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Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Naturalistic Scots Pine - English

The naturalistic Scots Pine

By Walter Pall

This is the October 2009 version of an article which was published in 2005 in Bonsai Today in English and in 2006 in Bonsai Art in German in a slightly different version.


Since a few years the subject of ‘naturalistic’ bonsai is discussed in bonsai circles especially on the internet. Whenever it comes up the forums are getting lively. The subject has a tendency to polarize. Well, it is in a way the antithesis to modern abstract bonsai design, but this alone is not enough to cause such a lot of disagreement. One reason is that the concept is simply not understood by many.

The movement is having a following all around the world. I am known as a proponent, but I have not really invented it. I have only made the observation (which many others have made too) that too many bonsai looked like bonsai and not like trees would really look like. I had seen that the trend in styling is toward more and more refinement which often takes away all naturalness. I found that too many of these bonsai looked artificial, like they were made of plastic and not like they grew naturally like that. The hand of man is clearly visible. At the same time so many bonsai look like each other because they were all styled according to one single pattern. In nature there is an infinite number of patterns for trees to grow though.

So what is the concept? It comes from something that John Naka has said often : ‘do not try to make your tree look like a bonsai, rather try to make your bonsai look like a tree.’ That’s it. Not more, not less. So how do you know what a tree looks like vs. a bonsai? Is there a difference anyway? Well, give up looking at bonsai for your images and look at real trees. It is that simple. Does it take a genius to find that out? Well, one would think that everybody understands this immediately. They don’t! There are more misunderstandings than you ever can imagine. The major impediment is the way bonsai was and is taught. It is taught to make a BONSAI. The naturalistic style is the antithesis and thus must be wrong in the eyes of the average bonsai student and certainly when bonsai fundamentalists can voice their opinion. The most remarkable remark that I got was "bonsai has NOTHING to do with real trees!". Really? It is hard to believe. Well, if one sees how so many bonsai are styled this statement can even be left as is."Painting people has NOTHING to do with real people". How about this for a statement.

What’s the difference between a real tree and a standard bonsai? Real trees are not triangular if they are not young spruce, larch or redwood. Real trees do not have all horizontal branches when they are old: the branches are usually bending downwards on conifers and upwards and then downwards on broadleaved trees. Real trees do not usually have large negative space between all branches, where 'the bird can fly through'. There may be some negative space, but usually it is more for birds to fly in rather than through. Real trees do not always have a main branch which is the lowest one. Real trees do not have a clearly defined front, they have many good sides. If there is one good side of a real tree there are usually branches from top to bottom, the tree is not open. On real trees the branches are not ordered very nicely. These are the main differences but there are more.

A traditional bonsai is ideal, it is abstract. A naturalistic bonsai is realistic, which is the opposite of abstract. But it is never totally realistic. There is always a certain degree of abstraction. But it is never going as far as so many modern bonsai which are very groomed, very much refined, very ‘licked’ and too often look almost unreal. They certainly look like some human being and not nature has made them. Naturalistic bonsai is the antithesis to this development which has gone a bit too far in many cases in my opinion.

Too many people think they have understood this and let nature do the styling of their tree in a pot. They think that naturalistic styling is about just letting grow and edit here and there. It is called naturalistic because it is NOT natural. The trick is NOT to leave the piece of material almost as is and let nature do the styling. This is creating bonsai material. ‘Naturalistic’ means that the end result, the finished tree in a pot is supposed to give the feeling of an impressive natural tree that was never touched by man. It does not matter how this aim is achieved. In almost all cases this aim is achieved by very artificial means – not by nature!

Naturalistic bonsai has nothing to do with the method, but only with the result. Clip and grow and never using wire is an old method to create bonsai. Many think that this is naturalistic bonsai styling. It is not, but it can be. A hedge is created by clip and grow method; and it can hardly be called naturalistic. Many think that it is about not using wire. Well, look at the example here. Every single branch was wired at one point. The trick really is that in the very end this is not visible. The end result looks like it grew like this by itself. Really every single thing on this pine was ‘made’, ‘created’, by the artist. I wire all my bonsai heavily in the first styling phases, even non-conifers. I wire every single branch and branchlet usually – 100%. After a few years this must not be noticeable. The tree must look like it was never touched by human hands. It is hard work to get to this stage.

