The Practice Of Displaying Traditional Bonsai

Displaying Bonsai Trees

Bonsai are meant to be seen. Cultivating your bonsai is only part of the beauty of working with these plants. A bonsai that isn’t well-displayed can never be fully appreciated.

The practice of displaying bonsai doesn’t have to be complex. There are a number of issues to consider, but three critical points should always be your guide:

1. The bonsai is the critical element of the display. Its selection should drive every other display decision, which should be intended to highlight the display’s primary focus: the bonsai.

2. The bonsai display should invoke a sense of harmony in nature.

3. Every aspect of the display should be intentional. Nothing in the display should be an afterthought.

With these guiding principles, below is more detailed advice regarding how to create the most compelling display with your bonsai.

The Basics

Your goal should be to create an overall panorama that highlights the unique beauty of your bonsai. At a minimum, your display will include a pot for the bonsai, the space in which the bonsai will be placed, and the furniture piece on which the bonsai will stand.

However, most bonsai displays will also include other elements, often called companion objects. Common companion objects to use are:

  • scrolls
  • mountain stones, or “suiseki“
  • smaller floral plant
  • small statue, which is often an animal or other natural element

In addition to precise selection of the bonsai and its companion objects, the other basic area of attention is the placement of all these elements relative to each other. Usually you’ll want to create an asymmetrical triangle that has dimension and creates a cohesive, natural scene.

Selecting Your Basic Items

Since bonsai is rooted in a celebration of nature, all your selections of elements and placement should be based in what shows nature at its finest. This means careful selection of the bonsai plant, which should itself display some particular aspect of its beauty for the current season.

The Pot

Once you’ve selected your bonsai, you can start thinking about the pot. The color of the pot must be harmonious with the state of the bonsai. The ideal width for the pot is the width of the spread of the bonsai’s branches. The pot should look as if it’s evolved naturally from the width of the bonsai.

The ideal depth of the pot depends on whether the bonsai cascades. For a non-cascading bonsai, the pot’s depth should be roughly the size of the bonsai’s root, just above its flare. For cascading or semi-cascading bonsai, the pot should be no deeper than half the cascade.

The Stand

Bonsai are best viewed at eye level, which means the average table will be too low. A bonsai stand, or “shoku“, can either be a floor stand or a table stand. The stand itself shouldn’t be so ornamental that it distracts from the bonsai. As with the pot, the color of the stand should be in harmony with the state of the bonsai. Dark woods are quite attractive with most bonsai, but a lighter wood might be more attractive for a flowering bonsai.

The Placement Of The Display

The placement of display is different from the placement of the elements within the display. Remember, nothing in your bonsai display should be an afterthought. This includes selecting where the entire display will be placed.

Ideally, the area you select should provide some natural frame for the display by having three sides. The entire display should be placed in the center of this area, although the individual elements will often be placed at different distances from the walls.

The background of the space shouldn’t compete with the display either. It should have a soft, neutral color. Keep in mind that a clean, white wall will often be too bright and harsh to set off a bonsai display nicely.

Selecting Companion Objects

You’ve already chosen the bonsai for its natural qualities, as well as the other required items, so it’s now time to select the companion objects.

Before selecting any specific companion object, create in your mind the idea of the scene you’re trying to create. The companion objects should be selected for their ability to contribute and enhance this scene. Again, nature should be your guide. If you’re going to display your bonsai with a smaller flowering plant or small statue, it should be one that you’d see naturally occurring with your bonsai.

Scrolls are lovely elements to add and have the additional advantage of bringing an extra layer of depth to your display. However, they also present the risk of competing with your bonsai, which is always the focal point of your display. A subtle scroll with an ink painting, or “sumi-e“, depicting a natural element that is in harmony with the scene you’re creating is a good choice.

Finally, don’t select too many companion objects. Having two companion objects should be the maximum.

Placing The Elements Within The Display

Now that you’ve selected your basic and companion elements, it’s time to put the entire display together. Remember the scene or sense of nature you’re trying to evoke. You want to place your elements in a way that has harmonious dimension and perspective.

The Bonsai

The typical shape of the display is an asymmetrical triangle. The bonsai should be placed on the side that is opposite to its pull. If its branches lean predominantly to the right, you’ll place the bonsai on the left side of the area.

The Companion Objects

A companion object should be on the opposite side of the area, away from the bonsai. Typically, it should be as far away from its nearest side wall as the bonsai is from its nearest side wall. However, it shouldn’t be on the same horizontal axis as the bonsai. By placing the companion object either behind or in front of this axis, you bring dimension to the triangle.

Since stones are usually used to represent mountains, they’ll be placed closer to the back wall than the bonsai to give a sense of distance. In contrast, small flowering plants or statues are usually placed farther away from the back wall than the bonsai.