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Behind the rules

        In my intuition I find myself,

             In myself I find freedom;

                 In nature I find the rule,

                       In the rule I find the wisdom.

Obviously, all the textbook conventions for bonsai are derived from fundamental concepts of artistry and aesthetic principals of visual art. Among the aesthetic principals of visual art are line, form, color, texture, composition, dimension, perspective and balance. A working understanding of these concepts will enable us to freely create and innovate without hesitation because we understand the essence of the art and what these conventions refer to. Furthermore, a solid understanding of horticultural theory and natural rules is very important to our ability to simulate natural phenomena in a convincing manner.

Basic aesthetic principles easily explain all of the so-called rules in bonsai. The commonly cited fault lists in bonsai books should be treated as basic guidelines rather than absolute rules.  These lists should also be taken in the context of artistic aims as applied to individual bonsai efforts, rather than thoughtlessly applied to all bonsai. The objective is to create an artistic and appealing bonsai instead of a textbook-true bonsai. Nature is always perfect in imperfection. So-called the imperfection is our human misinterpretation and limited knowledge about the true essence of beauty; we always consider the imperfection as defection rather than natural phenomena. Every style or shape and character of trees in the nature is not formed by miracle, there is always reason, either natural rule or horticultural aspect behind. For this reason, when we create a bonsai, we should put all these aspects into account including exploring the “imperfection” as part of the natural beauty. We should create a soulful and beautiful bonsai rather than “correct” bonsai. The task of a bonsai artist is to explore the character of the tree and conveying the thematic message effectively through the overall design and presentation. This makes art different from craft.

 Textbook-true bonsai are seldom appealing and artistic simply for the fact that the way one rule suits a certain condition may not be applicable to other situations. Advisable application of basic bonsai styling convention should take into account the overall structure we have to work with and our artistic aims. Furthermore, the faulty element may indeed become a feature of added value, depending on what other features must be compensated for in the composition. The fault can, of course, be significantly diminished in importance if the overall presentation triumphs in spite of the fault. However, there are a few faults that are difficult to compensate for, like bar branches, spoke-wheel branches, comb branches, inverse taper trunk, etc… but these are not always impossible to visually compensate for.  

Here are a few examples:

-         Eye-poking branches are considered to be faults because they don’t present a good use of dimension for the viewer; but sometimes such a branch is needed to fill an ugly gap in the structure.

      -         Crossed branches are not good because they look messy and disturb the visual flow; but they are             often needed in windswept or literati form bonsai.

      -         Parallel branches indicate bad branch order and composition in the body, but it can be ignored in             certain circumstances.    

-         “Knee roots” that rises up from the soil are considered to be bad, but they can be a counter balance element in certain slanting-trunk bonsai. This fault is similar to having too many roots on one side of the trunk.


-         The curve of the trunk should not come frontward like a pigeon’s breast. This simply explains the dimensional matter because such a curve will not be seen and will simply look like a straight line from the front due to the two-dimensional effect.


-         Bow shaped trunk is considered monotonous, boring and unnatural. This is not always true, however, when a proper composition is smartly done.


-         The recommended placement of the branches on the left, right, back etc., is indicative of proper composition and helps to create good physical volume. But in many styles, one-sided branches offer an interesting and different impact.


-         Lower branch should always be bigger than the ones above. This helps to indicate the normal growth of a tree. This element is also a matter of perspective – showing how we view a tree from bottom up. But in many cases, nature shows us exceptions to this idea.


-         The decreasing internodes space between branches ascending the trunk is another element of perspective, but disorder between internodes can offer a charming appeal.


-         Parallel trunks with no taper present a challenge to perspective, but the distraction can be mitigated in an innovative bonsai.


-         “Frog-leg” trunk formation is a fault owing to the problem of symmetrical composition, but such a formation can be adjusted to diminish the effect by repositioning the viewing angle.


In many cases bonsai do not look good because of inconsistencies of line and form.  For example, the dynamic trunk line of a literati style bonsai is topped by a dense, heavy, umbrella-like apex. Another example would be the combination of curving branches on one side with clip-and-grow zigzag branches on the other side.  Yet another could be the combination of one sparse foliage canopy with another fuller canopy on a twin-trunk form bonsai.


As said, textbook-true bonsai do not always look good. Although it may perform perfect root formation, good anatomical and optical balance, good dimension and composition which seems to follow the “rules” correctly, but it can end up with an awful design, unnatural and disintegrated in harmony. This is the result of “check-list” practice.


So, to create good bonsai there is no single pattern or rule to follow. One convention can be applied in various ways to account for different physical conditions and styles. Blindly applying the “check-list” of rules is like the Chinese proverb: Wu lun thun zhaoswallowing the walnut without breaking the shell. Breaking the rules in bonsai is not vandalism.


* The same article with pictures can be viewed at :





Premna  – The Stinky Lady



Premna is one of my favourite species for Bonsai. It is sub-tropical plant found in many countries e.g. Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia as one of the favorite species for Bonsai.

It was called “Chou Niang Zi” in Chinese which means “Stinky Lady” or even worse – “Stinky Bitch” due to the bad smell of the leaves.  But why a “lady” ? I think it is so beautiful, charming and feminine.


There are about 200 different species of Premna, some grow along the sea coast and some in mountainous area, some are real bad smell and some are not. Premna microphylla and Premna serratifolia are most likely used for Bonsai due to the unique texture of the trunk especially for the natural “jin-shari” as the result of natural forces as well as the leaves which can be reduced to extreme size.


The bright and shiny green of the leaves and the dancing twisted trunk is so passionate, so elegant, and I think due to this, then the name was “rehabilitated” and “upgraded” to “Shou Niang Zi” – “Long-life Lady”, credit to its dedication to Bonsai !


It is a very fast growing tree, tough, no problem with bare-rooted.. P. microphylla is suitable for Mame or mini Bonsai because the leaves can be reduced to extremely small. The size of new leaf is approximately 9 cm, but by proper pruning, it can be reduced to 2 mm (!) and the foliation can be very compact (see the above picture, compare the original size of the leaf with the reduced leaves after being trained).  


Following pictures shows the three different species of Premna with their leaves characters. “A” is P. microphylla which is found and mostly used for Bonsai in Taiwan, the leaf is thicker and can be reduced to extreme, suitable for mame but can be too small for medium to large Bonsai.  “B” is P. serratifolia found along the coaslines in Indonesia with its unique trunk lines and dead-wood. The reduced leaf size is suitable for medium and large Bonsai because it is not as small as the P.Microphylla.  ”C” is unknown exactly, also found in some area of Indonesia. The leaf is rather oblong and serrated, very thin, stronger odor. The leaf size is rather difficult to be reduced and not so compact, so this species is not so much used for Bonsai.

There are many more different species with different leaf characters which sometimes difficult to tell exactly…



(Different species of Premna with their leaves characters)


Due to the fast growing, the “Clip-and-Grow” technique is recommended to obtain a perfect canopy structure and can be dramatically exposed the defoliated presentation.

Premna is a perfect species for the expressionistic styles e.g. Literati, Windswept or Raft and for those who like the natural “jin-shari”.


* See the unique and interesting material for sale on the page :

   Indonesian Bonsai Expo.



Read my article about Literati at :



More articles to come…






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