From The Blog

Reflections on Bonsai

Use of Native Plants for Bonsai and Kusamono

As an unabashed plant nerd, I love everything from bioluminescent algae all the way to Sequoiadendron gigantium.   Due to an interest in the unusual and more rare species of plants not indigenous to my part of the United States of America, I set out to learn about as many as possible.  When something really cool turned up, it was time to get one; hence an interest in plant propagation.  Yes, I was one of the bonsai people who had about 600 plants of species suitable for bonsai but had no idea how to make them into something worthwhile at one point.  Moving was always epic.  Our fascination with the exotic and unusual is likely one reason we gravitate to bonsai; or to be more specific, the plants used for bonsai art in Japan.

Should we use Japanese and other Asian species for bonsai?  The short answer is yes.  If that is what makes you happy.  There is something wonderful about having access to multiple generations-worth of experience working with a given species and living examples of ancient ones that have flourished as bonsai.  What I almost never hear anyone say is The Japanese use their native plants!  I am not a native fundamentalist at all.  I mean, this is being written in Japan and the only native plant close by is a Parthenocissus quinquefolia

grafted onto P. tricuspidata.  So why you may ask, am I in Japan?  Quite frankly, I did not relish the idea of learning a new language from scratch and subjugating myself.  But, it’s worth it.

One of the many reasons bonsai in Japan are so excellent is the intimate knowledge of the growth habits and physiological responses of their trees.  Prunus mume for example, has a physiological window in late Spring where buds differentiate between flower and leaves for next year.  How do we know this?  Through a massive amount of trial and error, experimentation, and observation of their native trees and shrubs.  We use Japanese species for bonsai to some extent because a lot of the work has been done for us.  Japan was the best possible choice in my mind to study as this is where the artform as most know it originated.  China and Korea were “first” on the scene, but if you call it bonsai, it came from Japan originally.  A number of speices here, including Prunus mume, came from the mainland.  Where do you go to learn how to make Italian food?  Italy.  Where do you learn study French Impressionists?  Guess.

If anyone can direct me to a Prunus mume that looks like this in America, I'll come home ; )

It is only logical to go to the source to learn the classical styles, cultural / historical background, and influences from nature that made Japanese bonsai what it is today before setting out on my own path towards artistic expression.  If you do not have a solid foundation to work from, I feel you’re spinning your wheels.  You don’t have to study bonsai in Japan to be good; it certainly doesn’t hurt though.  In some ways, being here could even be limiting I suppose, but only if I back myself into a psychological corner.

One motive I did not mention in my first post (Bonsai?  Why?) about why I am in Japan is this:  in order for me to better understand the native plants I intend to use and promote the use of in America, I need to learn the tricks of the trade here.  My personal collection of bonsai in America is about half natives and half exotics.  Native plant collection for bonsai is already alive and well internationally.  People like Randy Knight are pushing the limits horticulturally and the results are well worth it.  Every new insight into how to coax the best out of our natives will get us closer to knowing them like the Japanese know theirs’.

The notion of a style distinctly American, European, South African, etc to me means using native plants. Or for example, at a minimum using something like a Buxus to make a bonsai reminiscent of a Quercus virginiana if you are doing an American style bonsai.  Since I’ve opened this door I feel that native companion plants could not hurt either.  Not naming names, there are others who feel the same as I do about  the concept that art should not be a Xerox copy of what you see in a book from Japan.  I will always create and style bonsai made from Japanese plants, but thinking outside the box and making something new keeps life interesting.  My dream is to one day have an intimate working knowledge of American native plants.  Then, we can push the limits of artistic expression further as has been done in Japan.

Your homework, as if I could assign it : ), is to find a native tree, shrub, or perennial not commonly used for bonsai yet and do some experimenting.  I am not advocating collection of anything threatened.  Comment if you are working with natives from your area and would like that information to be spread.

Thanks for reading.  I’ll leave you with two photos I just felt like sharing from Saisho-in, Kyoto…..