‘Naturalistic’ is not an excuse for lazy people, it is not about untidy looking trees, it is not a shortcut. I think it is at least as much if not more labor intensive as traditional styling. It is not about going back to the days when trees were not groomed as much as today, when bonsai trees looked wild and untamed.

Naturalistic styling is just another option of how to style bonsai.. It is perfectly OK to not like the whole idea or the end result presented here. It is an honorable opinion ti think that the aim was not reached in this example. But does this mean that the aim was wrong? It is perfectly OK to say that one has understood the direction but to decide to continue to work along the well known traditional paths. This is only a suggestion how one can also treat the art of bonsai. I am not telling you which way you HAVE to go, that you only have to work naturalistically from now on. It is also not necessary to change completely and radically. One can make bonsai just a bit more natural from now on. One can also make a decision by what the material tells you. Contrary to what many expect I do a lot of rather traditional and also modern trees: because the material tells me that this is what it wants to be.

Anyway, I think this naturalistic styling has added another option of general style which makes the art more interesting and creates a lot more variety. It can be more fun than doing another look-alike bonsai again.


1) image1, 1995: The pine was collected in spring of 1988 in the fields which have soil of pure sand around Berlin, Germany. It was planted into the ground first for five years and in 1993 it came into this growing pot. The substrate was very coarse, very well draining and aerating. With lots of water and an aggressive feeding scheme the tree became as vigorous as can be seen on the picture. After this stage one must be careful not to overdo it or the tree will grow to quickly and loose character. After a couple of years the branches are much shorter and the green is closer to the trunk. One of the biggest shortcomings of collected pines is the lack of foliage close to the trunk. It takes many years to get the green closer to the trunk. Most would have styled that tree already. This would have been a mistake. A tree with wire on it will grow much slower. First comes proper development of material and then one can style aggressively. The time lost in the development phase is well made up later on. Most collected trees are styled too early. Even if one would still decide to style it right now the crown would end up being way too wide anyway.

2) image 2, 1997: After another year of strong growth it is time for the first serious styling session. The needles are now much shorter because there are more foliage pads and the old needles were plucked in winter. Now the growth is well balanced and the structure of the tree is very visible.
The branches that will form the structure have been selected. The other ones were cut off close to the trunk. In the upper part of the crown some longer jins were created. It would not be such a good idea to leave too many jins; especially not in the lower area. The lower branches would have died long ago in nature and there would not be long deadwood. In the upper parts of the crown there may well be some deadwood. The remaining branches in the lower part look like they do have enough foliage. Well, actually they don’t but with proper care this can develop. The trick is to weaken the top in the future and to strengthen the lower parts which will then grow stronger.
The result after a year looks OK, but not too exiting. Well, we are spoiled from bonsai demonstrations and expect a masterpiece right after first styling. This is shown so often on stage and it is NOT what one should do really. It is perfectly OK to make something like this which may well look slightly pathetic to some. It is not important what it looks like right away. What counts is whether the best potential has been revealed, which can only be appreciated five years later though. Watch the fact that every single branch and branchlet has been wired! This is an important observation for a bonsai that is going to be called ‘naturalistic’ eventually. The style does not say anything about the method. The method is serious, complete wiring. The expected effect is to look like a natural tree eventually that no man has ever touched. At this point the crown is rather wide still. The main reason is the length of what looks like the main branch here but is really two branches put together. In modern styling it is normal to bring every branch down drastically and thus create a slimmer crown. In this instance it is not really feasible. The branch would touch the soil almost. Well, one could have gotten rid of it right away as was done a few years later anyway.

3)image 3, 2000: The pot is a bit voluminous but good for further development. The tree was watered and fed aggressively and now looks quite healthy. The needles are a bit too long because of this, but this is OK in an intermediate state. It is very important that the lower branches can really grow while the top of the crown is kept back. At this point the pine looks fine already. The style is rather a contemporary traditional one. Most people who saw it then liked it. But the lower branches will have to grow much more to get thicker and be better in proportion. The main concern is that the crown is too wide which is mainly caused by this long main branch to the right.

