Mosses for Bonsai

Spurred by a recent question from a Bonsai enthusiast in Wilmington, NC, let’s discuss this art form and how mosses can enhance these miniature landscapes that feature trees. The textures of varied mosses and shapes of mounds and green carpets underneath these tiny trees help emulate the desired effect of a natural environment. The Art of Bonsai is found world-wide today. True Bonsai creations are not dwarfs but normal trees that are trained to stay small through the expertise and patience of Bonsai gardeners. You may choose to grow Bonsai either inside your home or outside in your garden. Serious Bonsai followers spend years perfecting their art and strive to incorporate the methods of the masters.


The origin of Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is cloaked in myths but it is commonly accepted that the technique began in China over a thousand years ago during the Han Dynasty. Zen Buddhist monks introduced these tree containers and diminutive landscapes to Japan where it progressed through the monasteries and became was a privilege of the rich sometime during the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333). Later the art of Bonsai was embraced and treasured by the general public. Native trees such as maples, azaleas, and pines were gathered from nearby forests as the focal features. As the art developed, these trees were manipulated with wires and skewers to fashion gnarled shapes. Ranging from a couple of inches to several feet, trees were trained to grow slowly and to keep their small size.


In America today, Bonsai continues to grow in popularity as a lifelong hobby. There are many approaches and schools of thought but true Bonsai are real trees trained to stay small not genetically-engineered dwarfs or root starts. If you purchase one of these “Bonsai” plants or dwarf trees from a garden center or nursery, it can serve as the beginning of your Bonsai adventure. However, it takes years of practice and lots of patience if you follow prescribed methods to achieve Bonsai authenticity.


Whether you are a Bonsai master or a novice, mosses will complement your tree or landscape.








The gardener’s adage of right place, right plant applies in the world of Bonsai. Not every moss will work. Knowing your soil pH is critical. Base your bryophyte choice first on mosses or liverworts that like the same soil balance as your tree. Consider the expected sun exposure and whether it will be placed in the shade or sun. Mosses vary in their growth habits… some spreading like a ground cover while others grow in mounds offering options for enchanting Bonsai landscapes with rolling hills, valleys, and “mini” mountains. When your mosses sport additional colors from male cups and sporophytes, you’ll know that they are “happy campers.” Sporophytes offer a spectrum of colors as do male cups, particularly Atrichum and Polytrichum cups display intense oranges and bronzes. These colorful reproductive phases offer another whole dimension to the concept of Bonsai’s impressive miniature landscapes.


The key is using the right moss for the soil pH and a maintenance regime appropriate for your Bonsai tree. Since trees don’t require as much moisture, just any ol’ moss may not thrive. Bryum argenteum and other Bryum species as well as Ceratodon purpureus have been used on alkaline soils and tolerate dry regime better. These types can be found in sidewalk cracks or edges of parking lots in urban areas. Atrichum and Polytrichum offer a totally different appearance and texture with taller upright growth habits. The Mnium family of bryophytes with translucent leaves provides an option for more moist condition spreading more horizontally. Other “carpet” mosses that may be used are Thuidium, Ctenidium and Hypnum.


Bryum and Ceratodon are slow growers since mosses they grow upright in tight colonies with little outward expansion. They are velvet to the touch. One Bryum type stays brilliant green even during droughts. “Sidewalk” mosses will work best on alkaline soil substrate. I’ve known several bonsai folks that like to use “blue” moss which is Bryum argenteum. It has a silvery, blue sheen. Its common name is silver-tip moss or sidewalk moss. Mosses which grow prostrate, or “carpet” mosses, tend to be among the fastest growers. These fern-type mosses may even start to creep up the Bonsai tree trunk.


Please note that if your mosses turn brown or dry out, they may be transitioning, and in time, with watering, they could rebound back. They may not really be dead. Given patience, you may be pleasantly surprised. If you keep your Bonsai inside, you’ll definitely need to mist/spritz them every day. To thrive indoors, more frequent mists may be needed due to low humidity from heat or A/C.


