowers of most of the plants seen in gardens are a fairly deep yellow, though the colour of wild specimens ranges from white to apricot. While beautiful and graceful, the fleshy-petalled flowers, which are borne in sprays on wiry stems that bend under their own weight, never really open fully. The buds start to burst in early autumn.

While the flowers can be something of a disappointment, it isn’t too great a disadvantage that they don’t open fully as this is a plant grown as much for its foliage as its flowers. The leaves are up to 20cm long and wide with pointed lobes that are deeper on the basal leaves and very shallow on the reduced leaves found on the flower stems.

The generally accepted opinion is that it the only species in its genus, but some botanists prefer to classify the Korean plants separately as Kirengeshoma koreana. As far as gardeners are concerned any differences between the plants are very minor, though there is some suggestion that the Korean plants may eventually be larger than their Japanese cousins and that their flowers open more fully.

As you would expect, considering its origins, Kirengeshoma palmata prefers a moist, leafy, humus-rich soil in partial shade. In other words, typical woodland conditions. In late autumn it dies back to its rootstock, which is extremely hardy and quite capable of withstanding -15?C. It is propagated either by division in winter or early spring, or by raising from seed. The seed prefers cool temperatures, around 12’to 15?C and the germination time is variable, anywhere from 30 to 300 days. I’ve found that sowing fresh seed in the autumn and leaving the seed tray in a shady place for germination in the following spring satisfies any stratification requirements and gives good results.

Kirengeshoma palmata is an ideal companion for any Japanese or Chinese woodland plants and looks magnificent under maples, the leaf shape of which it complements perfectly. Because it needs ample summer moisture it thrives at the edges of a bog garden with candelabra primroses, Rodgersia and irises. Its late flowering habit is invaluable in providing interest at a time of year when other woodland plants may be becoming rather dull.

So why isn’t it far more common? I have absolutely no idea.

Keeping your bonsai healthy

In general, every two weeks feed bonsai with a high-nitrogen fertilizer from late spring, and then in summer feed them with a balanced fertilizer, stopping for four weeks during the hottest part of the summer and starting again in late summer with a low-nitrogen or tomato fertilizer. High-nitrogen fertilizer feeds leaves and buds, and low-nitrogen fertilizer feeds twigs, roots, trunks and branches.

Spray bonsai with foliar feed every two weeks in spring, and mist the foliage with water in the warm summer to keep the humidity levels up. To avoid lush or soft growth initially, such as in pines or maples, use a zero-based nitrogen fertilizer, 0-10-10 or at the worst a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as tomato fertilizer at the beginning of the season. to get bright autumn colours in maples, do not feed them more than twice in the entire season.

It is important to remember that using liquid feeds allows the food to pass quickly through the soil, and if the soil is correct, then some will be retained during the feeding process. While watering during rain is sometimes unavoidable, soil and foliar-feeding of bonsai with large canopies of foliage during rain is not a good idea, as the water will wash through the soil much faster.

Small trees can be immersed in a bucket or sink filled with feed, and when the bubbles stop rising the tree will have received sufficient food  and water. Do not do this every day if you have outdoor trees. On the other hand it may be the only available method for an indoor tree. (if you live in a flat or apartment) In that case, you will probably find that your tree will only need watering once or twice a week and feeding once every two weeks.


Period Very Young Trees Trees in Training Established Trees
Winter Dormancy No Feed No Feed No Feed
Early Spring (At bud break wait until the leaf has fully opened) Start feeding high-nitrogen fertilizer at half strength. Feed every week. To avoid lush growth, feed a zero nitrogen fertilizer, such as 0-10-10, or tomato feed. Feed two weeks at half strength. Zero-nitrogen feed once in early spring.
Late Spring (Leaves are now fully developed and candles are swelling on pines. Protect from winds, as the leaves are soft) Feed at half strength every week. Increase to full strength at the end of this period. Continue to feed every two weeks, but now start introducing high-nitrogen fertilizer. Feed once with high-nitrogen fertilizer at half strength.
Early Summer (Leaves are now firming up, so continue with feeding. Protect from pests) Increase to full strength high-nitrogen feed. Use a balanced fertilizer towards the end of this period. Use a balanced fertilizer at help-strength every three weeks. Or start to use slow-release cake fertilizer: Maples, elms and zelkovas need less feed, to develop fine twigs. One feed of high-nitrogen fertilizer and plant tonic during this period. Do not overfeed established trees, as they will grow to length.
Mid-Summer (The tree enters a semi-dormant period at this stage, so it is wiser to stop feeding for between two to four weeks) Stop feed. Stop feed. Stop feed.
Late Summer (This is the period prior to leaf change, but after the heat of mid-summer) Start using a low-nitrogen fertilizer every week at full strength. Use a foliar feed as well each week. Start using a low-nitrogen fertilizer every week at full strength. Use a foliar feed as well each week. Two applications of low-nitrogen fertilizer or, even better, 0-10-10, during this period. Foliar feed once.
Autumn (Leaf change heralds the onset of dormancy in deciduous trees) Stop feeding when leaves start to change. Keep feeding evergreens. Reduce feed when leaves start to change. Keep feeding evergreens. Stop feeding deciduous trees, but give evergreens one more application in late autumn.



Always Remember:


  • Do not feed deciduous trees before bud break
  • Do not feed in winter, because trees cannot absorb the feed
  • Do not feed sick trees, as they will not be able to absorb nutrients easily
  • Do not feed after repotting for at least 6 to 8 weeks, as the delicate roots can be damaged




Japanese Gardens, Tranquility Personified

Japanese Gardens have been a treasured art form in Japan for centuries, and are very much influenced by the ancient and intricate garden designs of China.

The exacting tradition, linked to the related and equally disciplined arts of calligraphy and Japanese ink brush painting, is historically passed down from sensei, or master, to apprentice.

Even though Japanese Gardens have been influenced by the West since the late 19th century, there are some elements that are considered typical, and in some respects, necessary to the art form.  Water, either real or symbolic is a must.  Bridges or stepping stones frequently cross a pond or stream element to an island, or perhaps to a tea house or pavilion. Rocks or stone arrangements create waterfalls, dry or wet.  Hedges, fences or traditionally styled walls create an enclosure around the miniature landscape.

There are three basic traditional styles of Japanese gardens.  The Karesausui gardens are dry landscapes in which different shades and shapes of rocks and gravel, as well as exactingly placed mosses and shrubs are used to represent ponds, islands, rivers, seas, boats and mountains in abstract form.  Raking stretches of gravel or sand creates the illusion of moving water.  This type of garden is for meditation and is frequently found at Zen temples.

The Tsukiyami garden style recreates features from famous landscapes in China or Japan. The clever placing of shrubs to block views of surrounding houses or structures is effective in creating the illusion of a much larger garden area. Footpaths may wander past ponds, streams, stones and hills and may lead the visitor across intricately carved bridges.  Bonsai trees, scaled down versions of their full sized cousins, are an important part of these miniature landscapes.

water © Michael Shake - Fotolia.com

Chianwa gardens were created for holding tea ceremonies, another exacting and quite lovely Japanese tradition.  A simple tea house is the usual focal point, and the gardens themselves are equally simplistic in their elegance. Traditionally stepping stones across a quiet pond lead to the tea house and an assortment of stone lanterns and basins dot the garden landscape. The stone basins, known as Tuskubai, are where guests are invited to purify themselves before taking part in the tea ceremony.

In addition to these three basic styles, Kanshoh style gardens are popular in private residences and are meant to be viewed from inside.  Pond gardens, built along quiet shorelines, are designed to be viewed from a boat. Strolling gardens take visitors along winding pathways, offering a sequence of views as one navigates the gentle curves.

stones © N.PARNEIX - Fotolia.com

From the hundred year old Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to the Japanese Gardens at the Irish National Stud in Kildare in Ireland, these peaceful, creative nods to the art of tranquility now circle the globe. Bamboo plants, Japanese black pines and colorful maples share space with native plant species in the most unlikely of climates. Even in the town of Ronneby, Sweden, almost at the top of the world, it is possible to find an authentically created Japanese Garden.  Enjoy!


Your own Japanese garden

This is an architecture design map or outline garden plan of Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in Kyoto. It is called choukanzuhou, "a bird's-eye view" or fukanzuhou, "view from abovHow to go about when you are caught by the beauty of a Japanese garden and you have decided that this is what you want?

Japanese gardens are a living work of art in which the plants and trees are ever changing with the seasons. As they grow and mature they are constantly sculpted to maintain and enhance the overall experience. Hence a Japanese garden is never the same and never really finished. While the underlying structure is determined by the architecture, that is the framework of enduring elements, such as buildings, veranda’s and terraces, paths, tsukiyama (artificial hills) and stone compositions, over time it is only as good as the careful maintenance that it receives by those skilled in the art of training and pruning.

If a major reason for having a Japanese garden is the quick and easy construction or the little maintenance that it needs then you have been fooled and probably read the wrong advice, perhaps on one of the many poor quality websites. It is beyond imagination to see how much discussable information is written on the Web on the subject of Japanese gardens and gardening. And that is perhaps the best prove that constructing your own Japanese garden is not as straightforward as some authors want you to believe. There are dozens of brilliant and good books on the subject. There are also plenty of poor books on the subject. I have however never seen a book that comes even distantly close and is as bad as some publications on the Web. There are also a few quality sites but you need a candle-light to find them.

Often the terms Japanese garden and Zen garden are used as synonyms and interchangeable. Well they are not. The designs of medieval gardens in Japan was ultimately derived from Chinese landscape art. The influence of Zen-Buddhism on garden design was (probably) first described as such in 1935 by Kuck (Kuck, Loraine (1968, 1984) in ‘The World of the Japanese Garden – From Chinese Origins to Modern Landscape Art’ (John Weatherhill, Inc. of New York and Tokyo. ISBN 0-8348-0029-2.) in the early 20th century and disputed by Kuitert (Kuitert, Wybe (1988). ‘Scenes and Taste in the History of Japanese Garden Art’ ( J.C.Gieben, Publisher, Amsterdam. ISBN 0-5063-021-9) by the end of that century. It took until the nineteen fifties that the concepts of a garden as an expression of Zen was first described in the Japanese language by Shinichi Hisamatsu in ‘seven characteristics’. And for sure these latter are very useful for us Westerners to better understand and realize a Japanese garden of any type. Mind you this is not to say that Japanese gardens are not influenced by Buddhism or Zen-Buddhism but that nowadays we see just too much esoteric explanations and interpretations brought into the Japanese garden mainly by Westerners.

The subject is a complex one and perhaps that is the reason for over-simplification by many writers. Building a Japanese, and actually any, garden does not start with selecting “Japanese” plants and trowing them on a plot together with a pile of ‘Oriental (looking) ornaments’ either made out of stone or plastic. This sounds a bit disrespectful. But then, is it not also disrespectful to call such a composition a Japanese or Zen garden ? If you like oriental ornaments and flowering sub-tropical plants you can design and build a very nice garden based on that theme. Just then do not call it a Japanese garden or confuse that with what you have. Instead call it an Oriental garden. Nothing wrong with that and no confusion caused.

The point is that although a garden can be Japanese, there is no definition of such a thing as the Japanese garden, because there are a number of very different Japanese garden types and styles. The term ‘Japanese garden’ is a common classification that applies to all Japanese garden types, regardless of style, located in Japan originally. The character of a garden is determined by its type and style. In addition many, of not most gardens in Japan, combine multiple types and styles. This is done by compartmentalization of a garden. Looking at a Zen-Buddhist temple-complex this is mostly composed of different garden types. It is important to observe that these different types are often combined but not mixed or amalgamated. Each garden compartment as such is kept pure and in accordance with its utilization and hence garden-type.

For you, assuming that we talk about a home-garden, it all starts with the question what is it that I like about it and what is a Japanese garden anyway ? If you want it to be a Japanese garden, and perhaps more specifically a Zen garden or Tea garden than stick to this concept. If you want a pond in your garden, with or without Koi-carp than you need yet a different type or combination.

Take as a model the creations left to us by the famous men of old and, considering the suggestions of the owner of the house (where the garden is to be made), one must create, exercising one’s own aesthetic senses.

From Sakuteiki, a Japanese garden book with rules and notes on garden making that dates back to the late seventeenth century. Its oldest title is Senzai Hishõ, “Secret Extracts on Gardens”, and was written nearly 1000 years ago. The oldest treatise known that addresses gardening as an aesthetic art.

To answer the former questions you should follow the above centuries old advice.
Look at and study genuine Japanese gardens. Although there are some great Japanese gardens outside Japan these are relatively scarce and one should be reluctant and selective to use these as a point of reference, at least initially. For this purpose it is best to first stick with gardens located in Japan. Until ten years back one had to either travel to Japan or get a few good books. Nowadays there is an abundance of good photo’s available on the Web and many authentic gardens located in Japan even have their own Website some of them even offer you a virtual interactive tour.

