I posted a pic in the social media jungle a few weeks ago. It caused some debate (aside from the flack I got from the recycle bin in the background, that is).

It wasn’t really my intention to stir the puddin’ (at that time), I was just showing a tree that I thought was beautiful. But there was one guy that took umbrage to me calling this bald cypress, styled in the flat top style, a bonsai. It’s a style created by the great Vaughn Banting of New Orleans some 30 years ago and, I thought, was an accepted style. No, really, a gentleman said the above tree wasn’t a bonsai. It was slightly surreal.

Let’s follow the development of the tree pic by pic and then we can talk philosophy.

The tree belongs to Jim Osborne from the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society. GNOBS for short. In his words:
“Adam, the first pictures are from 2003.”

Yeah, he’s kinda goofy.  Don’t know these guys.

“The tree was about 8 feet tall. It was collected from the Ormand swamp, just a few miles west of New Orleans. I choose this tree because of its location close to dry land and small size as it was a spur of the moment dig and I did not have the usual collecting tools with me.” Sounds like he didn’t want to get his feet wet….

“Also in the first few pictures you can actually see me making the “trunk chop”

“On that same day I decided to create a hollow in the trunk to add interest, as the tree did not have the usual fluted base.”all of Jim’s pics were printed pics, like real photographs from film and all that even. “In the subsequent pictures you can see it’s development.”

“Branches were chosen and allowed to grow unchecked for a growing season, then cut back.”“This process was repeated for several years until natural taper was created.”“Some further work was done on the hollow and the chop was worked to a point where it flowed into a major branch. At that point the lower branches were kept in check and the upper portion of the tree allowed to grow freely”  “Branches were selected and wired into shape. It is still being refined.” 

“The tree won the Vaughn Banting award in 2011 for design excellence at the Louisiana Day of Bonsai.”

This photo is stolen from Alan Walker, this was the tree in 2011 after winning that Vaughn Banting award. 

“The tree also won the Johnny Martinez award (a Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society award to honor a long time member who had passed away) in 2010 at the Spring Garden Show at the New Orleans botanical garden.”

Enough from Jim, if he gets to talking you’ll talk all night long. Here are some of my pics showing the carving, the ramification and branch structure.

Not fancy carving but honest. That’s better, oftentimes, than fancy.

A flat top is a composition of “Y’s” and “V’s”.

Filling in the spaces for maximum photosynthetic possibilities.

Good moss. 

He’s a hobbyist bonsai artist, now, not a professional, and that makes it so much more spectacular. 

Nice ramification shot from the top. 

Good bark character too. It looks old. 

There’s that recycle bin I got in trouble with. 
It’s really a fantastic tree. It’s still developing and 14 years in training is a considerablly short time to achieve it.

Let’s talk about the flattop style and whether it’s considered “bonsai”. And please, feel free to comment and agree or disagree. All comments, unless lewd, crude or rude, will be allowed.

You all can probably guess my opinion. My definition of bonsai: “a bonsai is a relatively small, relatively young plant that is artistically treated to look like a big, old tree”

Now, that’s a very specific definition in that it limits bonsai to the representative side of art, like a landscape painting or a portrait. It should look like a tree. But it’s broad enough to allow for the, sometimes, ultra stylized versions of trees from Japanese artists like Kimura or Chinese artists like Cheng.  It also allows for the natural looks from people like Dan Robinson or Walter Pall. I also believe in the Naka mantra that we should make our bonsai look like trees, and not our trees look like bonsai.

So where does this all leave Jim’s tree? That particular individual who commented on my original post came out and said that, since it’s not a Japanese style, it’s not bonsai. That poked a lot of bears that day.

