New arrival on display in Kew's Bonsai House
Kew's new azalea bonsai is flowering under the watchful eye of bonsai expert Richard Kernick
01 Jun 2010
Richard Kernick tending to one of Kew's bonsai trees (Image: Catherine Rutherford, RBG Kew)
Our collection of bonsai trees is flourishing under the watchful eye of bonsai specialist Richard Kernick. This week, for the first time, he is displaying a newly acquired azalea, which has just come into glorious flower.
Bonsai - the Importance of the Unimportant
Opposite the student vegetable plots, a glasshouse holds a very special collection. Bonsai is the art of growing, maintaining and styling trees in shallow trays or pots. The word comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters bon, meaning ‘tray’ and sai, meaning ‘planting’.Their cultivation began in China over 1,500 years ago, probably as a result of the principles of the Taoist religion. Followers of Taoism believed that natural phenomena such as mountains, trees and rocks contained magic, and that miniature examples would possess this magic in concentrated form. This practice was known as penjing. The earliest Chinese bonsai were the naturally dwarfed trees found growing on mountains and were lifted when already old. Initially, these little trees were left in their natural shape but as time went by styles were introduced, many of them fairly unusual.
Azalea bonsai (Image: Catherine Rutherford, RBG Kew)
In Japan, the history of bonsai covers a shorter time span. Records indicate that during the Kamakura period (1180-1333), the aristocracy displayed bonsai in specially made ceramic pots that were placed on the verandas of their homes. The first authentic bonsai is shown on a picture scroll dated 1309. The Japanese refined and developed bonsai techniques which have evolved into the art form it is today.
Kew currently holds a collection of over 50 trees, most of which were a donation by Ruth Stafford-Jones in 2001. Ruth became interested in bonsai trees during the 1950s after having seen one at a Japanese temple whilst accompanying her husband on a business trip. In 1964 she went to stay in Japan for three months. Though she did not speak any Japanese, she learnt her skills by hand gestures. She was one of the first non-Japanese to receive a proficiency certificate from the Shonan School of Bonsai. She was also a judge at Chelsea for 27 years.
The Kew bonsai collection includes conifers, maples, a Japanese white pine, a rhododendron, a beech and an oak tree. The smallest is a Cotoneaster horizontalis, just 10 cm high, and the tallest is a Chinese quince standing around 60 cm high. The ten bonsai looking their seasonal best are displayed at any one time. Because they are outdoor trees, they are frequently rotated to keep them in good health. Among the collection is an aged needle juniper that were once owned by Kyuzo Murata, famed in the bonsai world for having saved the Japanese emperor’s treasured collection during the Second World War.
Due to the value and age of our collection the bonsai house is heavily alarmed, so on your visit please be careful not to set off the sensors!
Kew's bonsai specialist Richard Kernick has the following tips for those wishing to have a go...
How to grow bonsai
Bonsai are not very difficult to grow, but do require patience and regular attention. A bonsai is created by using a combination of fairly basic horticultural skills, artistry and observation. Native British trees can be trained as well as Japanese species, and tropical varieties can be grown indoors. The range of styles is wide and the size of a tree may vary from two or three centimetres tall to one metre or more.
Suitable specimens can be collected from the wild (with permission), or propagated from cuttings or seed, which can be a lengthy, but satisfying, process. They are then styled and maintained using a number of techniques, including careful pruning, shaping with wire and repotting (root pruning).
Bonsai can require frequent watering, especially during sunny or breezy days. But more often than not, they are killed through over-watering rather than neglect. Their compact root systems require air as well as water, and must be allowed to thoroughly drain, then to almost dry out between watering. Once a trees root system becomes waterlogged, they stop taking in water and nutrients and will eventually rot. The tree will protect itself from further damage by “shutting down” until the pot has drained; often this will cause the leaves to droop. At this point the temptation is to water the tree even more until the tree is then killed by its owner’s kindness.
Allow your tree to almost dry out before you water it. When you do water your tree, water it thoroughly; this can be done by immersing the pot in water for ten minutes, then allowing it to drain well. Try to buy trees from specialist bonsai nurseries; they are more likely to have been well cared for and be potted up in an appropriate (freely draining) soil mix.
When re-potting a tree always use granular, free-draining, compost that will allow air to penetrate down to the roots between watering – Japanese “Akadama” is best. A mixture of horticultural pumice, grit and coir is good alternative.
Nearly all bonsai have a point from which they should be viewed, with a definite front and back. There should be a more foliage to the back of a tree than in front of it to create a sense of depth. If any man-made cuts or wounds are made to the front of a tree, they should be disguised as natural damage. The tree should not appear to lean backwards; the top should lean slightly towards the viewer.
The tree should be planted higher than the rim of the pot, with the compost sloping away to the edges of the pot. The tree should not be planted centrally in the pot except when a round or square pot is used. The soil surface should be regularly weeded and any debris from the tree, such as old leaves and flowers, should be removed.
During the heat of summer, Richard checks and waters the Kew collection up to three times daily. He re-pots around a quarter of the trees every spring; prunes in spring, summer and autumn; and wires branches in winter.
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