American Bonsai

I occasionally see reference to American or Western Bonsai in some of the replies. Is there such a recognized definition?

Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, because this is solely based on what I’ve been able to put together on my own. I believe that those terms refer to the style of bonsai for each geographic region.

Japanese bonsai is typically very traditional and structured, some would even say rigid.

European bonsai is very free flowing and is very artistic in the way trees are put together, but still following quite a few of the Japanese principles.

American bonsai, which in its elevated form seems to still be in its infancy, is more about styling the tree in a natural way, which closely represents it in its natural environment.

Artist seem to lean on one or two of these styles, depending on where they learned bonsai, or where they practice. Some are great examples of what each style actually looks like. Look at Graham Potter from England, and some of the guys from the Noleanders for examples of European bonsai. There is no shortage of examples for Japanese bonsai.

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Thanks for the reply.

From my perspective, American and Western bonsai are defined in opposition to Japanese bonsai: as in, America/Western bonsai is XYZ things that Japanese bonsai is not.

What XYZ means is not well defined yet, but I think you could go a long way by talking about:

  • Using native US/western species rather than Japanese species;
  • Making naturalist bonsai rather than stylized bonsai (i.e. deviating from traditional styles and more clearly imitating ‘how trees grow in nature’).
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Coda: I think ‘how trees grow in nature’ is, past a certain point, nonsense.

On the other hand, it’s useful to talk about bonsai on a spectrum between two poles: Completely Stylized and Completely Untouched.

American/Western bonsai is closer to Untouched than Stylized.

It’s like the old saw about European gardens: ‘in French gardens, the hand of Man is always seen; in English gardens, the hand of Man is never seen.’

Garbage gendered language to the side, that’s roughly the relationship between Japanese and American/Western bonsai. Again, from my perspective. :slight_smile:

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Thanks. Your perspective is appreciated, as well as “the old saw and the hand of man.” I like it.

Personal perspective from observing Ryan work and talk is that our unique and different American trees partially/largely dictate styling as opposed to what someone elses trees would dictate. This is as opposed to traditional formalized Japanese esthetic “refined” styling.
As Ryan says(if I understand)he tries to avoid falling into close following of the rules of formal esthetics. At times especially with our fairly abundant Yamadori trees they will have(to some “unacceptable”)faults that we can use in making a complete, unique and wonderful tree. Michael Hagedorns helix root Limber Pine would be such an example.

While there are many personal definitions I wrote an article that puts forth a broad yet specific definition as part of our exhibit catalog for our Natives exhibit, tracking the historical use and evolution of the term over the course of bonsai in the US since the 1950’s and Natives as a visual definition of what American Bonsai means in the 21st century. The definition from that article is as follows:

"American Bonsai-noun: 1. An artistic movement derived from bonsai, which exclusively uses native American trees as material, incorporates growth characteristics observed from trees in the American wilderness into the design, and when displayed, draws upon American stories, symbols, and culture.

Best
Aarin Packard,
Curator
Pacific Bonsai Museum

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I love the definition – except I think it’s a mistake to say that American bonsai is “derived from bonsai.”

It’s not like Japanese bonsai is ‘true bonsai’ and everything else is a knock-off; otherwise it would be more accurate to say “Japanese bonsai is an artistic movement derived from penjing.”

I think “American bonsai is derivative” and “American bonsai is independent” are identically wrong in opposite directions. Bonsai/penjing is the art; American, Japanese, Chinese, western, British, Latin American, etc. are genres in the same way romance and science fiction are novels and classical and pop are music.


Also, quibble: I would argue it should be “American stories, symbols, and cultures,” since e.g. PNW culture is very different than Louisiana culture.

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Aarin; I have to ask; I develop all of personal trees to the American natural esthetic whether foreign trees or American. Is it the native esthetic or just the native trees that are American Bonsai?

I was interested to hear Bjorn in a recent interview stating that no where else in the world does a country other than America prefix Bonsai with its country name!!! IE: American Bonsai. I find that quite interesting and thought provoking.

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Perhaps because of unique independent American pioneer spirit. Possibly also that we(many but not all of us)have begun to break away from strictly formalized rules and patterns?

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I’m interested but not surprised to hear that.

It’s American exceptionalism: our national cultural identity as people who, at best, adapt things with gratitude and who, at worst, and unfortunately more often, steal things without credit or acknowledgement.

‘American bonsai’ seems to be doing the former. I’m continually surprised and impressed by the level of cultural competency that serious American bonsai practitioners show toward Japanese culture. I hope we as bonsai practitioners don’t eventually slip into the latter.

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There seems to be more than one American Bonsai. One of these is based in the North American cultures and styles. Another is founded in adapting the styles we find in North American trees to fit into tiny pots. I’m a huge fan of focusing on the later. The former is something I do without thinking; it’s a flavor we unconsciously add to our designs.

My favorite American Bonsai subject is the bald cypress. I have yet to see this species’s equal. Everything about the bald cypress is magnificent. Roots that adapt to dry/flood cycles, knees that store starches, buttressed trunks, feathery leaves, and flat-tops (some have more than one). There is nothing in a bald cypress that is accounted for in the styles of Japanese Bonsai.

Japan’s land mass represents 0.074% (seventy four one hundredths of one percent) of the entire planet. From such a small land area, the artists who developed bonsai could not have accounted for all the possible styles of trees across the globe. This leaves the rest of the world with a dilemma. Do we follow the Japanese art of bonsai to the letter? Or do we take the fundamentals of bonsai and adapt them to our native trees and styles? Between these two is a wide gray area of interpretations.

What if we follow Japanese Bonsai rules to the letter? By this, I mean we do everything in bonsai without any discernible difference than if we spent out entire lives in Japan. Not just in style, but in sourcing everything from trees to soils to pots to tools. Everything outside of the gardens of Japan is ignored.

I’ve seen people do this. Everything they have comes from Japan. Their trees are Japanese trees. Their tools are Japanese tools. Even the muck they use for slab plantings comes from the rice paddies of Japan. On bonsai discussion boards, they hold their noses high in the air and have nothing but disgust for anything they cannot identify as being Japanese. These are the bonsai fascists (humorous connotations only).

In all of these comparisons, I’m speaking of non-Japanese artists. Because Japan is the source of bonsai (notwithstanding respect to China’s older penjing), I think the Japanese can continue to call bonsai whatever they like. They can deny differences to the world and continue to be as Japan-proud as they wish. I will not disparage them their rights to hold bonsai as close to its original form.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find people who want to grow anything in anything in any style they wish, or even in a lack of style. The only respect they’ll give the Japanese is when they try to argue that their stick in a pot is a bonsai. They’ll damn anyone who wants to hold them accountable to anything the Japanese gave the world.

I’ve met these people. They pull clumpy woody plants from the ground and pot them in something from WalMart’s garden center and fill the pot with kitty litter or potting soil. These are the bonsai anarchists (again, keep your sense of humor).

Where I’d like to see myself is somewhere in between these two extremes. I appreciate the lessons we take from bonsai. I just don’t need to source much of anything from Japan with respect to both physical goods or artistic styles. When I look at a bald cypress, I try to imagine what the Japanese would have created if they were Cajun instead of Asian. What elements of the ancient bald cypress would be represented in miniature, and what elements would be removed? Much of Japanese art comes from representing what we see with fewer lines that have a larger impact on the finished product.

What I have in the end are designs for bald cypress in American Bonsai with sincere respect for the Japanese artists who’ve given me so much. I don’t need Japanese soil, or tools, or muck if I can source these in the United States. I don’t need Japanese art or lettering hanging in the background of a tree I would display. A bonsai display of an American species done in an American style should contain absolutely no references to Japan.

To expand on this, I’m a fan of World Bonsai. Everyone should take pride in the species and styles that grow unique to their areas. Utilize what the Japanese have taught us about how to capture and represent what is uniquely ours. There is nothing wrong with paying homage to the Japanese if we choose to go Full-Japan in our styles and displays. By the same measure, I would appreciate it if non-Japanese viewers of bonsai wouldn’t discourage non-Japanese species and displays.

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Isn’t it all just Bonsai? Bonsai is Bonsai is Bonsai? I fully appreciate eveyones view. I just don’t get the need to label it differenty.

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Distinctions can be instructive and valuable as long as they don’t become fetishistic.

For example: there’s value in distinguishing between classical and grunge music, yeah? And between Italian and Chinese food?

Not to say one is better than the other, but because it’s easier than saying, “well, I’m hungry for the one with noodles – not that one, the other one, with tomatoes.”

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I really like the noodles food comparison - it is a shorter label than the full definition. I see the term bonsai as taking on that broader definition as an “artistic woody plant that is not growing in the ground”. By itself it implies the Japanese variation, but as the craft/art evolves we will add adjectives to further define particular versions. Perhaps the flat top bald cypress and similar trees will become known as Cajun bonsai.

The terms adopted from other languages/cultures are often more succinct than the full definition. For example, pasta is a type of noodle that can take on many different forms - I like the use of penne pasta as opposed to “mid-length tubes of an egg-flour dough”. Nebari is encompasses the transition from the trunk to the roots as they enter the soil in a far shorter word than a full description.