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: