Terry Adams gave a brilliant presentation for us with a slideshow of images of trees in nature and how they offer serious food for thought when it comes to bonsai design. He presented his ideas on designing bonsai trees based on his many years of observations of nature. He has gained inspiration from many sources through his travels to other countries plus through his detailed observations of nature and trees around him. His own bonsai tree collection is a fantastic testament to this as the majority of his trees closely resemble natural tree features and attributes but on a smaller scale.
He challenges the current styles used in bonsai and strives to create new styles but at the same time gleaning inspiration from aspects of nature within his bonsai design. Some key elements of his focus have been around allowing his trees to have lower branches or majestic crowns like you will see on mature trees out in nature. Allowing branches to also reach back down to the soil in a bonsai pot to emulate nature where a branch may have failed, or it may naturally hang down to start a raft or it just hangs down due to the sheer weight of the branch. His Pomegranate design is based on an image of a majestic mature tree with such features.
Trees in nature tend to have zig zag formation in their branches as opposed to straight branches and this can be achieved in bonsai through pruning. If you wire, it is quicker but you tend to get more curves which is less natural. Brooms are common sites in landscape trees and also aspects like inverse taper but this is not a feature to emulate perhaps in bonsai as it is considered a fault. Many trees have full crowns with very heavy branch development and are dense with domed crowns and can even be one sided in their development. This can be very aesthetic and can be seen on bonsai trees that are not rotated and positioned up against a wall for example, but again it is less sought after in bonsai design per say.
In nature you tend to see discreet spaces between branches as opposed to defined pads, a good example is the Horse Chestnut in full flower with more subtle indentations to define the crown structure. However, natural groups of trees over time form one crown which is a style commonly seen in bonsai as opposed to trying to define each tree within the group. Terry also finds inspiration for developing features like hollow trunks which can be seen in over mature trees or from lapsed pollards. He has also been observing natural exposed roots and there are some fabulous examples to be seen in nature caused by a variety of reasons. It is possible to emulate this, it requires slow exposed of the surface roots to allow the bark to harden off.
Guidelines around a good nebari in bonsai are around an even sized root plate, without crossing roots and lumpy roots, but in nature anything goes and so why not in bonsai?
Another taboo in bonsai generally is that of dead wood on deciduous trees, but in nature this is a key feature on veteran trees and mature trees as part of the natural process of ageing and decay and can be extremely aesthetic. Oaks in particular are renowned for their dead wood and there are excellent examples to be seen in nature in places like Windsor Great Park. Other features that occur in nature on deciduous trees are lightning strikes and quite common on mature specimens as shown on an Oak in the above image, so why not in bonsai tree design?
Fused trunks are unusual and occur in nature frequently and in bonsai this could be achieved by growing on a bundle of seedlings that are wrapped or tied together so that they over time fuse to form one trunk. However, if you do this, you need to select all the same stock so that the timing of the leaves is simultaneous for coming into leaf as well as going into autumn colour. Elms are a good species to try this with as they are fast growing. Twisted trunks and twisted roots are another great natural feature and are caused by many means. Thigmomorphogenesis is one explanation and this is where a tree exhibits an adaptive growth response to mechanical sensation causing an altering of the natural growth pattern. Terry showed many examples of this with the amazing shapes that have been created in nature with Junipers in California.
Terry has observed many aspects of trees in nature and finds enjoyment in the quirky side of the trees developments and tries to bring that to his bonsai design. Ancient Yew trees provide this in abundance as they develop so slowly and some completely hollow out leaving just a ring of live cambium supporting a full crown of foliage. The image above tells a story and that is what Terry aims for with his bonsai design to tell a compact story.
Not all trees in nature are completely natural many have been shaped by the elements but also shaped by man or animals. In Japan they use a wide variety of techniques to prop trees in parks and gardens into positions, or pull branches in place or train branches to a set design. Terry is trying to include some of these aspects in future bonsai designs perhaps and is looking at particular aspects that he finds pleasing and may seek to incorporate this into the bonsai but he is aware that the scale of bonsai will not make it easy to incorporate some of these ideas.
Another observation that Terry may look to explore is that of internal root formation within a hollow trunk as a key feature. The cause of this occurrence in nature is another quirky aspect that has caught his imagination and creative flare. He shared his views and inspiration from the twists and deadwood formation in the trunks of the old Junipers in California. He is also looking more closely as weeping varieties of trees to perhaps use as material for bonsai and if you position a weeping tree on a mound this gains additional height within the pot making the overall effect more convincing perhaps.
Having seen the fantastic results of Terry’s bonsai design and having now an appreciation of the inspiration behind his trees, this has given us a new outlook on how to perhaps develop our own trees in future. However, it is not easy to go against the norm when being judged against other bonsai trees that adhere to quite fixed rules. Also many people tend to have fixed ideas on what bonsai should or should not look like, and some features are considered still definite taboos in bonsai trees in the judging arena. This is a shame as it can hinder creativity and the development of the art of bonsai. Too many rules may stifle your imagination and how you want to create great naturally designed bonsai trees. So therefore, just go out and have fun and be inspired by trees in nature and see where it takes you.