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Chelsea's beautiful bonsai

Words: Jon Ardle, Technical Editor of The Garden

One of the real highlights of the Chelsea Flower Show for me is seeing some of the finest bonsai in the UK, groomed and displayed to perfection.

At its best, bonsai is an art, and nowhere is this more obvious than at Chelsea, where utterly convincing images of full-size forest trees are brought down to the scale of a few feet, and in some cases a few inches (the tiniest trees are known as 'mame', Japanese for 'bean'). Sadly I think bonsai displays are underappreciated by crowds more interested in blooms or the newest introductions.

The first thing gardeners often want to know about a bonsai is how old it is, equating older with rarer and more expensive. In fact age is irrelevant in judging how 'good' a tree is – convincingly old-looking trees of large size can be produced in decades rather than hundreds of years. It is the shape, branch structure, elegance and poise that are more important, and often, what is not there – the spaces between the branches, the trunks clear of foliage – is the most important factor in producing the image of a full-sized tree.

Jon's favourite trees - and why...

A spectacularly good example of one of my favourite bonsai styles, root over rock (in Japanese, sekijojo). This mimics a tree that has either germinated in a crack or had the soil at its base eroded away, leaving its roots to flow over the stone down into the growing medium. This is the classic species for the style, Japan's trident maple, Acer buergerianum, for its stout roots cling well to rocks. Tree and rock are repotted together as a unit. Shown by Mendip Bonsai, Somerset.

Some Japanese bonsai enthusuiasts grow nothing but Satsuki azaleas (cultivars of Rhododenron indicum, so not reliably hardy in much of Britain), and with spectacular shows of flower like this it is not hard to see why. Well over a metre tall, this is a fine example of the informal upright (moyogi) style. Satsuki flowers are if anything a little out of scale: they are more convincingly tree-like clothed only in their small evergreen leaves. Also shown by Mendip Bonsai.

Driftwood (sharimiki) style bonsai create evocative images of ancient, weatherbeaten trees with dead branches and areas of trunk. Coniferous species with rot-resistant wood are best, and the 'driftwood' itself is usually de-barked and sculpted using tools. Our native yew, Taxus baccata is a fine subject, and this tree is a wonderful example of sensitive carving, producing a convincingly natural-looking hollow trunk, like a tree struck by lightning. Shown by Derbyshire Bonsai

An immaculate, faultless clump or stump style Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora, one of the best pines for bonsai) – a forest in a pot. Apart from twin-trunk, group or forest bonsai plantings traditionally only ever have an odd number of trees or trunks, here seven (even numbers are considered inauspicious and asymmetric arrangements more easily balanced, avoiding symmetry).  Also shown by Derbyshire Bonsai.

The leafy, rounded crown of a mature English elm, Ulmus procera, echoes a shape once common in the British countryside, the vast majority lost to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s. A lovely tree, beautifully matched to its pot (a bonsai pot is like the frame of a picture, it should harmonise with and enhance the tree), and fortunately too small for the beetles that carry the disease to attack it. Shown by the Federation Of British Bonsai Societies.
 

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