- David Hale
Literati bonsai, also known as Bunjin bonsai, is a topic that many people are familiar with but may not fully understand.
To many people, the literati bonsai style can be described as trees with slender trunks and very sparse foliage. However, there are a lot of complexities when it comes to creating and maintaining a literati-style bonsai, including both stylistic and horticultural considerations.
Here's what we'll look at in this literati bonsai deep dive:
- History of literati bonsai
- Characteristics of literati (bunjin) bonsai trees
- Selecting material for literati bonsai
- Styling literati bonsai
- Literati pot selection
- How to care for a literati bonsai
History of literati bonsai
In modern bonsai, literati is used as a term to describe bonsai with a particular style and aesthetic. The modern literati style is known to encompass trees with a slender trunk, contorted branches, and minimal foliage mass.
However, the original meaning of the term was not related to a particular style. It was used to reference any bonsai that was admired or valued by 'bunjin' (learned men). Only after the 19th century did the term literati start to refer to the stylistic features it is known for today.
The ancient Chinese Southern Song paintings are often thought to be the inspiration for literati-style bonsai. They feature impressions of tall, slender trees with minimal foliage that influenced the fashion of bonsai hundreds of years ago.
Characteristics of literati (bunjin) bonsai trees
Within the umbrella of literati style bonsai, there is a separation between modern literati trees and more traditional bunjin bonsai from the Meiji period.
Bunjin bonsai from the Meiji period tended to have the following features:
- Slender trunks
- Limited movement through the trunk
- Only a small amount of taper
- Sparse foliage in the upper third of the tree, with little or none in the lower two thirds
Following changes in bonsai fashion and taste that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, modern literati trees now look a bit different from their traditional counterparts. They have maintained the essence of the literati style with a slender trunk and sparse foliage, but modern literati trees will also have radical movement in the trunk with a much more contorted appearance.
As with everything in art, there is no right or wrong with either of these approaches and you will generally have the best outcome by suiting the style to the particular tree you are working on.
Selecting material for literati bonsai
When creating literati bonsai composition choosing the right material is critical. The essence of a bunjin tree is simplistic beauty, which means forcing the wrong material to be a literati bonsai will usually have disappointing results.
Yamadori trees can provide the very best opportunity for literati bonsai, so long as they meet the characteristics we named above. The slenderness of the trunk is particularly important, as a tree with a very powerful trunk will be too imposing to create a subtle literati composition.
It is also possible to take young nursery stock trees and turn them into literati, although this will take more time. Subtle movement can be wired into thinner trunks and growth should be managed to stop the tree from excessively thickening.
Styling literati bonsai
When you are styling a literati bonsai there are some principles to follow that can help you to maximize the aesthetic of the tree. The Bunjin style is more reflective of nature than a traditionally styled bonsai tree, and our wiring practices can help to reflect that.
Starting with the primary branches, you should aim to keep these as close to the trunk as possible to narrow the tree's silhouette. Give them a steep angle of drop where they originate from the trunk to create a dramatic impression of age and character in the tree.
When it comes to secondary and tertiary branches, you should try to apply as little wire here as possible. The foliage should be less pad-like than with a traditional bonsai styling. It should look natural and perhaps slightly unkempt, but still organized to guide the viewer's eye to the interesting areas of the composition.
Foliage should be given a significant amount of lift at the end of branches, reaching towards the sunlight.
Finally, when it comes to the apex, literati trees generally benefit from narrowing the apex. As with other areas of the tree, the apex should not be overly refined.
Literati pot selection
Similar to the old school vs modern takes on literati design, two contrasting directions can be taken when selecting a pot for a literati bonsai. You can either go down the traditional route, with a simple and understated pot or choose a modern pot with heavy geometric lines or an unusual shape.
Traditional literati bonsai pots
Literati bonsai are commonly planted in simple round or oval containers that are usually very shallow. Simple pots without decoration are usually chosen to avoid dominating the composition.
Traditionally, literati compositions are planted with Nanban pots. Nanban translates as 'Southern Barbarian', and this term refers to pots that were imported into Japan from the south, mostly from China. Nanban pots are generally shallow and round and have several features that make them ideal for literati bonsai:
- They are simple and subdued, which matches the tone of a literati composition
- They are shallow to help with root restriction and controlling growth
- These pots are generally quite heavy which helps to stabilize a tall tree
Modern literati bonsai pots
Cantilevered pots are commonly used with literati bonsai. They have a central reservoir pot to hold the tree and are surrounded by a very large lip. This large lip is functional as well as stylistic. It broadens the center of gravity of the pot which helps to anchor the tree to the bench.
As well as cantilevered pots, geometric pots with radical shapes can look great with literati trees. They provide a strong contrast between the subtle elegance of the tree and the harsh edges of the pot. Jonathan Cross is one of the pioneers in this style of bonsai pot.
How to care for a literati bonsai
Due to their unique aesthetic and very small containers, literati trees present a particular challenge for bonsai tree care. We have to pay particular attention when watering, pruning, and repotting, as applying the wrong technique could endanger the health of the tree or disrupt the finely balanced style of the bonsai.
How and when to water a literati bonsai tree is very much tied to the pot it is in. Literati trees are usually potted in very small and shallow containers, which means particular care is needed to stop these trees from drying out as a result of under-watering.
The foliage mass of the tree plays an important role here. Literati trees have a sparse foliage mass. If you let your tree amass too much foliage, this will dry the pot out faster and will increase the need for watering. The style of a literati tree very much ties into the horticulture of maintaining water balance.
With bonsai, the degree of foliage removal when pruning will usually trigger a proportional response from the tree. What I mean by this is if you prune off a lot, the tree will produce strong, coarse growth. If you prune a little from across the canopy of the tree, the tree will produce balanced growth across its branches.
It is normal when doing an initial styling of a bonsai in early development to remove large amounts of foliage. Once this has been done, it is then important for literati trees to manage the foliage before the tree gets overgrown.
As mentioned above this helps with maintaining water balance in a small container, but it also stops the tree from producing coarse growth if we are repeatedly letting it grow strongly and cutting it back hard.
Growth should be managed by pinching or pruning, depending on the species, and the aim should be to balance energy across the entire canopy of the tree.
The first repotting of a yamadori or nursery stock tree into a literati container can be a dangerous moment for a tree. The amount of root reduction required to get a tree into a very small pot can push the plant to its limits, so you must use sound techniques and have very good aftercare.
When repotting any tree, but especially a literati bonsai, it's important to leave a portion of the root ball untouched. These undisturbed roots will act as the starting block for new root growth and benefit from having the soil around them left intact.
Another important consideration is tying the tree into the pot. Bunjin trees are generally very tall and have a long lever arm acting on the roots in the pot. We don't want the tree blowing out of the pot, so we need to tie the tree in very securely to prevent that from happening. 3 tie-down points usually anchor the tree very strongly into the pot. Using galvanized steel wire can also give added security because it will not stretch in the same way copper or aluminum will.
A final note on fertilization. Keeping balanced and refined growth is key to literati bonsai, but it is also important to provide a supply of micronutrients to keep the tree healthy and help it fight disease.
Literati bonsai will require light fertilization throughout the growing season, but heavy fertilization should be avoided as this can cause strong and coarse growth that will disrupt the balance of the tree.