THE IMPORTANCE OF BRANCH TAPER IN BONSAI
Is a bonsai ever ‘complete’? What improvements can be made to a well-ramified bonsai? Or does a bonsai remain in stasis once it reaches a certain point in its development, a finished work of Art?
The answer to these questions is a resounding no! A bonsai is never finished. This statement is something of a cliche amongst enthusiasts but it is also a statement that holds true. While the trunk of a bonsai is the anchor, the ‘base’ of any design that only marginally changes once the tree is growing in a bonsai pot, the branches are far more fluid and changeable.
Artistically, the branches are used to reflect the strength and age of the main feature of the tree, the trunk, and improvements to the impact that the branches have on the tree itself are relatively easy to make.
One of the best ways of indicating the great age of a bonsai to it’s viewer is taper in the branches. Just by taking a walk out into nature during the Winter and the evidence of the importance of taper is there for all to see.
Whether you are an avid bonsai or tree enthusiast or someone with little interest in the Art, it is immediately obvious from this image that the tree is fairly young.
To understand what makes a tree look old and to then be able to replicate this in a bonsai, first it is helpful to understand why the tree above is so obviously not very old. Study the tree as though seeing it out of context; in other words see it as you would a bonsai where there are no external visual references such as surrounding vegetation or nearby trees.
The first part of the tree that the eye notices (consciously or subconsciously) is the trunk. The trunk is very straight and this can often be an indicator of a juvenile tree but as anyone who has seen images of Dawn Redwoods with their 50metre plus trunks will testify, having a straight trunk is not conclusive evidence of immaturity.
However, the fact that the base and the top of the trunk are almost indiscernible in diameter does give a visual clue to age. In other words, the fact that there is little taper between the base and the top of the trunk.
The second part, or aspect, of the tree that the eye notices are the branches. On first glance they seem juvenile. Some enthusiasts would believe that the fact that the branches grow upward (rather than growing downward) creates this impression and accordingly will style the branches of their bonsai so that they grow downwards or on horizontal planes ‘to give an impression of age’. My belief is that this idea is incorrect and a bonsai consisting entirely of downward growing branches does not look like a real tree but a caricuture or cartoon-image of a real tree.
My belief is that the branches look immature because they lack taper. They lack taper from where the branches grow from the trunk to their tips, and also there is little taper from the trunk to the branches and relatively little difference in size (and there taper and scale) between the trunkbase (the thickest part of the tree) and the very tips of the branches (the thinnest parts of the tree).
These two trees were photographed just 50 metres further along the same river as the previous tree.
Seen out of context of their surroundings, it is still immediately obvious that these trees are considerably older. They create an immediate impression of age. But what are the key differences between these two trees and the juvenile tree pictured earlier. How can we apply these visual keys to our bonsai to increase their impression of age?
Unlike with the juvenile tree, it is immediately obvious that the trunk is old. But rather than this being because the trunk has movement (curves and bends) or the mature bark that is barely noticeable in this image, it is the taper of the trunk that shows us that the tree is considerably older. We know that the trunk must be big and wide and therefore old, because in contrast to the base of the trunk, the top of the trunk is much thinner.
The real key indicator of age in this image is the massive difference between the very fine branch tips and the trunkbase.
Multi-trunk Willows seen growing in a field in middle England.
This contrast of delicate fine twigs and a rugged, powerful trunk is emotive to even the undiscerning viewer, and is much clearer to the eye than the fact that the trunk itself does or doesn’t have taper or whether the branches grow upwardsor downwards! And this is why taper is so important in bonsai, we need to replicate the naturally occurring visual clues that nature itself provides for us.
An old Oak seen growing in a field near Manchester UK.
This Oak photographed in Norfolk, UK is an excellent example of the power of taper as a visual clue of age. As a 50cm tall bonsai this tree would break so many of the old ‘rules’ that it would no doubt be cast aside by anyone trying to create a classically-styled bonsai. However, despite what would be described as ‘faults’ in bonsai circles, this is undoubtably a beautiful tree of impressive age and stature, one that could be studied as well as enjoyed for many years.
Modern-day thinking in bonsai is that if we are trying to imitate the natural beauty of trees rather than creating abstract cartoon-copies of other bonsai we have seen and there are now a number of bonsai artists around the world that are using nature’s visual clues (including taper) to create high-quality bonsai art.
So how do we apply taper to the example of a deciduous tree branch? And how can this branch be improved further over the forthcoming years?
The example branch from Part Three after approximately 5 years development. It has now reached the size and length required for it to fit within the overall silhouette of the bonsai. If in the future the branch is simply pruned back repeatedly to keep it in shape it will slowly increase the ramification (number of tertiary branches) to an impressive number. The density of the foliage will greatly increase and leaf-size will be reduced. Both of which will create a good impression of age in the bonsai during the growing season. However, the taper of the tertiary brannches will be slowly lost and the taper between the branch base and the branch tips will slowly diminish.
Over the course of a number of years the tertiary branches will continue to thicken but for various reasons the primary and secondary branches will barely change in diameter and eventually the branch will look like that above. As already noted, the ramification of the branch is impressive but as the taper disappears so will the true impression of age.
So how is the the branch rejuvenated? Quite simply, by pruning it back very hard and rebuilding it. Bonsai are said to be never finished and this is a good example of what this cliche actually means. Bonsai is a unique artform in that unlike other pieces of art, a tree is forever changing, however subtly. Though removing the ramification of the branch can feel very much like a step backwards in the development of the tree, long-term it is a large leap forward.
The branch is cut back hard to a smaller diameter secondary branch that becomes the new primary-branchline. This work can be carried out in the summer but it is preferable that the branch can be studied clearly before making such major alterations and so I prefer to carry this work out during the dormant season when the tree is clear of leaves.
The newly pruned branch is then wired and reshaped as necessary.
At the beginning of the following growing season new shoots will begin to appear that in comparison to the existing primary branchline are considerably thinner. Despite there being only 4 or 5 secondary shoots the branch already has a more aged appearance than before it was pruned, simply due to the massive increase in taper.
With just 18 months of rebuilding the branch ramification will have started to build up and when compared to the its appearance after 5 years development, the illusion of age is very apparent. The process of rebuilding the tree can, in theory, be repeated over and over again for the duration of the life of the tree. Which is likely to be a very long time leading to incredible taper and a magnifi cent illusion of age!
REDUCING THE TIME TO DEVELOP HEAVILY TAPERED BRANCHES
As bonsai enthusiasts, many of us are used to the concept of field-growing trees to greatly reduce the time taken to develop a trunk for bonsai. Allowing free growth in the trunk leader encourages the fastest possible thickening of the base and dramatic trunk taper in the future.
Exactly the same techniques can be used to create branch taper. Rather than then developing the trunk in a container as I have described in this chapter, the stump can continue to be developed in the ground, this time with the emphasis on building branch taper.
Though this increases development time in the ground and delays the transition of a tree into a bonsai pot by another 10 years or more, the long term results are branches of the highest quality in a shorter time frame.