Blinded by Commonness
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Author:  Will Heath [ Thu Jul 28, 2005 11:42 am ]
Post subject:  Blinded by Commonness

Blinded by Commonness
by Will Heath

Illustration by Attila Soos.

About six months ago while wandering though a local bonsai shop looking at some Chinese elms I noticed something that disturbed me. Every single bonsai there that had decent trunk width also had a very obvious trunk chop. The change in taper from the trunk to the new leaders was dramatic to say the least, some actually bordered on the ridiculous. The foliage on most was wired into place to create a screen of sorts for this obvious flaw but one could not help but to notice it anyhow once it was seen.

This lead me to observe the other bonsai there and I noticed that from Ficus to Maples, this practice of putting bonsai up for sale at high prices with bad trunk chops and worse taper was prevalent. The new leaders in most cases were trimmed back to keep the silhouette in shape instead of being allowed to grow freely as need to increase the thickness.

Over the last few months I have visited every shop in my area, a couple dozen on-line sources and seen the same thing over and over. Okay, I told myself, these are pre-bonsai trimmed into a pleasing shape to increase marketability and anyone with experience will see that these need time to achieve a good gentle taper. That was until I noticed that the on-line sources tried to hid that chop with foliage also and never, not once, mentioned it or the dramatic change in taper.

Then, with this strongly in my mind, I started to notice drastic chops and attempts to conceal such on trees displayed on-line, in a couple books, in show galleries, etc. This wasn't just a pre-bonsai phenomenon, but it seemed to be invading all areas of bonsai and at all levels.

Another interesting trend was brought to my attention by Richard Fish in that the same sort of cover-up and pretend you don't see attitude is happening with grafts. "Thick gnarled trunk below the graft - thin immature trunk above the graft, with a permanent veil of strategically placed foliage to attempt to hide the union. These aberrations have even made it into some premier European shows recently. No one seems to care; in fact, even the better bonsai nurseries sell large quantities to a public that really should know better. Integrity is being damaged in the quest for ever-faster cultivation techniques and physically impressive trunks. Yes, these trees are cheaper pound for pound, but then most good things cost capital of one form or another. For a good reason." He was quite correct to point out these flaws that are overly prevalent with White Pines but are also common in other species.

Could this be a harbinger of what is to come in bonsai, the start of the fall? Has patience started to take a back seat in this art? Is it now acceptable to display a tree that in all rights should still be in training while the new leader grew out and thickened? Has the ability to conceal flaws led us to accept them, overlook them as though they were not there, similar to how we treat wire on a displayed tree?

Have we become lazy?

Author:  Andy Rutledge [ Fri Jul 29, 2005 10:29 pm ]
Post subject: 

Hey Will,
This has always been the case. And it is not some trend that will blacken the shelves at prestigeous bonsai shows to any large degree. It's just the way of retail.

We bonsai growers/artists/whatever can afford to work on material for years or decades to bring it to its fullness of beauty. Retailers MUST sell or die. In order to do that they make the best image with what they've got.

I'm sure that all of us once (or still) enjoyed bonsai for their basic silhouette form; enthralled by specific features and blind to real compositional faults. That's just the kind of thing that allows retailers to keep on selling bonsai. And they have to. They cannot make a living selling uber-specimens to wealthy collectors. That's a seldom experienced event in retail.

So don't worry about this too much. Those who care about artistry in bonsai don't mess with such material very often and those who are more interested in the "coolness of banzai" or who are just starting out will get great pleasure from such trunk-chopped trees. Not all bonsai are for artistry, anyway. Some are just decorative plants to make simple pleasure.

Kind regards,

Author:  Attila Soos [ Mon Aug 01, 2005 3:31 pm ]
Post subject: 

I don't mind seeing unhealed trunk chops on the retail shelves either. They do whatever they can to speed up the process, and they are pressured by their need for cash flow. Every time I see a business relying solely on bonsai sales, I have nothing but admiration for them since the odds are overwhelmingly against their survival. An informed buyer will always take into account the faults when paying for any of those trees. And an uninformed beginner usually doesn't spend more than $50 on any bonsai, so there is no danger of paying a fortune for a tree with serious faults.

On the other hand, bonsai shows shouldn't allow any tree with open wounds, unless it is carved into a feature to be part of the design. These shows should set the standard for quality, not the retail business. Club shows always have a section reserved for relatively new members, where they can display trees in earlier stages of development.

So, overall I don't think this is a trend that I should worry about.

Author:  Mike McCallion [ Mon Aug 01, 2005 10:42 pm ]
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On the one hand, I agree that open wounds (if that means new, unhealed, dripping sap, etc.) shouldn't be part of any display. I'm not sure however about structural defects related to growth or development of the piece. Trunk chops have been part of bonsai for much of the past century, as has the practice of grafting slow growing species onto more aggressive stock. The only way to address them has been to hide them in the design of the piece - usually with position or with foliage, and sometimes by carving. If, in the presentation and viewed at a proper distance, the overall image works, then I'm not sure that the techniques used to achieve this image are "wrong". The image is still what it is. Even without these major issues, many bonsai still have flaws which are hidden or downplayed.

I don't mean to say that a piece free from these apparent "tricks" wouldn't be superior to a similar image which uses them - I just don't think that the difference is enough to exclude the latter.

