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How To Find The Material For Shohin

Text, and photos by Morten Albek, Denmark
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When growing in the wild, Shohin bonsai demand a special living condition. So if you are going into the wild to dig up a potential bonsai, you have to find very special places, where the living conditions create small "pre-bonsai" trees for you. This will often be in areas with mountains and harsh living conditions, or where animals have eaten the top of the trees. In the case of finding proper material for Shohin, it is of course very limited to find such material the wilderness. But it is out there, and if one is lucky you might find it when on"yamadori" for the bigger trees.

Collected pine from a mountainous area. The rootball is wrapped in clothing and packed tightly in order not to break any of the vital roots.


Yamadori is the Japanese term for going out into Mother Nature to harvest from the wealth of natural trees. This method far often produces better bonsai because of the natural age of the trees to be found.

Wind, storms, sun, snow, ice, rain give the trees the shine of great age, that are one of the most important expressions of bonsai.

Mountainous areas have always produced beautiful gifts for bonsai lovers.

One of the disadvantages of the trips in the mountains is the difficulty to find the material. But far worse is the meaninglessness and harmful disrespect of nature. Some collectors have simply overdone their efforts to find the green gold and thereby discredited and spoiled the opportunities to collect in nature.

With signs of money in their eyes they hope to make profits by selling trees to enthusiasts.

Collecting in nature demands respect of the surroundings, and thereby one has to take great care and ask owners of fields for permission before collecting. Never overdo the collecting. It will spoil the future of bonsai.

It is very possible to find suitable material in an older garden, and even in some nurseries where time has allowed trees to grow old, but scissors have kept them down.

My friend Erik Broendel searching for future succes.

Nursery Stocks

The last example came true when I found an approximate 15-year-old Quince in 1996.

The small tree was still located in the same pot it was first planted in 15 years before I found it. This led to a gnarly structure of the roots which had been exposed to air and sun with the time passing. It created an interesting possibility to form the tree into the exposed root style called "Neagari" in Japanese. This story tells that sometimes one can find a good shohin in the neighbourhood and not only in the mountains.

The advantage of nursery stock is of course that a tree in a plastic container will have reduced roots to almost fit immediately in a pot. However, the specimen chosen has to have the characteristics of an old tree. It means an old gnarled bark on a mature trunk. And this can be difficult to find in a modern highly effective nursery, where nothing is left alone in a corner for several years. So go out into the country where there is a more "quiet" way of growing plants.

The Treasures Of Old Gardens

A garden" Yamadori-trip" is also a very good opportunity to dig up highly qualified Shohin material.

As with the case of collecting in nature it is possible to find aged material with great characteristics of old bark.

Some years ago, when I bought the house in which we are living now, I digged up some of the hedge planting.

The old hedge had been growing there since about 1930, my neighbours told me. The plants were "Lonicera nitida"and two of them were so interesting, that I decided to give them a second chance to live. And this has given them a total new life as Shohin bonsai.

Although they had nearly no roots at all they started to grow almost at once after they were planted in a shaded corner of the garden.

They have the characteristics of Yamadori material and were growing just a few steps away from my door.

Cuttings or seed

Another method of developing material for Shohin is to grow seeds or cuttings. The method will secure a little plant with controlled root volume and precise branch development. But you will have to wait some more years to develop the mature bark with cracks and character.

It will take quite some time to achieve a satisfying and natural trunk.

But if you want to grow very small Shohin bonsai,the "Mame"or"Bean" bonsai-that measures only up to seven cm in height-this technique can have some great advantages.

It is very difficult to find good specimen of that size in nature.

Norwegian Scots Pine from a Yamdori trip. It might be transformed into a beautiful Shohin some day. Collected and photographed October 2003.

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