When Can We Claim Deciduous Bonsai As Our Own?

“Whose work is it?” is a question often asked by those who go to bonsai shows. Both conifer and deciduous bonsai will have answers to that question, but how that computation is made differs significantly.

It is maybe easiest to understand how deciduous work is different by contrasting it with that of conifers. In most of our conifer bonsai work, the last person who adjusts the branches may claim the title of “the work.” In other words, if someone wires a conifer, and then someone else adjusts and places the branches and does the detailing, it’s the adjuster who can claim the work, not the wirer. This doesn’t happen often. It did happen a few times in Japan when we had a photo shoot to wrap up fast in the evening, and apprentices helped wire, but then Mr. Suzuki would set the branches. This is sort of a hypothetical as it is rather rare, but explaining it this way does hopefully tease out the issue.

And the point to make with conifers is that aesthetic “ownership” of the work can change hands in as little as a few hours. While conifers are rather straightforward in this regard, our claims for deciduous work are a bit more tricky, even subjective.

Styling a Black Pine in a couple hours (this was a trip to Taiwan in 2017). The aesthetic “ownership” of conifer work can be claimed in less than a day, one of the satisfactions of working with them.

Naturally, if a deciduous bonsai was grown from a cutting years ago, and all of it in your yard, you can claim every bit of its aesthetics as yours. But as many of us have a deciduous tree with quite a bit of history attached to it, this gets into the mud rapidly. Often we tend to refer to these trees, no matter how long we’ve had it, as “So and so’s” tree. The last steward of it. This is respectfully honorific, the way we refer to treasured recipes from our grandparents. We might make the green salsa with tomatillos that brings tears of reverence from even non-family members, but we would feel weird calling it ours.

A young deciduous bonsai, grown from cutting at Crataegus Bonsai for about 10 years—although we can claim all the work that’s been done on it, there’s not much to claim at this point… (Apprentice Andrew Robson on his tiptoes)

How then do we determine when a deciduous tree of some provenance may be embraced as ours?

This is a legitimate question because the construction of deciduous branching happens so slowly, and unlike conifers may not be claimed after a day of work. Growth and manipulation are two-handed pendulums, and they move back and forth as the season’s growth meets with the grower’s pruners—that’s what makes up the majority of ‘the work’ on deciduous trees. And the fact is, successful deciduous work is more obviously and critically built on the success of earlier work. Conifer work can easily obliterate past work and still be successful.

Old Japanese Maple (admittedly not a bonsai, but too gorgeous to resist)—if you took possession of an old maple like this and planted it in your yard, you could not claim credit for the careful pruning that got it to this place. (Photo from the Portland Japanese Garden)

Appreciable change in deciduous bonsai often takes 5 years, and rigorous and significant change, more like 10-15 years. Pot choice is often in the mix, shifting the expression and content of the work as it always does. But branching details, delicacy, silhouette, placement in the pot, nebari exposure…all of these may contribute to the day when everything feels decidedly different. And you go back to the old photos, and think, “You know, hm, this bonsai really has changed.” And then you send off an application to the Deciduous Bonsai Board who will review your claim. They will get back to you in a few decades.

For many people a deciduous bonsai may never really feels theirs, no matter how long they’ve had it, if it’s a tree that came from others. It is one of the humbling aspects of working within the deciduous realm, which is so distinct sometimes from the conifer that it might legitimately feel like a different art form or expression entirely.

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    Agreed !!! And very succinctly put… Funny how there are several in our club who have no desire to ever call the work their own… They prefer to tell you exactly who worked on “their” tree and tell you $o with pride $welling in their che$t… Some of us refer to them as “check book arti$t$”… 😉

    • Todd Morgan says:

      just because one wants to give credit to artists who have worked on “their” trees, and track their history, may not mean that they are in it for the $$$. Most of my trees that look any good at all are because of advice and work done by others. I need artistic vision/advice/help, and have no illusions that I would have chosen that good design option. Many times, others can see a better way to design/cut/orient a tree than I had even considered. So I try to give credit where credit is due.

      • KEVIN STOEVEKEN says:

        i did not mean they are in it FOR the $$$, but rather they are in it for the prestige and bragging rights of having so-and-so do their work… i am speaking of folks who have been in it for 20 plus years and never even bothered to learn to wire properly….

    • Rory says:

      kevin, why are you so upset about a person’s motives for participating in bonsai in whatever manner they desire.

      • KEVIN STOEVEKEN says:

        The post was about claiming work as your own and I simply pointed out another side of the coin… One that I may not agree with, but certainly not upsetting in any way.

  2. Dwayne Berrett says:

    Your musings are always a treat, Michael! If you ever chose to leave bonsai, I see talented writer of all things on your career horizon! Your combination of efforts, however, is a gift to us all!

  3. Ray says:

    Thanks Michael, good points to make.
    I think of the amount of work that goes into a decidious tree and i’m humbled. I think many times they are not awarded the apprediation due. Whereas an old confifer has so many assets that nature itself has given us before styling.

  4. johnny says:

    excellent post really enjoy your writing

  5. Bruce Williams says:

    Very well said. It can also be said because deciduous trees can change somewhat rapidly over a short time, it’s really only mine (I can take credit) in the moment.


    And apologies to you Michael – I certainly did not mean to hijack your thread !

  7. crataegus says:

    Folks, I appreciate all thoughts and commentary, that’s what this space is for and I want to encourage everyone to speak their mind and have various points of view—but please keep your comments civil or I will do more editing than I’ve already done. Thank you all!

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