Now, granted, it was the Japanese that formalized the techniques and styles of bonsai, after all. Of course, it was the Chinese that created the art, and then the Japanese imported it. And it is a Japanese word, “bonsai” that the world uses to call these small trees in pots we so love. I get all that. Indeed it was the Japanese that introduced the world to bonsai. They named many of the concepts, from nebari to Jin and everything in between. And it is true that many Japanese nursery owners don’t accept the flattop style as a bonsai style. Or even the bald cypress as a good subject to work with (bald cypress have serious dieback every year on the branch tips, they grow too fast for some Japanese nursery men, and they are incredibly apically dominant, so much so that you lose bottom branches if you don’t keep the top in check and you need to, about every 4-5 years, chop and regrow the top, if it’s in the typical conifer/Christmas tree style, or your top branches get out of scale. To me, that’s a challenge. I’m an artist and I accept the difficulty. But the Japanese nurserymen are, first, businessmen. They grow what sells. A flattop bald cypress doesn’t sell over there. They’re on a serious Sargent’s juniper kick right now.

All this is interesting if we think of bonsai as strictly a Japanese thing but, you see, here’s a demographic to ponder:  There are more bonsai practitioners in the rest of the world than there are in Japan. Bonsai is, like many “traditional” arts in Japan, is dying out. It could be said that, if it weren’t for the interest in bonsai amongst non Japanese peoples, there might not be bonsai. Proof? How many Japanese nurseries have western apprentices now? Can you name more western bonsai professionals than Japanese nurserymen? How about with the affiliated crafts like stand making or scrolls or suiseki, or even pottery? It’s becoming a global art, whether the old guard like it or not. And when a thing becomes “Art”, that means one has artists who think that maybe the old way of thinking about things might not be the “right” way.

But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t space for traditional ideas. That’s what the old timers have to understand, what they have done before is a stepping stone to increasing the global appreciation and recognition of “Bonsai” as a true artistic pursuit. If it’s not allowed to grow, it will be relegated to the dustbin of other, quaint, folk arts that old men do when they’re not taking a nap.

Change and innovation is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be, but it can also be embraced and guided by those that have come before. Like Mr. Kobyashi is doing in this YouTube video from Bonsai Empire. He’s been practicing bonsai for 40 years, and he admits that his past tree styling has been to either win awards (which means to cater to the status quo) or to sell trees (even more so a pursuit of the status quo. Buyers most often buy what they are told is tasteful).watch the video. His goal now is to make art and to bring out the natural spirit of the tree. To, dare I say it, make art.

Here’s Jim’s flat top bald cypress again. This time with a little better background and on a stand. This is the natural progression of a bald cypress in the wild. It’s what an old, gnarly, broken tree looks like. If you drive the highways through the bayous of Louisiana, or on Alligator Alley in South Florida, it is this type of tree you’ll see.

I’m gonna call it a bonsai.

Thank you Jim, my friend, for allowing me to show your tree to my readers and to let me rant philosophically about it. No one is going to read the words really, but they will look at your tree. And that should make up for all the guff that this post will generate.

22 thoughts

  1. I read the facebook post, they really skinned you up on the recycle bin, and the other guy seem to have an ax to grind on whether or not it is a bonsai, which I say it is. I have several that I have been growing for years. The only thing I don’t like about the tree it that the top has been allowed to get too big, I think it would look better if it was cut back about a third Right now it is almost as wide as the tree is tall.


  2. My question to the original neasayer was & is, “What would you call it then?” An American plant in a shallow pot designed to look like a big, old tree? Most people here use the word ‘bonsai’ for that. Maybe it’s also sort of penjing, hon non bo, or whatever. But I call it a bonsai.

    Nice progression explanation, and a super tree.


  3. Adam, I am not a bonsai artist, but your posts are always intriguing causing me to glance at them all, but not read them thoroughly. This one I read every word and learned more about bonsai through one contemporary bonsai than what I collectively knew before that. Thank you. What I don’t understand, however, is the uproar over the recycle bin. Do bonsai artists not like to recycle?


  4. I’ve never agreed with the attitude of “My way or the highway”.
    Art is whatever speaks to your heart and mind. Flat top BC is easily viewed in nature and a very intriguing form…of course it is Bonsai.


