As John’s demonstration had to be cancelled due to Covid restrictions, he has kindly provided these detailed notes on preparing trees for show.
So, after some time nurturing and styling your bonsai, the time has come when you think it has reached a stage where you would like to put it on display for others to appreciate what you have achieved.
At this stage, presentation is very important to make your bonsai look it’s best regardless of whether it is a very old masterpiece or a reasonably new creation.
Following are a few tips to help you show your bonsai to its best advantage.
1. Your tree must be in good health, no diseases, dead growth or damaged leaves.
2. The bonsai should be in an appropriate container, the correct proportion and in the correct position for the direction and style, and a colour that doesn’t detract from the bonsai. (If the pot is not appropriate, you can do what the Japanese do, and slip pot it into a better one for showing.)
3. The soil surface should be free of weeds and enhanced with moss and gravel. The moss should not cover the entire surface and be carefully moulded into the soil to look natural, (not placed in loose sheets on top) and avoid using white or bright coloured gravel as this will detract from the overall natural look.
4. The pot needs to be cleaned and can be lightly oiled with a cloth using any type of vegetable oil or baby oil etc. Be careful if the pot is old or antique not to remove the natural aged patina. Patina is the natural discolouration and crazing that occurs over a period, whereas dirt can be just rubbed off. A cloth dipped in vinegar can help remove white mineral salt stains.
5. Any extraneous twigs and/or foliage need to be neatly trimmed and dead leaves removed to improve the silhouette, unless in autumn colour. Bonsai are sometimes displayed defoliated to appreciate the fine ramification.
6. The trunk needs to be free of unsightly scars. Jins, uro and shari are exceptions.
7. Your bonsai can be displayed with wire providing it is neatly applied. The wire should be all the same colour and not obvious across the trunk. If necessary, rewire and place the wire across the back of the trunk. Tidy any loose ends.
8. Your bonsai should be displayed on a stand. Ideally, a bonsai should be viewed at eye level but as this is usually not possible in a bonsai show with normal height tables, elevating it on a stand will improve the viewing level as well as enhance the overall image of the bonsai, much like framing a picture.
9. The stand should be approximately 1/3 longer and slightly wider than the pot and the bonsai placed on the centre. Short bonsai look good on a taller stand and tall bonsai look best on a flat stand.
10. Dark timber stands look best, but lighter coloured can sometimes suit the pot colour.
11. Try to have the stand in keeping with the visual weight of the bonsai; heavy-looking, thicker bonsai on a chunky masculine looking stand and lighter, more feminine looking bonsai on a thinner more delicate stand with curved legs. Interesting natural flat slabs of timber can be effective with freeform and literati style bonsai.
12. To complete your display, an accessory plant or soe can be placed next to the main bonsai. This can be a small flowering plant, grass, stone or succulent etc. It should enhance the overall setting and not compete with the main bonsai, therefore, should be less in height than the stand and pot combined. The soe often represents the season or area where the main tree would grow in nature. The soe should be placed on the side of the direction that the bonsai flows and slightly forward or backward of the main stand, never in a straight line. The soe is placed on a flat thin stand (called a jita) either freeform or rectangular or small bamboo mat.
13. Display of Shohin and Mame on multi-level stands is too complex to describe in this article but reference to the books I have listed will help or there is always YouTube.
14. In a traditional Japanese display in an alcove or tokonoma, a three-point display uses a scroll as the extra element. The bonsai, the soe and the scroll are arranged to form an uneven triangle, with the scroll in the centre as the high point. Japanese display is a whole artform on its own and involves a lot of spiritualism and symbolism as well as references to nature and seasons.
15. Recently we are seeing more contemporary displays, especially from Indonesia. Bonsai are displayed as art installations combined with artistic pieces giving a very modern approach.
16. Most bonsai people do not have a vast array of stands to suit every bonsai, so take advantage of your lockdown time and make some using leftover bits of timber, you never know what you can come up with. (Word of warning- the bonsai is the main feature, make sure that the stand does not detract from it.)
17. For more information see Bonsai Techniques 2 by John Naka from page 349 onwards or Bonsai Kusamono Suiseki by Willi Benz page 135 onwards.
18. If we get to stage the 2021 BSA show in September, we encourage you to display your bonsai on a stand with a soe and so we are endeavouring to give appropriate space for each bonsai to be displayed in a correct manner, although some larger bonsai will be on single stands without a soe.
19. Novices are encouraged to display but follow the guidelines here to help show your bonsai to the best advantage.
20. You will appreciate your bonsai more if you occasionally practise this display set up and take progressive photos through the seasons, this often helps you identify faults in your styling and keeps a good record of progress.
John Marsh, Sydney, 2021