I’m going to get really irreverent here. I’ve been tinkering with bonsai for about six years now. I’ve found peace working on bonsai that I haven’t found doing anything else. But, there’s a sort of attitude out there with bonsai. A certain, well, vibe that kinda comes across as snottiness that I can easily see rubbing someone the wrong way.
You probably don’t want to irritate your friend the bonsai lover. Most likely you were talking to someone about their bonsai collection. You’re pretty sure you said something wrong but aren’t sure what.
The people I’ve met doing bonsai have been wonderful, friendly, helpful, and warm. But there’s no doubt that there’s a sort of veil of custom and tradition around the hobby that you can’t firmly grasp or label. Here are the things, so far, I’ve found to piss off some members of the bonsai nut community.
- Insist on calling it a “bonsai” – Bonsai is actually pronounced, “bone-sigh.” Those who get serious about bonsai do indeed pronounce it bone-sigh. The literal translation is something close to tree in a tray or plant in a container. Some of those in the know will shake their heads and scoff at the ignorance of the muggles who don’t know how to pronounce the word appropriately.
- Call them anything but trees. In regard to someone who was a transvestite, I was once told that if someone was trying that hard to look like a woman, it’s polite to call them one. Similarly though shrubs, bushes, herbs, and other plants can be made to look like miniature trees, most just call them trees. I have a hard time swallowing this. The extreme humility streak in me has a hard time with this. It’s a bit like when I tried to run and would go out for long walks. If I’m walking 4/5 of the time, calling it “running” to me seems far-fetched. However, I have met few if any others who shared this philosophy. Call them trees or you’ll get a funny look. Even if it’s a shrub you picked up from Home Depot yesterday.
- Refer to the bonsai as if it belonged to the owner or artist – Bonsai is a niche business, but it is a business. There are bonsai professionals whose living is based on making and or selling trees. As such there are those with deep pockets who can buy bonsai that isn’t $35. They can buy real art specimens that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. One sure-fire way to irritate the hell out of someone, call a tree from someone who purchased it the property of the creator. Conversely, call trees created by an artist and sold to someone else the property of the owner. Either way you’ll piss someone off.
Those who grow bonsai professionally are proud of their work.
Those who buy bonsai appreciate them enough to pay a lot for them, and do indeed own them. Owners usually have a hand in bonsai care after they’re purchased. They’re keeping them alive and take care of them, just like someone who purchased a tree from a nursery and shaped it. They may take part in the decision making of how these trees grow, make changes to their care and those things do deserve a nod of appreciation as well. They’re also likely proud of their collection the same way someone else might be proud of their collection of thimbles or stamps or Hard Rock Café T-shirts.
In the bonsai world, the person who makes a bonsai is considered an artist. The training and shaping of the material is really the core of the work in creating a bonsai. Most bonsai professionals see keeping a bonsai alive as a lesser accomplishment. I once heard the suggestion that you’d need to keep a bonsai for at least a couple years and make at least one substantial change to any bonsai material you’ve acquired from someone else before you can call it your own. That is, you trim it or keep it alive or wire a few branches in different directions, and then it’s another artist’s work that you keep. If you had that same tree, and over the course of two years cut off two major branches, reduced the height of the tree by 1/3 (or grew it significantly), or otherwise significantly changed the shape and size of the tree, then you can claim it as your own. Until then it’s something someone else did that you just take care of. That’s just an opinion I’ve heard, but it’s a good one.
- Touch/bend/water/move/ mess with their trees. Bonsai are finicky and it may take quite awhile to find the right location and amount of water that the tree in question likes. Moving someone’s trees or altering their water or sun for some reason is likely to irk the owner who spent a considerable amount of time finding the right place for them. (This is like when my toddler decides to water or pull the leaves off my trees.)
- Not precisely follow instructions when watering trees for an owner on vacation: My top cause of loosing trees is either watering related issues, or having someone else care for them while I’m away from home (which probably involves a cause of death again related to water issues.) Bonsai are finicky and not following instructions exactly could just kill their trees. A tree won’t cry like a dog when you walk in the door, but they can be just as badly hurt if you neglect them. If you say you’ll care for someone’s trees on vacation, skipping a day or two is a big deal.
- Insist you know the best soil / tools / product to use. Bonsai growing is a bit like making your own pasta sauce or guacamole. Everyone has their own recipe and they like it that way, thank you very much. They also probably have a reason for making it like they do, and may have been making it that way for a couple decades.
- Disrespect a fellow bonsai nut: The bonsai world is small, and boasting that your method of doing something is far better than someone else’s may not be the best way to go. If you think you’ve found a better method for doing something by all means, tell others, showcase your new practice, but watch yourself when you finger point or call names. If you think the practice of repotting to do the heavy work in creating a semi cascade is overdone, keep it to yourself.
- Read a book or take a class and think you know what you’re doing. By it’s very nature, bonsai is a hobby that people practice for the long haul. Plenty of people practice bonsai for decades, even for generations. Someone who comes in and sits down at the table for the conversation that is new is mostly expected to be asking for advice.
- Suggest anything not in line with best practice: Go ahead, say you think the bonsai tree needs a mudman or you’d like the pot to be painted purple. Even worse, talk about how you had one once you got from a florist and it was BETTER than theirs because it had this feature. Bonsai lovers tend to have a touch of gravitas for Japanese traditions and customs. Even the notion that you might like it better another way can mark you as ignorant. Insistence that it’s better another way might garner you contempt.
Understand that some of these traditional practices in bonsai are based on logic. For example: the largest branch goes on the bottom, with branches going up being successively smaller, because that’s generally what trees look like. Some practices are based on generally agreed upon aesthetics. For example, generally speaking odd numbers and triangle shapes are more aesthetically pleasing so employing these shapes and figures in bonsai makes sense.
A little further down the slope there are rules like the pot should frame or support the tree, enhancing the presentation but not outshining the beauty of the tree. Thus a flowering bougainvillea might be put in a blue glazed pot but a pine stays in an unglazed pot.
Those sound well and good, but the things is; there are a lot of “rules” or guidelines on how to make “good” bonsai. This can get tiring. Where the line falls between what is logically and conventionally beautiful, and what is for all intents and purposes a club of secret tricks and terminology is up to the viewer.
- Offer to buy one of their trees, for a small sum. Those who make bonsai usually consider themselves artists. For those who do it professionally, this is their bread and butter. Numerous hours go into each tree. The older and more impressive, usually the more hours of work. Offering a low price is tantamount to putting a low price on their time and expertise. Lets say a tree is three years old, or three years in training. If the owner or artist spent a conservative 10 hours in watering, fertilizing and daily care (that’s 1.64 minutes a day) as well as 2 hours of work such as wiring, trimming, or repotting in a year that’s 36 hours over the life of that tree with that owner. If you offer them $40 for that tree, you’re saying their time is worth $1.11 an hour.
- Fail to be interested: The person doing it has likely invested a considerable amount of time and money on this hobby. If they think it’s worth that attention and you don’t, that’s fine. But much like anyone who is a big fan of any hobby or interest, that is yet one more thing you don’t have in common.
- Fail to be impressed: Creating bonsai is difficult. When someone grows plants in their yard or in pots, they are taking plants out of their natural environment and trying to make them not just live, but to grow and thrive. Bonsai is more difficult than regular yard plants or potted plants because you narrow the parameters and materials you have to work with. It’s more the extreme end of the scale of unnatural-ness. Watering, sun, fertilization, potting, repotting, wiring, trimming, understanding where and what to cut all take skill. Doing it for years so as to make the product truly remarkable is all the more impressive.
- Steal their work – It doesn’t happen often and it isn’t talked about much. But it does happen on occasion that people get their bonsai stolen. This is as low as it gets. It’s immoral and illegal. Anyone thinking of it should also be aware that there are methods like RFID tags where owners can track their trees.
In short, many bonsai lovers are fierce about their trees. Tread lightly with any insults and give them a nod of respect. Bonsai-ing is harder than it looks. If you’re new to the bonsai game, you can always respectfully ask questions, that usually goes well, and you might just learn something too.