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Accent Plants For Bonsai

By Wolfgang Putz, Austria
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In the traditional way of presenting Bonsai (Tokonoma) where heaven, earth and man is symbolized, stands: - the scroll for heaven (or the spiritual goal) - the accent plant for the earth - and the bonsai for men (or the harmony between heaven and earth)

Tokonoma with larch from the exhibition "SAKKA TEN" 2002

The accent plant should be arranged in such a way that the bonsai will be accentuated. If you look at it from above a more dominating bonsai will be less accentuated from a plant in the foreground. When the accent plant moves to the back, it accentuates the bonsai more if needed.

Only when the bonsai itself is presented on a higher table, a small table for the accent plant is permissible, grass will be put on shallow slice of wood.

At a presentation of bonsai the accent plant gives an idea of the season as well as harmony and balance.

Accent plants represent the different seasons with conspicuous leaf colors, flowers, fruits, seeds, Fall colors etc. . . Bonsai and accent plant shouldn't have the same foliage or the same flowers and fruits. Fruiting and flowering bonsai should be put together with a plain accent plant. Deciduous trees will be presented with flowering and fruiting accent plant.

You can use the wild forms of grass or perennials that can be collected in nature (of course with care about laws for conservation and with the permission of the landowner). On the other side more and more interesting cultivated forms from perennial nurseries are used. Every bonsai and plant enthusiast can let his fantasy run wild!

Arranging several different plants one should have in mind that they come from the same location, that they have the same origin.

For the planting individual clay pots in different shapes, surface designs and most different glazes are used. Even mats, plates, tiles, flat stones, roots or pieces of wood can be used.

The possibility to show accent plants without any pot is just permissible with very mature plants, where the moss is grown all around. This is called NE ARAI.

One should use some peaty soil (a mixture out of peat and akadama is nice) as planting medium, a good drainage in the pots is important.

Accent plants should be watered regularly, sprayed occasional and fertilized just a little (to prevent unbridled growth). Every year in spring repotting is necessary with root cutting and the removing of dead parts of the plants.

Like bonsai accent plants show their character and mature after years of good care, only then they should be presented on exhibitions.

But accent plant represent more than that, they give accents for the bonsai presentation in your own garden and may become another passion for the plant collector and enthusiast.

I want to point out that the Hostas and some other dwarfed perennials are not the classic accent plant in the traditional bonsai presentation in Japan, but these plants will liven up the bonsai collection in your garden and will adorn with their wonderful foliage and beautiful flowers.

Some perennials for accent planting:

Hosta sp.

The more than 40 species of Hosta, which can be found in Asia, are so far subdivided in more than 3500 different, registered varieties.

Hosta 'White Christmas'

Hostas grow as tuft like bushes with leaves coming out of the ground, which differ in shape and colour: from slender to long and expanded, heart-like or more rounded, in green, blue and also with yellow and white stripes. The flowers used to grow high up from the bushes and their colors are violet, blue or white.

They love peaty and well draining soil and a place covered against wind in half shade. If they are watered regularly, they don't worry about a bit more sun.

Their special qualities are the wonderful leaves and the beautiful flowers, and because of that they have been known in Japan as garden plants for centuries and collected by enthusiasts, especially in the USA, intensively. The only real problem is that snails love Hostas. But that shouldn't keep you away from using this wonderful perennial in your garden.

To be planted in accent pots the dwarfed varieties are more interesting:

Absolutely fantastic varieties are (dwarfed and with colored leaves) 'Little Wonder', 'Catillian', 'Kabitan', 'Masquerade', 'Little White Lines', 'Ginko Craig', 'Alan P. McConell', 'Green Eyes', 'Rheingold' etc.

But some other Varieties with leaves in one colour look good. With green leaves there are i.e. Hosta venusta, Hosta kikutti, 'Laura', 'Kifukurin', 'Japangirl', 'Maegi Kifukurin Akikaze', 'Japanboy' etc.

With yellow leaves there are'Hydon Sunset', 'Feather Boa', 'Laterna Magica' . . . and with silver leaves are 'Gray Beauty', 'Popo'. . . 'Snowflakes' shows wonderful, pure white flowers.

Hosta 'Cameo'

Aruncus aethysifolius

Shows about 6" high, brown-green , fine pinnated leaves and 8" to 10" high stem with white flowers. The soil should be peaty and damp and the location in half shade.

