This was an excellent evening, with 27 club members in attendance to hear Ritta Cooper talk on Kusamono and Shitakusa followed by a really fun active participation demonstration to create your very own Kusamono and Shitakusa.

Mark Cooper supported the presentation and was at hand to provide further guidance on the types of plants suitable for accents. It was a very successful and fun evening and we have Ritta and Mark to thank for that as well as all those who participated in the evening.

What is Kusamono?
This is what is commonly referred to as ‘accent’ plants and is a Japanese term which when translated means as follows: Kusa = grass and Mono = object or thing

The origins were that these were originally small plants brought in with collected trees and then were grown separately. They often depicted the area from where the tree was collected and were usually in the form of wild flowers or grasses. Accents can be used in many ways, and come in many sizes and can be single plants or mixed plantings and used in Tokanoma’s or Shohin displays or as standalone displays in their own right and are widely used throughout Japan.

There are four different types of accent planting
1.       Kusamono = mixed planting
2.       Shitakusa = single planting of low form and simple and should not dominate the main subject and avoid repeating themes
3.       Nearai = Exposed roots
4.       Kokedama = Moss balls (Koke =Moss and dama = Ball) made from Keto and moss and a plant and sat on a shallow dish to aid with moisture retention.

Practical design guidelines
One of the main aspects is to consider the design and the arrangement and to take into account the three levels which are also referred to as the Sky, Man and Earth or otherwise the top area, middle area and lower area. You should use plants in odd numbers and you need to ensure that the soil is covered with something, i.e. moss or grass like a plant called ‘Mind your own business’. Make sure you match the pot with the accent and pots or containers can be brightly coloured but must match. You can use seedlings for height; however plants must like the same conditions, i.e. water loving or arid loving plants in mixed plantings together. Take care in your choice of plants though as some plants will dominate others.

Kusamono can be put together on the day of a show but this does not always provide excellent results and they may not last longer than a day before they wilt so if the show or exhibition is for a longer period it is worth planning and preparing accents prior to then to allow them time to establish. You can use single plants and mixed plantings and pots should have full soil and it should be covered and accents should not detract from the main subject but contrasting themes are a positive.

Suitable plants for accents

  • Alliium (smaller varieties)
  • Androsace studiosorum
  • Androsace studiosorum Doksa
  • Antennaria dioica minima
  • Aquilegia canadensis Nana
  • Armeria maritima Rubrifolia
  • Asplenium trichomanes
  • Blood grass
  • Carex
  • Davallia spp of ferns
  • Globularia repens
  • Hedra helix minima
  • Hutchinsia alpine
  • Iris crystata
  • Iris Gracillipes
  • Leptinella (any variety)
  • Miniature Hostas e.g. ’twist of lime’
  • Ophiopogon (any variety)
  • Oxalis (any variety)
  • Pennywort
  • Primula’s
  • Ranunculus crenatus
  • Rhodohypoxis (smaller varieties e.g. deflexa)
  • Saxifraga (Small varieties)
  • Scutellaria  (any variety)
  • Sempervivum (smaller varieties)
  • Sisyrinchium (any variety)
  • Smaller ferns
  • Smaller grasses
  • Soldanella (any variety)
  • Teucrium aroanium
  • Thymes (smaller varieties such as Minima)
  • Tongue ferns
  • Violas

Sources of plants
Many plants can be found in the wild but it is not advisable to collect them so try other sources that include the following:

  • Garden seedlings
  • Allotments or waste ground
  • Garden centres
  • Specialist nurseries / Alpine specialists
  • Plant catalogues
  • Seeds /Bulbs
  • Horticultural shows / Local village plant sales or fetes

Planting containers
These can be pots, wood, stone or even if you are looking for something more esoteric you can use bricks, glass or cans but they need to be done well to be effective. If you are using ceramics pots, consider having a pot suitable for display and also a pot to grow and maintain the accents in to ensure that they remain healthy. Wood is good for mixed plantings particularly for Spring. The choice of containers is made according to:

  • The size of plants
  • The shape
  • The colour at the time of display
  • The size and type of the main object in the display

A few examples of some of the general rules are:
If a bonsai is displayed in an unglazed container, the accent plant (Shitakusa) should have a glazed container, providing the above container considerations are fulfilled.
Bonsai with flowers should not be displayed with Kusamono in flower but with grasses and moss.
The maximum height of a Shitakusa may reach the top edge of the table on which the Bonsai is placed as the main object. Thus they should be lower than the stand for the bonsai but it is acceptable for the odd blade of grass to stand above the stand.
Evergreen bonsai should be complimented with a Kusamono having small blossoms or fruits matching the tree.

Using Kusamono in a Tokonoma it must:
1.       Harmonize in colour with the main exhibit i.e. the bonsai in this case
2.       Bring in seasonal accent
3.       Indicate the place where the bonsai was found or from
4.       Accentuate the theme of the display and show the beauty of the bonsai to advantage
5.       Harmonize in shape and size with the main object

There are a wide range of stand types from ceramic flats to Jiita and wooden stands of both informal and formal design. They should be suitable to the accent being displayed and be in harmony with the overall design.

This is a key criteria for displaying Kusamono or Shitakusa and the plants should take into account the seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. The style and type of tree is also a key criteria along with the location of where the Bonsai is from e.g. Mountain, lowland, wetland or woodland.

Spring is good for spring flowers but not with flowering bonsai trees, they should portray fresh green foliage, and plants like Lilly of the Valley, Iris or Strawberry are good examples for Spring planting. Summer is more muted greens and a more subtle tone with the use of grasses in flower or even water plants. Autumn is great for plants with strong autumn colours; mushrooms can also form part of or the whole accent display. While winter is a good time for seasonal flowers like snow drops, dead grasses, ferns and mosses.

How many do you need?
This is a good question and it appears that this art form is very addictive and a minimum would be one for each season but different ones for different areas and different trees too… and on it goes

General Care
Re-potting is crucial and this can be done in the growing season and this is particularly useful for Hosta’s which if cut back after flowering will push a second flush of leaves which will restore their fresh appearance. In terms of soil, use a normal bonsai mix or a combination of Kiryu and sieved Akadama. Aftercare is important and they should be kept moist but not over watered and kept warm and fed. They should be kept sheltered over winter and in particular with Hosta’s the leaves should be cut back and they overwinter like this.

Information and inspiration

  • Bonsai Kusamono Suiseki A practical guide for organizing displays with plants and stones by Willi Benz
  • Four seasons of bonsai by Kyuzo Murata
  • Four seasons of modern bonsai by Kaori Yamada

Websites (Wolfgang Putz) (Chie Hattori) (Carlos Hebeisen) (How to make a Kokedama)

Here are some of the images from the practical demonstration where we all got to have a go at making our very own Kusamono and Shitakusa ni the gallery below as well as further examples that Ritta has created and bought along for us to see: