American Bonsai or Bonsai in America?

By Walter J. Scott

The American Bonsai Society Essay Challenge

“What is “American Bonsai” and how should the ABS define “Native” in the context of American Bonsai as an art form?” – Susan Daufeldt, ABS Newsletter editor.

I submitted this essay to the ABS on May 1, 2023. The submitted essays were limited to 650 words. I am posting this now since the deadline for submission has passed. I plan to revisit the topic of American bonsai in more detail in a future post.

In the catalog that accompanied the Natives exhibit held in 2017 at the Pacific Bonsai Museum, curator Aarin Packard wrote that “American bonsai emphasizes the plants, geography, and culture of the United States”. I think that this is a very useful definition. However, Bill Valavanis recently told me that he believes that “there is no such thing as American bonsai, only bonsai in America”. Upon consideration, it seems to me that these two artists are actually saying something very similar.

At minimum, an American bonsai is one that was created in America (by an American). The definition of America can include Hawaii, Puerto Rico and other American islands or territories (if Canada and or Mexico are included, then one can speak of North American bonsai). Some suggest that to be considered American, a bonsai should be created out of “native” plant material. Below is one definition of native plants that applies to North America (Hawaii would require a different definition of native plants e.g., plants that were on the islands before humans arrived):

“Native plants are the indigenous terrestrial and aquatic species that have evolved and occur naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, and habitat. Species native to North America are generally recognized as those occurring on the continent prior to European settlement…”

-USDA forest service 

While an American can create bonsai with native plants (an American bonsai), this could still be considered a subset of “bonsai in America”. However, for there to be “only bonsai in America”, as opposed to American bonsai, one assumes that the activities associated with “doing bonsai” are the same in each region of the world, that they are performed for similar reasons and with similar goals of controlling or directing growth, promoting refinement, and maintaining health. Under those circumstances, activities such as pinching, pruning, fertilizing, wiring, root pruning and repotting, are actions that may indeed be performed in a somewhat similar fashion by practitioners throughout the world. 

But consider the actual first steps involved in “doing bonsai” – observing one’s natural surroundings, finding inspiration, collecting native material and/or cultivating pre-bonsai material. It seems obvious that bonsai artists in different regions are observing and finding inspiration in their own unique natural environments as well as accessing different plant material. Therefore, “doing bonsai” in one region of the world cannot be the same as “doing bonsai” somewhere else. 

We appreciate our natural environment based not only on our own perspectives. We are also influenced by the culture, the social environment, that we were born into or that we identify with. Culture affects both how we feel about an experience and also how we express those feelings. Much has already been written about the differences between Japanese and American cultures. The Pacific Bonsai Expo was a good demonstration of some of these differences as they appear in the bonsai world. This extends beyond the use of native trees (coast redwoods, ponderosa pines) to include the venue itself, unique displays (Michael Hagedorn’s shore pine display, for example), two free standing “bonsai art installations”, even to the way the show was judged. The Expo was both a result and a demonstration of cross-cultural exchange, and of differences in the way bonsai is practiced on either side of the Pacific Ocean.

So, American bonsai or bonsai in America, which is it? These two concepts are more similar than they are different. Bonsai practice in America cannot avoid being influenced by the plants, geography, and culture of America. Whether one uses native trees in a bonsai composition or not, I would consider a bonsai created by someone living in America to be an American bonsai. 

Copyright 2023, Walter J. Scott

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  1. Chase Rosade

    North American Bonsai covers it all

    1. artistreebonsai

      Hi Chase what do you think about Hawaiian bonsai? Is it necessary to mention it as American, tropical, or ?

  2. scdaufeldt

    Just read this, Walter. Really good. Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of the subject!

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