I had put up a picture of a bonsai bougainvillea on my rediff iland blog and I received quite some interesting comments, and of course as expected, some remarks about it going against nature etc. well, I hope to dispel a few myths and misgivings here. ( Please note that all pictures here have been posted with permission from the owner of these beautiful trees. If you need to copy or borrow them, or learn more about them, please contact the owner at firstname.lastname@example.org )
Let’s start at the beginning. Bonsai is the fascinating art of growing miniature trees in shallow pots. An art believed to have originated in China and perfected in Japan. Some believe that it has Indian roots too. Our ancient physicians tried growing hard to come by plants/trees in their own homes in pots as vamana vrikshas or miniature trees. There are also those that believe that visiting Buddhist monks who traveled back to China wanted to carry the sacred banyan and peepal trees with them and did so in small pots. By the time they reached their homes after years of travel, they had well developed Bonsais in their hands. Well, whatever the origin of this unique art, whether the Bharathiya connection exists or not, it is now known as a Japanese art form.
Way back in 1971, Raveendran, a young student at the Trivandrum Law College was hunting in the British Council library for some law books when he came upon a book about a fascinating and new art form. An avid lover of plants and the owner of an enviable collection of rose plants, the young man was intrigued by the book in his hand which opened up to him a fascinating new way of growing trees. Of course, it was a book on Bonsai, which he borrowed that day, and like they say, there was no looking back. His law practice fell somewhere along the way. “I cannot tell a lie,” he chuckles when asked why he did not pursue the profession. Today, however, he has in his amazing collection more than 400 well-developed bonsais in a range of styles and several at various stages of development. This is one of the best though not very well known collections in the country.
Raveendran concentrates mainly on tropical bonsai, which suits the climate of Nagercoil where he lives. So you would find in his collection 35 year old banyan trees, peepal trees, and other varieties of ficus, jambakka, tamarind, bougainvillea, the Indian laurel or kanikkonna, etc etc. It is an amazing sight indeed to see the janmbakka tree, FULLY laden with fruits or the cute Chinese oranges or kumquats weighing down the branches. Come vishu, and the kanikonna tree is one burst of golden yellow and the tree as a whole is placed along with the other items of vishu kani in his pooja room, not just a bunch of flowers. Now, how many people have the fortune of that kind of vishu kani?
Now, on to the nitty gritty of Bonsai.
How does one create a bonsai? From what I hear from this expert, it is an art, which requires a lot of patience and dedication because unlike other art forms, you have to wait years before you can actually see the result of your work. And how is a tree miniaturized? They are grown in shallow pots, ’shallow’ being the operative word here. They are supplied with nutrients and water, well, in a controlled setting. This reduces their size. At intervals, (every year or so) they are repotted, since the soil they grow in gets depleted of minerals and new soil in provided after every repotting. Unlike many believe, the roots and shoots are NOT CUT OFF during the repotting. Just a few auxiliary roots and shoots are trimmed and pruned so that they don’t creep up all over the place. The most important root of a plant, its taproot is never touched and the plant is gently repotted with all the care that a newborn baby being placed in its crib gets. Believe me, I have seen the man in action. He could not have been gentler with his children, and it is a delight to watch him work with his plants/trees.
The branches are also gently guided into interesting and beautiful shapes and styles using twines and thin wires. No, the plants are not hurt, not even a scratch is afflicted on the bark in the process. Once the branch grows thicker, and into the desired shape, the wires are removed. There are several styles of bonsai, chief of which are upright, twin trunk, cascade, wind-swept, forest ( group plantation ) etc.