Then decide what you like most, be it a garden type, ornaments or objects and elements and scenes from different gardens, and what you would like to have as your own Japanese garden. This will become the source of inspiration to design your own garden, not to copy it. Then the next step has everything to do with feasibility. Many questions should be asked and answered to satisfaction. Obviously this has to do everything with the available budget or at least what you are willing to spend on your garden, now or perhaps in stages. Perhaps the next factor is location and surroundings. What garden architecture does best fit and take advantage of the surrounding while satisfying your needs ? And do not forget the practical side of your garden, the different purposes for which you want to use it. And so on. Your own Japanese garden should start as lines and text on paper, no more but definitely no less. Planning it over one weekend ? You must be joking.

Description of image above:

This is an architecture design map or outline garden plan of Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in Kyoto. It is called choukanzuhou, “a bird’s-eye view” or fukanzuhou, “view from above”.

Piet Patings, Tsubo-en Zen-garden, www.zen-garden.org

Penjing, Landscapes in Miniature

Fujian Tea Penjing (C) Qingquan ZhaoWe look at an ant and consider it tiny. Millions of years ago, a T-Rex would have looked at us and considered us diminutive and an easy catch for dinner. Perhaps the ancient Chinese just wanted to see the world from a T-Rex perspective when they created the art of penjing, the arranging of miniature trees and landscapes in shallow dishes called “pens.”

Though pen pottery has been dated back to the Yangshao culture in Neolithic China (5000 to 3000 BC), the creation of the penjing miniature gardens was rumoured to have started in the third or forth centuries. No written proof has been found earlier than the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD). The earliest drawing, discovered in 1972, dates back to 706 AD and shows servants carrying pots with miniature trees surrounded by small rocks and greenery. These tiny tree landscaped gardens were also called “penzai.”

Originally the dwarf trees were collected from the wild. Artists would seek out trees with the most twisted, asymmetrical and deformed branches. The belief was that these naturally tiny plants that grew wild, away from civilization, were sacred. They were too small to be used as timber or for any other project, so why else would they exist? Eventually Chan Buddhism would influence the collecting and eventual shaping of the trees, using techniques to manipulate the size and shape of the trunks and branches. Though younger plants were being collected and cultivated closer to home, they were made to appear like the wizened specimens found in the mountain wilderness.

It is suspected that Buddhist students returning to Japan from China brought back some penjing during the sixth century. The first visual proof was found in the Kasuga-gongen-genki scrolls dating from 1309 AD. On the fifth scroll was a drawing of a wealthy gentleman with two penjings, one in a flat wooden tray and the other in a Chinese style ceramic container. Once Zen Buddhism became established in Japan, the art form was refined to where one single tree planted in a container with or without the rocks and greenery defined the universe. This is the origin of the Japanese bonsai tree we know today.

Though the Japanese bonsai is derived from the Chinese penjing, each art form has its own style. The Japanese bonsai defines beauty by its simplicity. A single tree is trimmed, sometimes one leaf or needle at a time until the never-quite-finished project appears to mimic a full sized tree. That tree is placed in a monochromatic pot, usually flat and usually earth toned, so that the tree is the focal point.

The penjing art form is just as often placed in colorful ceramic or brass pots. The tiny trees are also coaxed into shapes that mimic their full grown cousins, but the results are often wilder, more rugged and anything but symmetrical. Trunks are gnarled and branches twist in every direction suggesting barely controlled chaos.

Think of a Japanese bonsai as a sleek lined Porsche. If one were to draw that car, it would only take a few fluid brush strokes to convey the suggestion of moving while standing still. The Chinese penjing, on the other hand would perhaps be represented by a vintage MG. More angles, headlights that crest the hood and bumpers that have a definitive curve. Perhaps not as sleek as the fluidic Porsche, but just as cherished and just as capable of delivering an enjoyable driving experience.

Just as we look at the tiny ant and the T-Rex eye-balls us as a potential dino-snack, the Japanese and Chinese cultures look at the natural world from their own perspective. It is this difference in viewpoint that has helped create these two similar, yet distinct miniature landscape art forms.

Penjing, Landscapes in Miniature
within potted worlds
tiny trees are giants made
size is relative

Image courtesy of the NABF (North American Bonsai Society)