  5. Well written sir! Bonsai is mimicking nature on a small scale. Guess whomever said the flat top style is not a bonsai has never been in a Louisiana swamp or any swamp. That’s his/her problem.
    Those gents you don’t know in pic are Fred Kreger, R.I.P. and Felix the GNOBS’ annual auctioneer.


  6. Screw the critics. This is a very nice American bonsai. Thanks for your take on the philosophical side of things.


  7. By the way, the men in the photo are, from left to right, the late Fred Krieger, a great individual to know who practiced bonsai for many years; Jim Osborne, very talented artist (don’t tell him I said so), who always looks better when he’s looking away; and Felix Famularo, another talent, who is the auctioneer at the GNOBS auction every August (he really makes the event great).


  8. Having spent countless hours canoeing north Florida rivers I can attest that this bonsai does indeed represent our cypress trees. It possesses all of the neat characteristics of wild cypress AND bonsai.
    A fine work of art.
    The critics need a giant enema…STAT!


  9. Very nice “bonsai”, and I do read what you write. Thanks for including the interview video with Mr. Kobyashi – as you and he both inferred – art is not always about the $$$, but we have to survive. Later in life, with a little planning, hopefully, we’re able to adjust our priorities. What’s the old “Blue Blood” saying – “If you can do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”?


  10. Love your blog, been following you for years.
    Compliment first, then demands, right?
    How about a progress post? I learn most from watching progression. This entry was great because it showed progress over years (and because I love bald cypress).
    Show us some of your trees from blog entries past and how they’re doing!
    “Where are they now?” Child bonsai celebs all grown up!


  11. Of course it’s a bonsai – and a nice one! We talked a little about this when you were in New Orleans. If you are slavishly following someone else’s rules on how to do bonsai or any art – you’re doing a “craft” – not art. In art, while keeping general aesthetics in mind, you have to be willing to break the rules and express your own vision. If I had to only do bonsai exactly the way the Japanese do them, I would cease doing bonsai out of boredom. Also, why would you not want to use species native to your area and emulate their natural growing characteristics while improving and defining them?


  12. Beautiful tree. Lovely balance. Delicate and rugged at once. Verisimilitude. Design may not be a real style by the dead old standards (which includes octopus style, and is on that basis inviting of reconsideration), but the skillful styling follows all the rules. Proud to call it a real bonsai for sure.
    Jim Scarton, Louisiana Bonsai Society


  13. Bonsai is an art, so first thing art should do is to communicate a feeling or an impression. And this tree, in my opinion, does it very good. So i love it and i call it a bonsai. If it should be or shouldn’t be categorized in a Japanese style is a stupid thought, because there are rules that must be technically followed (as proportions, nebari, etc) and rules that could be broken. What matters is final result and what communicate. Art evolves and changes, as Impressionism and Neo Classicism… Btw, i love the facts it is was created by an hobbyist bonsai artist. That’s very inspirational for amateurs like me. Greetings from Sicily, Italy


  14. Ps Adam you’re right about Bonsai in Japan, it’s not so popular as we could think. I have a Japanese friend and she tolds me Bonsai, in Japan, is an hobby for retired men, and rich too. It’s not so easy to find and buy a bonsai or bonsai tools. Most of bonsai students in Japan are occidentals. She even thinks It’s funny that young occidental people are interested in bonsai. Greetings


  15. Been watching (and listening carefully) to Adam for a while now, but only found this tonight (years too late). For what (very) little my opinion is worth… this is a GREAT post. Thank you.
    Might it be acceptable to suggest that ANYONE who is trying to grow healthy trees that look old and beautiful in a small tray is a “practioner” at least? (even if they’re not actually very good, just as a “painter” might not necessarily be (and often isn’t) an artist just because they do a lot of it. (I’ve been trying to grow beautiful bonsai for over thirty years – most of my trees are truly crap… though perhaps one or two could have possibilities in the hands of someone with a vision. But I could never hand them over.


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