When it comes to using techniques to enhance photo images, this probably isn't much different than photoshopping an image for display as a photo - but then, it's not bonsai at that point - it's a drawing of a still life that happens to be bonsai, and can safely be viewed as such. If it is the future of a tree, then the artist's ability to imagine and illustrate a grand image should be noted - it neither adds to nor detracts from their abilities as a bonsai artist, as it is a different art.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Tue Jan 24, 2006 12:03 pm ]
Post subject: 

Most drastically flawed trees are most likely going to be purchased by the beginner. If the beginner prevails and continues his or her tastes will change and they will become more discerning in the material they buy. Ideally they will demand better stock and somewhere someone will provide it, even if the cost is great.

Your observation about the White on Black Pine graft is a main reason I have lost interest in J. White Pine. In order to get good stock most of it is grafted. When grafted together it is my understanding that the two pieces of the union will continue to develop at their own genetic rates though both pieces of the graft may have been about the same size and age when the graft was performed. The Black Pine stock will get bigger and fatter while the Whiter Pine scion will develop more slowly. In the end you get what has been described as an old trunk with a young top grafted onto it.

All of my J. White Pines are grown from seed, a very long process with a high attrition rate. What is really needed is a lot of people willing to cultivate decent material with the bonsai market in mind. Many have tried it and many have failed. The idea in my mind to keep attracting new people to bonsai. New people will become old people with more money and more discerning tastes in material.

Many of the professional bonsai farms in Japan are the work of several generations of growers. The trick is to out live the market you are trying to service and assure that the market increases. I have an idea how this can be done but it takes discipline, property and diligent effort.

It is possible we are going to see more garbage over the next decade or so, but I think the trend will turn around as more people become fascinated with the art and a lot of the dubious instruction gives way to good sound teaching.

Author:  Hector Johnson [ Wed Jan 25, 2006 9:59 pm ]
Post subject: 

I'd like to think it would improve that way, Vance. My observation of the bonsai scene, here at least, is that there will always be a cadre of opportunistic cowboys selling utter crap at flea markets, doing the rest of us a disfavour.
Guess you can't stop that, though.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Thu Jan 26, 2006 7:37 am ]
Post subject: 

I guess you could call me an optimistic pessimist??? It is true, where there is any kind of market that can be exploited cheaply, you will have what you call the cow boys.
However I suspect that a lot of people get their first exposure to bonsai through these shysters. Most will fail but some will get the bug and continue in bonsai. Which begs the question: for the one or two that continue in bonsai from the ten that don't how many of these two would have started in the first place if they had not been ripped off by the mallsai market?

Author:  Hector Johnson [ Thu Jan 26, 2006 8:29 am ]
Post subject: 

It bugs you, doesn't it? There's a Chinese guy here, who has a couple of mediocre trees (worth maybe $80-100 each) and a lot of rubbish. He puts the "good" stuff at the back of the display, with $1000 price tags. This sets the tone for the crap he sells, which are just cuttings stuffed in pots and dressed with coarse white sand.
I so dearly want to give him a kicking, every time I see him.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Thu Jan 26, 2006 10:00 am ]
Post subject: 

I agree, there is nothing more dispicable than someone who deliberatly sets out to cheat people. It's easy to identify one Chinese guy on the side of the road doing this, it is another to see shelves of this junk in the stores. Who do you blame for this one? All we can do is deal with the realities that a few of those cheated, either by the guy on the side of the road or the big box store, will get the bug and stick with the art.

Author:  Hector Johnson [ Sat Jan 28, 2006 9:40 am ]
Post subject: 

Sadly, I fear that many of the "bonsai", particularly "bonsai starters", being sold at major hardware and homewares chains are being wholesaled by otherwise reputable dealers, whose regular retail operations are otherwise beyond reproach.

That they are producing stock down to a price, rather than maintaining even a modicum of a standard is a sad indictment on both them and their retail customers.

Why their customers? Because they are the same people who force the retailers to these "heinous" actions by refusing to patronize their stores; refusing to pay the necessary asking price for the quality products they offer, opting instead to buy cheap stock and accessories of questionable provenance from vendors of questionable ethics.

Personally, I would rather see fewer people practicing bonsai, if they were willing to accept they should seek to attain a higher standard, especially if that meant they would buy the products good retailers should, and would prefer to, stock.

That might make the specialist bonsai retail businesses more viable and improve the overall quality of bonsai, in the process.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Sat Jan 28, 2006 11:04 am ]
Post subject: 

I guess our small disagreement lies in what trade offs we are willing to accept. You don't want to see people get into bonsai via the garbage dump. I must admit I agree I don't either. I on the other hand I have made the observation that ten to twenty-percent of people that purchase, or are otherwise gifted, one of these outstanding misconceptions will pursue bonsai in the future.

Having dealt with this issue for years I wonder how many people really go out and become involved with bonsai unless something has tweaked their interest to begin with? How many only think about it but never do it because they are not motivated enough to look into the issue.

But of these individuals how many of them might start bonsai after the bought one on a whim or were given one as a gift? On these issues we can only really guess and postulate. I suppose we could do a survey but how accurate are those when you consider that a lot of people that should be poled are not around to participate.

I agree 100% with your opinion, but I am also a bit of a pragmatist when it comes to bonsai. The reality is that there will always be a market for these hack shop bonsai. I want to be there when they are ready to do something serious.

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