4)image 4, 2002: Now it is clearly overgrown. I looks like it had been neglected. But really it was pushed with lots of water and feed to be able to now get the foliage even closer to the trunk. Lots of buds have developed on the lower branches as well as in the crown. Now we can cut back severely and make the tree still much slimmer. It is way too wide for an elegant Scots pine. And a Scots pine should rarely look like a fat powerful modern bonsai. It has more talent for elegance usually. Especially the lower right branch, the main branch is very long and only has foliage at the very end. It appears dense on the picture, but this is a styling trick. In the long run we will have to make a decision here. So now we are at a junction concerning the future of this bonsai. It could well be brought back into a rather traditional style, only more refined than before. Or it could become a naturalistic bonsai. So what exactly would this look like?

5)image 5: One has to look at real trees rather than at bonsai trees to get some styling ideas. But any wild tree would not do. It has to be a remarkable one. Here is a picture of a wild Scots pine that my friend Michael Tigges took in Finland. Most people would agree that this is quite an impressive pine tree. Can it be used as a model for a bonsai? I asked this question on the internet forums at the time. The answer was an unanimous NO! The powers-to-be gave me a real hard time and crossed the border to insult frequently. Why that? Is it not a good looking tree? Well sure it is but it does not look like a bonsai at all! OK, where is the difference? It is absolutely not triangular and has more of a roundish crown which is even top heavy. It does not have horizontal branches and certainly does not have the branch layers with negatives spaces for the birds to fly through. If anything the birds can fly into this crown. It does not have one single main branch which clearly dominates the tree. It does not have these nicely groomed foliage pads at all, it looks rather untidy. It does have good taper but the nebari is not visible. Well we could change that. So is it an ugly tree? No, it is a great tree, it would only be ugly if it were a bonsai! Oh really? Did not John Naka say something along these lines: ‘make sure your tree does not look like a bonsai but rather make your bonsai look like a tree’? Well, here is a good looking tree and one cold at least try to get this feeling into a bonsai. And one way of doing this is to get some of the features of this tree into your bonsai. Well, they sure crucified me.

6)image 6, 2002: All old needles were plucked. The branches were shortened considerably and many smaller branchlets were taken out. It was decided that the former main branch had no real good future and that it had to go altogether. A stump was left at this point; but it could have been jinned and shortened right away. So another branch would take over as main branch? Not really, the concept of a main branch can well be neglected as long as there is a clear movement of the tree. This is just an intermediate result again and should not be judged as is but as to what potential it has. The upper left part of the crown is too wide or the lowest branch on the left is too short. The stump of the old main branch looks somewhat strange. Well, at this stage I shocked the internet community by declaring this a naturalistic bonsai. Everybody expected that now the second styling round would continue with wiring and bringing everything into proper, well defined layers and negative spaces so ‘the birds can fly through’. Well, I said ‘that’s it, it is almost finished, will only take a couple of years and give the feeling of a very natural pine tree then’. They crucified me for this, blamed me for throwing the art of bonsai back into the dark ages, creating MacBonsai, being a silly ignorant. Looking at the picture now I cannot blame them much. Like a mother who sees the future genius in her son I saw what actually came out a couple of years later, but they just saw an ill designed bonsai. This is a general problem: We are prone to expect a bonsai to look as good as possible at every stage. But this is not a good concept for development. Only the end result really counts. And usually it is better to live with an ugly tree in development, an ugly duckling which turns out to be swan some time later. But this concept is absolutely not an excuse for presenting mediocre styling as ‘bonsai in development and future swan’.

7)image 7, 2005: In spring of 2005 the tree was planted into this Chinese container which is flatter and has less optical weight. The trunk was turned slightly counter-clockwise to show better movement. Every single branch was carefully edited. But in such a way that the editing was not visible. It was supposed to look very much like the tree had grown exactly like this by itself. This is already the preparation for the Ginkgo Award in fall of 2005. All that’s needed now is the new growth of this year which should be as short as possible. Then the old needles can be plugged and it should look fine. Now it is important to slow down with watering and cut back on feeding. We certainly do not want too long needles now. This is much better than the preceding appearance. The left upper part of the crown was cut back and brought much closer to the trunk. The lowest left branch was lifted and a horizontal line was created to give the crown good optical stability. The lowest right branch, which actually is a back branch was lowered even further and extended to the right to give strong movement t o the design. But is it the main branch? I don’t know and don’t care really.

