The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 5: Gardens in Asia, America, Africa, Australia

Bonsai dwarf trees

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791. The dwarfed trees of the Chinese and Japanese, Mr. Fortune observes, 'have been noticed by every author who has written upon these countries, and all have attempted to give some description of the method by which the effect is produced. The process is in reality a very simple one, and is based upon one of the commonest principles of vegetable physiology. We all know that any thing which retards in any way the free circulation of the sap, also prevents to a certain extent the formation of wood and leaves. This may be done by grafting, by confining the roots, withholding water, bending the branches, or in a hundred other ways, which all proceed upon the same principle. This principle is perfectly understood by the Chinese, and they make nature subservient to this particular whim of theirs. We are told that the first part of the process is to select the very smallest seeds from the smallest plants, which is not at all unlikely, but I cannot speak to the fact from my own observation. I have, however, often seen Chinese gardeners selecting suckers and plants for this purpose from the other plants which were growing in their garden. Stunted varieties were generally chosen, particularly if they had the side branches opposite or regular ; for much depends upon this : a one-sided dwarf tree is of no value in the eyes of the Chinese. The main stem was then in most cases twisted in a zigzag form, which process checked the flow of the sap, and at the same time encouraged the production of side branches at those parts of the stem where they were most desired. When these suckers had formed roots in the open ground, or kind of nursery where they were planted, they were looked over, and the best taken up for potting. The same principles, which I have already noticed, were still kept in view, the pots used being narrow and shallow, so that they held but a small quantity of soil compared with the wants of the plants, and no more water being given than what was barely sufficient to keep them alive. Whilst the branches were forming they were tied down and twisted in various ways ; the points of the leaders and strong growing ones were generally nipped out, and every means were taken to discourage the production of young shoots which were possessed of any degree of vigour. Nature generally struggles against this treatment for a while, until her powers seem in a great measure exhausted, when she quietly yields to the power of art. The Chinese gardener, however, must be ever on the watch, for should the roots of his plants get through the pots into the ground, or happen to be liberally supplied with moisture, or should the young shoots be allowed to grow in their natural position for a short time, the vigour of the plant, which has so long been lost, will be restored, and the fairest specimen of Chinese dwarfing destroyed. Sometimes, as in the case of peach and plum trees, which are often dwarfed, the plants are thrown into a flowering state, and then, as they flower freely year after year, they have little inclination to make vigorous growth. The plants generally used in dwarfing are pines, junipers, cypresses, bamboos, peach and plum trees, and a species of small-leaved elm.' (Fortune's Wanderings in China, in 1843-4-5, p. 98.)