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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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 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.
The Importance of Display Tables
Bonsai display tables are no less important than the pot, stones, tools and humidity or drip tray. They are essential to protect whatever floor or carpeting is underneath them. And they are important to the whole look of the bonsai area. Each table adds a sense of formality that sets the bonsai garden apart from the rest of the room and emphasizes the time and meditative aspect of your careful arrangement. The very best are hand carved by Chinese artisans who understand the origins of bonsai and the art of cultivating the foliage in the garden. A hand finish with a stain protects the quality and long life of the materials while giving the table a rich shine against the bonsai pot. Ideally they are made of hardwood that cradles your hard-won treasure elegantly. The many shapes, designs and sizes ensure that there is one perfect for both your bonsai and your décor, which will complement and display your living Zen art but not detract from its beauty.
Stands are also used when displaying your bonsai in a ‘Tokonoma’ arrangement. A Tokonoma arrangement is one adhering to traditional Japanese aesthetics. It uses a presentation Zen to make a focal point in a more Eastern style (where Western rooms often focus on a mantle). The Tokonoma, or Toko, is a recessed or elevated alcove that contains very little, usually a scroll with an image or calligraphy, and flowers or a very well-kept bonsai. The bonsai originally were thought too dirty to go in, but as the art evolved, bonsai were deemed even more elegant and worthy of the space than traditional flowers. No one steps into the Toko unless absolutely necessary. Important guests are seated with their backs to the Tokonoma, so the homeowner is not seen as trying to show off the display. The bonsai stand enters the presentation as one of the few items in the Toko. It serves to melt into the background while keeping the cleanliness in tact and any dirt or water off of the pristine floor.
Whether creating a Tokonoma or not, there are so many options for one in selecting a display table or stand, one is sure to appeal to every Bonsai gardener. There are stands or tables in every color and type of wood or plastic, beautiful bamboo bases, elaborately sculpted stands in the form of roots, scroll-legged bases, turntables for a full view and even elegant stands with marble tops for a regal look. The length and height vary to fit every size of tree or pot and there are neutral shades to fit any room’s color scheme.