"Natural" bonsai at Kyuka-en and beyond

Hello everyone! I’ve just discovered this forum and I think I’ll be posting here a lot :slight_smile:

A few months ago, before the lockdown, I had the good luck to travel to Japan and visited Omiya bonsai village. I went around each of the main nurseries there, and one thing that blew my mind was Kyuka-en nursery. If I understood correctly, this nursery specialises in “natural” bonsai - bonsai shaped only by pruning, without using wire. The bonsai there were just as beautiful, old and characterful as those I saw at some of the more traditional Japanese nurseries but they were also way more creative, unusual and natural-looking. I also think Kyuka-en tries to use species that are traditionally not used in bonsai: I saw a beautiful prickly pear bonsai (growing outside in Japan in February!) as well as what looked like an old tray planting filled with gnarled old ginger roots. Inspiring stuff!! But unfortunately when I visited there was nobody around who I could ask questions to…

I don’t really like putting wire on my trees (maybe because I’m not always around to remove it in a timely way, or because I feel some guilt bending the tree against its will) and I would be really interested to know if there are other bonsai people around the world who have had success with this sort of styling “philosophy”. Certainly different species call for different methods (this is probably standard for growing e.g. chojubai), but has anyone had experience doing something like this for conifers, or other types of trees? Are there any advantages to this sort of method?

Thank you!

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Greetings Alex

I believe Peter Chan has mentioned the introduction of wire to bonsai in the 40’s.
Prior to that the tradition was all ‘cut and grow’ so this may well be the more ‘traditional nursery’.

Walter Pall in Germany has a great deal to say on this subject with his ‘hedge pruning’ technique.

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Clip and Grow is probably the more traditional of all traditional styles! Not sure why it would be considered natural? After all man is choosing the direction, length and thickness of the development.
Also traditional was the use of natural fibres to tie and shape branch movement before the use of wire. Other methods involve the use of bamboo to space or train branch or trunk movement.
Chojubai can be developed with clip and grow, another popular method is to wire smaller portions of new growth and then cut back after extension to wire the next area of new growth and continue the desired design.
I think the ability to create a beautiful Bonsai with any of these methods takes discipline and creativity!
I have been amazed by designs featuring gentle movement created with raffia used to bind and shape deciduous trees in some of the old Bonsai texts. I am sure that would tax my patience. I feel so grateful that aluminum and copper wire is available today! One could argue that wire replaces the wind to create a more natural look for branches in Bonsai not exposed to natural elements the same as their larger counterparts in the forest.

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Clip and grow can be a fun approach. You might enjoy checking out Lingnan penjing as it’s school of penjing that doesn’t focus on using wire. Trees developed in this fashion have their own look which might be just what you’re after.

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Thanks for the info about this Don! I’ll check out Walter Pall for sure; do you know where I can find Peter Chan’s comments about wire?

Thank you so much for such a thoughtful answer! I definitely agree that “natural” is a strange name to give these bonsai, since there’s really no distinction between wiring and pruning from this perspective (maybe its more of a cultural distinction, since we rarely see wiring in other gardening practices, though come to think of it…).

It is great to have wire at our disposal, and compared to these more old-school methods you mention it seems a lot more convenient. I would be really interested to look at some of the old bonsai books you mention, if you have any references for what to look for?

Thinking about it, perhaps another thing that added so much character to the bonsai I saw at Kyuka-en was their apparently great age. However they are shaped, age + all the changes that happened along the way adds so much depth to a design.

Thanks Jonas - I’ve just looked up Lingnan penjing and they are beautiful! They have a very dynamic style compared to bonsai. I would be interested to learn more about them.

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Peter Chan has a YouTube channel - Heron Bonsai.
His comment about wire was just an aside without much more elaboration.