A comment from last week’s post on Chojubai by Mr. Grahn had me thinking about connoisseurship. A connoisseur, as a rough definition, is someone with much knowledge of arts or food, and is a particularly good judge of aesthetics and taste. A sort of art critic, you might say. The very people who end up ‘discovering’ something and, because they have loud voices, everyone looks over to see what they’re pointing at.
For bonsai, this discovery or insight would be an over-looked plant for bonsai. I think relatively unknown plants sit at the periphery of the mainstream species until proven. Tradition is a wary animal. It wants it’s own proofs, like the essential repeatable experiments of science. For bonsai, those proofs would be:
- non-flashy aesthetic
- easily cultivated in a pot
- responsive to technique
- at least one season where it shines, even if during the others it looks horrible
- and a lot of people (connoisseurs) agreeing on those points (this is a tradition after all, not a one-man show)
Let’s take the example of Chojubai quince, from last week’s post. In the third paragraph of that post there was a historical note indicating how it’s popularity grew over some decades. I think that the great popularity that this plant now enjoys in Japan is two-fold: One, it meets all the criteria above. Second, it mirrors a rare aesthetic really only represented by one other plant: Ume, Japanese flowering apricot. Both are plants of unique contrasts, having roughened, craggy bark and trunk, yet producing the most delicate, simple flowers at a time of year when all else looks dead: Winter. Connoisseurship—the recognition of rare qualities—in Chojubai has prompted its rise to ‘appreciated plant’ status. All bow…
Well, I have my own reasons for being in love with Chojubai, and grow it avidly. But I suggest taking a good look at something you like—an under-appreciated plant, perhaps a native—and really push its possibilities. Take it to absurdity. And then see if you can convince your bonsai friends of its validity as a front-ranker!
If you become a connoisseur of something, it changes everything. It changes how the plant looks, because now you’re really attending to it, focusing attention and technique on it. And, just maybe, you might even change our communal perception of beauty.