In June 2009, I did a workshop in Charlotte with the Bonsai Society of the Carolinas. My own Bonsai log creation is still thriving in my moss garden. However, in my moss demonstration, I used a dwarf conifer, not a real Bonsai tree, with Dicranum scoparium, Thuidium delicatulum and Atrichum angustatum mosses along with supplemental Polystichum and Appalachian Polypody ferns. Another Bonsai creation looms like a mountain featuring Leucobryum glaucum and a lichen, Cladonia crystatella. Both of these Mountain Moss interpretations include dwarf conifers as the feature trees. I have not really explored the art of Bonsai by meticulously maintaining and manipulating the trees myself. I’ve only snipped here or there. I would say they are just “quasi-Bonsai” in that sense. In my own moss garden, I have been nurturing several “baby” hemlocks (Tsuga sp.) and monitoring them for the killer adelgids (thankfully, no fluffy white sitings at all in past 2 years). My favorite is as authentic as the original Chinese Bonsai collected in the wild. It was found in a nearby forest growing from a decaying stump and it’s now a focal point set off by dramatic black pebbles surrounding the majestic centerpiece.


In my region of the country, I would recommend a visit to The North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville to explore their Bonsai collection and perhaps attend the annual Bonsai Expo. Bonsai beginners and experts can attend workshops and find an extensive selection of Bonsai trees at Randy Clark’s place in Charlotte, The Bonsai Learning Center. Although not Bonsai trees, dwarf conifers and azaleas provide a pleasing alternative. Nestled in the mountains near the Forks of Ivy, Mountain Meadows Nursery, owned by Michael Balogh offers outstanding dwarf choices ranging from a minimum of 3 years to 15-year-old tiny trees.




Happy Holidays to Moss Lovers and Bonsai enthusiasts. Go Green With Moss… for Bonsai!



Photographs of Bonsai by Randy Clark, www.bonsailearningcenter.com

Photographs of Bonsai interpretations featuring dwarf trees by Annie Martin, www.mountainmoss.com


Background references for this Mountain Moss Blog posting included the following Web sites:


http://bonsaisite.com/intro1.html


http://www.celestialbonsai.com/


http://www.bonsailearningcenter.com/


http://www.ncarboretum.org/exhibits/outdoors/gardens-collections/bonsai/


http://www.mountainmeadowsdwarfconifers.com/




7 Responses to “Mosses for Bonsai”

  1. 1

    Hi all,

    If you want to know more about bonsai you can visit Bonsaimania page:

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bonsaimania/82869747524

    Best regards.

  2. 2
    Jeff

    Have you considered a Facebook page? I think it would help get the word out about all that you do.

  3. 3

    Hey Jeff… Yes, I have several Facebook pages. Go Green With Moss group is my main site for posting comments about mosses. Also, I have a biz page for Mountain Moss and a Mossin’ Annie friend page. My main contact with friends on FB is through my personal site: Annie Martin, Pisgah Forest, NC, USA. I invite any moss lovers to “friend” me. Just mention the magic word, Moss, and we can connect on Facebook.

  4. 4

    Awsome site…

    There is clearly a bundle to know concerning this. I suppose you created some good points in features additionally….

  5. 5

    Hey “Mr. Bonsai”,
    Thanks for your positive feedback. While I possess a measure of expertise regarding bryophytes (mosses) and their role in the creation of impressive Bonsai, I would certainly defer to Bonsai experts who spend many years developing skills and techniques. Bonsai is a respected art form. Mosses enhance the trees and complement the concept of creating a miniature landscape. With proper care, the Bonsai trees and mosses should provide many years of pleasure.

    I just gifted a beautiful Juniper Bonsai to my dear brother-in-law for Christmas. It was a combination creation with the President of the Bonsai Society of the Carolinas. This Bonsai has been living between Charlotte, NC (Piedmont) and Brevard, NC (Mountains) for the past year. Kept outdoors, occasional supplemental watering has kept it thriving even in freezing temperatures of winter and the scorching temps of summer. I’m happy to share this Bonsai with such a special person in my life.

    Please share photos of your own Bonsai treasures with us on our Facebook group, Go Green With Moss! Thanks for your comments!
    Mossin’ Annie

  6. 6

    Could you message me with some hints about how you made your site look this good, Id be thankful.

  7. 7

    Thanks for your positive feedback. My Mountain Moss Web site has been designed by ME and my talented son, Flint Barrow. By combining my photography and design background with his html skills, we have tried to provide a user-friendly interface with graphic appeal and valuable content.

    Go Green With Moss!
    Mossin’ Annie


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