Modern Bonsai:

Why can't we enjoy working with plants that are easily obtainable and hardy where we live?

Bonsai doesn't have to be scary! Bonsai lovers know that it isn't all that difficult to learn at least the basics of bonsai. It's unfortunate that so many people are afraid to try to learn bonsai. A book illustrating Japanese bonsai will show gorgeous Japanese red maples. Of course. Japanese red maples grow in Japan. The Japanese didn't use Japanese maples, and expect everyone who wanted a maple as a bonsai to use a Japanese maple, because there was something inherently better about them. They used Japanese maples because they were there! Most readers will have different types of maples available, depending on their climates. In Alberta, we can't grow Japanese maples outdoors over the winter. They are expensive to buy as 'starter' bonsai because they can't survive in our climate. Still, a common deciduous bonsai grown here is a Japanese red maple. Why can't we enjoy working with plants that are easily obtainable and hardy where we live? We have a very attractive Amur maple here. Similarly, I use Nanking cherry to make very attractive bonsai, but most people crave a Japanese cherry and shun the equally attractive but more common shrub.

In no way are we criticizing Japanese plant material but suggesting that you look around you to see what plants common in your area can be used. I have seen potentilla trained as fascinating bonsai. They may not be common in Japan, but they certainly grow well here. Kinnikinnick is native to our foothills and mountains and easier to care for than boxwood. Cotoneaster may be boring as a hedge, but a single plant can be quite effective as a bonsai, and it is cheap and easy to get. Pygmy caragana, elm and white birch seedlings are easy to find near their parents - try them!


This may be radical, but it gets worse! We also firmly believe that the ancient Japanese would have loved Scotch tape and green twisters! No, of course you can't enter a plant in a show or competition with a green twister on it, but in the privacy of your own home, it can be very useful hooked over a branch to draw it down to one below it or Scotch taped to the side or rim of a pot. Copper wire looks so traditional, and yes, of course we use it too, but you don't always have to. Anodized aluminium, copper coloured, is easier to work with and less expensive. You can use fishing weights to weigh down branches and nail clippers for those small cuts when your shears are too large. The best way to cover holes in bonsai pots is squares of fibreglass screening - not very traditional! The styles we use generally follow the well-known ones because they are beautiful - that is what makes a bonsai. How you create it can be your secret, or surprise those who don't have as much imagination as you do. Modifying both plants and techniques doesn't destroy the tradition, it personalizes it and makes it a little easier to enjoy. Be creative!