8) image 8, 2005: Now, in september 2005 the tree is in an exhibit stage for the first time. The old needles were plugged and the much shorter new growth of this year makes the tree appear bigger and older. The elegance of the trunk can be realized much better because the foliage in front was edited to make it much more transparent. But great care was taken to have enough foliage right in the front all the way because this is a regular feature of a natural tree. Some more slight editing was done and now it looks like it has always been that way. At least this is what was attempted here. The Chinese container contrasts well with the trunk and the crown. The optical weight of the container is small enough to make the tree look powerful, but not too small to appear weak. While powerful, the tree still looks elegant. Notice that I have the tendency to call it a tree and not a bonsai. This tree is almost finished now according to my present taste and the challenge will be to keep this appearance for many years. It was exhibited at the Ginkgo Award in September 2005. Sot hte entry at the Gingko Award was the very first public appearance. Where were all the critiques of the years before?

9) image 9, 2006: A pine has to be constantly maintained as bonsai. otherwise it will loose in quality quickly. It is a big misunderstanding to think that a naturalistic bonsai should be left alone and nature will do all the styling much better than humans. It will not, it will turn the tree into untidy material. So all the old needles need to get plucked in late summer to fall every year. Here in October 2006. Some branches will have to go and some will have to be edited with wire. guy wires at this state are a tool that I often use. Alex did all the work and it is interesting to see him besides the tree for size comparison.

10) image 10, 2006: One day after all the plucking and editing the pine appears in full glory again. The trick is to make this all look like nature died and and the tree was never touched by humans. During the active vegetation period which is from end of March to middle of October in my area. The tree is watered and fed aggressively. Prerequisite is very well draining modern substrate. This pine sits in baked loam 85 % and rough peat 15 %. It is fed about every ten days to two weeks with lots of nitrogen and watered much every day. Thus it will grow while being cut back and plucked and will develop lots of new buds to improve ramification. It is hard to understand for most that a tree in this state should be pushed aggressively to grow. But this I do.

11) image 11, 2009: As a result of all the watering and feeding the tree grows considerably. Here in fall of 2009 one can see that the trunk has become much thicker compared to the images ten years ago. The crown will have a tendency to get more voluminous every year. One has to work against this as it will take the size of the crown out of proportion compared to the trunk. The other shoots will have to be trimmed back. The pine has not been transplanted since ten years now. I will still leave it in that container for a couple of years. Collected conifers take decades to fill a pot with roots. Only then it is necessary to repot and cut back some roots at the same time. If one uses the right modern substrate which will not decompose the repotting intervals can be quite long with old conifers. I might look for a better handmade pot in the future though.

12) image 12, 2009: Naturalistic styling means to make a bonsai looking like a real tree and not like a bonsai. The styling becomes three dimensional versus the rather two-dimensional look of standard bonsai. Horizontal branches with clearly defined large negative spaces are avoided. Thus the tree will appear very strong tree-dimensionally with depth if seen in reality. If photographed this effect disappears and the crown often looks too dense and untidy. One sees the back branches crossing the front branches on a two dimensional photograph and it seems untidy. This is an unfortunate fact which means that bonsai in the naturalistic style are often underestimated when seen on pictures. Invariably people say "wow, this looks a lo better than I thought", when they see the same tree in person. While this is also true with many traditionally styled trees it is much more so with naturalistic trees. Anyway, with a white background the feeling that the the crown is too dense is diminished a bit.


  1. Hallo Walter,
    It is an excellent idea to make available all your knowledge and your publications on this way.
    Many thanks for it!

  2. Hello Walter,

    I must thank you for sharing your knowledge and ideas with us. I was wondering if some time you¨ll wirte a book with all these,I would sure buy it..

    best regards

  3. Thank you for sharing this example and progression .. Really gives a young enthusiast some perspective - so hard for me to imagine the 20-yr result when you collected it in '88.

    It's been almost another 10 years - any updated photos?

    Thanks for making all these articles available