Aruncus aethysifolius

Rhodohypoxis baurii

That's an interesting 'South African'!
With its strange flowers (more than 1", blooming from June to August) fine stems and the grass like leaves it flowers over several months. It is not too winter hardy, so you better put it in a basement or an unheated stairwell, cold and dry just like cactus.

Rhodohypoxis baurii 'Fred Broome'

With rose-pink flowers (like little roses), R. baurii 'Douglas' with dark red flowers and R. baurii var. platypetala with white, in the middle light pink flowers are usually used.

Epimedium X youngianum

This perennial (21 species), found from the Mediteranean region to the east of Asia, shows small pinnate leaves. The flowers, mostly with a spur, are white, yellow, red or violet and stand together in a raceme. The Mediterranean species like warm, bright and dry places, whereas the Asian species prefer fresh and cool areas.

Epimedium grandiflorum

(from western China)
Grows very slowly in tufts. Its height becomes 8" and it gets bright violet flowers of 1".

Epimedium X youngianum 'Niveum'

(pure white flowers) and E.X youngianum 'Roseum' (pink-violet) are particularly charming species. In accent pots they thrive with enough watering and regular organic fertilizing and they have wonderful orange-brown Fall colors. But the flowers are absolutely outstanding!

Ophiopogon planiscarpus 'Nigrescens'

Up to 5" growing grass from Japan with jet-black foliage, crème-colored flowers and black fruits, really exotic for the bonsai garden, available also in green and dwarfed.

Pleione limprichtii

This low Orchid (15 species), that are growing on the ground, come from the Himalaja, China and Taiwan and grow delicate leaves out of "pseudo bulbs" and considerable, mostly solitary flowers. The only more or less hardy specie is Pleione limprichtii (sy. P. bulbocodioides). In April/May it flowers with beautiful, up to 3" wide viloet-pink flowers and is able to stay outside with some shelter (no wet feet) during the winter. When the Pleione is in a accent pot, you better over winter it without frost and cold in a basement or a greenhouse.

Pleione limprichtii

Carex sp. and other small grasses

Different small growing species of Carex are very nice; also. . . Molinia caerulea 'Variegata' with white stripes, up to 8". Koeleria glauca a blue colored, drought resistant small grass.

Sempervivum sp.

There are 30 species in the mountains of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. This perennial, growing in cushions with thick, fleshy leaves that stand together in rosettes sprouts yellow, red and white flowers in the summer. There are numerous shapes and colors for these rosettes, many of them are natural hybrids. Plus many hybrids developed in gardens. Apparently there are some thousand different species.

Sempervivum arachnoideum is particularly delicate with cushions of rounded rosettes which are covered with tiny hairs like spider nets. The flowers are pink. Sempervivum are very modest and can bear full sun or some days without water. So said the cactus of Europe. . .

Geranium sp.

This group of plants should not be missed in any garden. It shows a wide variety of use and is very modest. There are some hundreds of different species to cover the ground or as perennials in the border. Some smaller and dense growing species make nice accent plants:
Geranium dalmaticum with pink flowers and colored foliage in Fall.
Geranium cinereum 'Ballerina' with violet-pink veined flowers.
Geranium cinereum var. subcaulescens 'Guiseppi' dark red flowers with a black eye.
Geranium renardii with white flowers, and leaves like crepe paper

Astilbe sp.

This group of plants consists of more than 30 species, found from the Himalayas to Japan and in the Atlantic side of North America. They like a sunny location or maybe half shade and rich, peaty, dump soil. Dwarfed species are:
Astilbe X crispa 'Perkeo' with violet pink flowers and wrinkled leaves,
Astilbe glaberima var. saxatile with light pink flowers and
Astilbe glaberima 'Sprite' with white flowers.

Astilbe crispa 'Perkeo'

Not every perennial that's useable for accent plants is mentioned here, of course. Every Bonsai enthusiast can let his imagination run wild, - and will recognize, that it might be as interesting as collecting bonsai!

Austrian, Wolfgang Putz, is an accomplished bonsai artist and cultivates many species of flowering and decorative plants besides bonsai. Wolfgang is a remarkable presence in the world of bonsai, his work with kusamono and bonsai is recognized and respected around the globe. He has been published in many English and German publications, won numerous awards, and is an active collector of yamadori.

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