A black pine / crepe myrtle fusion!!!!


Bet it sounds even cooler in Japanese.......


  1. Dylan - May 31, 2012 11:36 pm

    Hey Owen, I’m from Virginia. Currently I’m growing two Liriodendron tulipifera from seedlings. Commonly they are referred to as Tulip Trees or as I’ve always known them Tulip Poplars (although apparently they are in the magnolia family and not related to poplars at all). I always liked them as a child because the adult ones can have leaves as large as your head and they are by far the fastest growing and tallest trees native to my area. I’m not sure how that leaf size will translate into bonsai but I always thought they would make a cool looking bonsai styled similarly to maples. I’ll let you know how they turn out. Keep up the great work on the blog and in the videos! Seriously those Bonsai Art of Japan videos are a great way for people like me in the U.S. to get solid techniques for improving our trees and weeding through most of the garbage information that has been spread online and through the US bonsai community in general. I had the great pleasure of working with Bjorn and Mr. Fujikawa at the recent Brussel’s Bonsai Rendezvous. It was a concept altering experience. Please pass on to Mr. Fujikawa how greatly his lessons were appreciated. They were incredibly valuable to me and desperately needed in America’s bonsai community. Hopefully we will enjoy the presence of Mr. Fujikawa and yourself in the near future!

    • Owen - June 1, 2012 6:20 am

      Glad you like the video series and working wIth Bjorn and Fujikawa-San. Liriodendron shows promise for sure. I’ve heard a rumor of a Witches’ Broom with smaller foliage a few years ago but never seen it in person. I look forward to your findings. Be sure and do some aggressive acts like total defoliation while keeping a few plants as “controls” : ).

  2. Owen - June 1, 2012 6:29 am

    I will do a post on Saisho-en and a few other gardens nearby with more photos of the tree(s) in question. It’s legit. Perhaps a post on Tanuki too…..

  3. Travis - June 3, 2012 12:22 am

    First, I second the sentiment of appreciation for the fantastic video/blog information. As a fairly green addict it has been vital.

    Second, in regards to natives…
    I’m in Seattle. 80 miles away I (legally) collected a few Crataegus douglasii. These thorny beasts have obviously been deer chomped for years. This has produced some great lines. Since collecting, I’ve searched far and wide for bonsai specific info/examples. Coming up empty (besides a photo of a nice Boon tree) I’ve taken to clumsy, brutal experimentation. Here are my conclusions…..

    1. All were collected as buds just started moving. Some had good roots. Others ended up in pure pumice as 4-5″ cuttings with a few stringy feeders…3 years later; ALL of them have filled their Anderson trays with roots!!!
    2. I have been very rough on them (even during year one). I have broken/torn them in half. I have made poorly timed, major chops. They have frozen solid. I’ve torches the poor victims. Etc, etc…they are still happy. Everywhere I cut, I get buds. Taproot massacres have rooted. Wire sets quick.
    3. The leaves are bit big so far (haven’t really cared, yet). But, fall color is spectacular.

    Thanks for reading. Thanks for blogging.

  4. Jonas - June 5, 2012 11:35 pm

    Well put Owen – thanks!

  5. Paul Kennedy - April 22, 2014 5:53 am

    I couldn’t agree more! I’m from Cape Town, South Africa, and we have so many great local species for bonsai and companion plants – a huge range of hardy, small-leafed woody shrubs to choose from, and many with tiny, beautiful flowers. And yet, we see almost none of these used for bonsai. Rather people struggle to make Northern Hemisphere trees behave how they think these trees should behave, in conditions that don’t suit the trees. I don’t understand it at all.

    • Owen - April 22, 2014 5:43 pm

      We do use a number of South African species in the ornamental horticulture trade as well as for bonsai here in America. We often want what is most difficult to obtain. It would be great for you to write about the natives there and how they can be trained as bonsai. I’ll post it. Cheers


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