"Dwarf Trees" from Current Literature

      "Among the Plants: Garden, Field and Forest" edited by Robert Blight (1900):

       We can scarcely enter into the plant houses of any well-known florist without having pointed out to us some diminutive tree, not more than a foot in height, the age of which is said to be more than a century.  Such peculiar specimens of the vegetable kingdom are brought mainly from Japan, and the collection of them, by those who can afford the expensive luxury, has become quite a “rage,” like the collection of china and postage stamps.  Those who have visited the ruined abbeys of England will remember many an instance of a yew or other tree which has taken possession of some coign of vantage, and is deliberately forcing apart the solid wall by its growth.  A section of the gnarled and twisted stem of such a one would show the rings of growth of many a year beyond what is indicated by the diminutive trunk.  The similarity between such specimens and the Japanese product is often striking.  One can scarcely say that the taste for collecting these dwarfs is one whit better than that which existed some three centuries ago for keeping on the list of a nobleman’s household some dwarfed specimen of humanity, such as the famous Sir Geoffrey Hudson, who was sent to the royal table in a pie.  They are unnatural, and useless except as merely ornamental curiosities.  Far different are those other productions of the gardener’s art in which beauty of form, color and scent are developed for man’s enjoyment.  A collection of Japanese dwarfed trees was recently exhibited in New York, concerning which we have the following description:

Miniature Landscape Gardening…………...................…….Every Month
       “Of the collection exhibited, it is said that it is the most perfect ever brought together, that the specimens are at once the type and the acme of the Japanese gardener's art; that to the Japanese mind they are the most beautiful, suitable and natural ornaments of a garden or dwelling that imagination can conceive, ingenuity devise and skill and patience execute.  Yet to the unthinking and uninitiated it could but appear a collection of monstrosities, pretty and interesting, it is true, but utterly artificial and grotesque.  Assuredly, if you were to search the forests of the world, you would never find the like of one of these Japanese trees.[sic]  We see pines, maples and other giants of the forest, obviously mature -- nay, more than mature -- gnarled and twisted with age, perfect in every detail, yet only a foot high, and springing from a pot six inches in diameter.  Again we have half a dozen varieties of great forest trees growing on a rock, the whole clump weighing about five pounds, pot included, and so it goes; spreading orchards, pathless forests and beetling crags, all capable of being contained in a Harlem flat.  All this may seem very frivolous, but some slight explanation of the idea which animates the Japanese gardener should render his curious creations more intelligible and interesting, and show that there is more in them than meets the eye of the casual observer.
       “When the Japanese gardener sets himself to lay out a piece of ground he follows up a distinct preconceived plan.   Primarily his object is like that of all artists, to give a true picture of nature as he views her.  Forests, rocks, waterfalls and the like are obviously too large to be included in a small garden or to figure as the decorations of a room.  The Japanese gardener aims, therefore, at conveying a realistic impression of these great things in miniature.  Take, for example, one of the tiny pines.  The gardener gives us an exact reproduction of what he holds to be the most beautiful and typical pine, an ancient monarch of the forest, gnarled, twisted and weather-beaten.  Such a pine in nature he chooses as his model and reproduces exactly down to the smallest twig and leaf by a process to be explained later.  The model will perhaps be 100 feet high and the miniature less than two feet, otherwise the two will be exact counterparts.  Such specimens are in the style called ‘Bon Sai,’ literally a tree in a tray.  Sometimes it is a combination of trees that is presented, maples, ilex and others that grow in close proximity in nature, the whole representing a noble grove and occupying a space of, say, one cubic yard.  Other ‘Bon Sai’ specimens portray familiar and beautiful freaks of nature, as for example, a maple where the roots have been forced above the ground; a pine growing under a rock with its shape grotesquely contorted; a pine, an ilex and a maple all growing from the same stem just as one sees trees jumbled up together in a thick forest.  All these strange dwarfs, however, be it remembered, are not patched up, glued-together things, but real, living, flourishing trees, putting forth shoots and buds with the vigor of the mighty redwoods of California.
       “But our Japanese garden artist does not content himself with merely imitating trees.  In the ‘Bon Kei’ style we have a more ambitious conception.  ‘Bon Kei’ means landscape scenery on a tray, or the reproduction in miniature of a landscape view embracing all the features of a native scene in detail that one can see in the perspective.  Usually the scene is some spot celebrated in Japan for its natural beauty.  To take an example from the collection, an island in the famous lake ‘Biwa,’ which is exactly reproduced by two trees growing on top of a stone to the height of two and a half inches.  Another example is the ‘House on a Rock,’ on the outskirts of Tokio, to recall which we have a tiny house, a stone and five diminutive trees.  Here again we have a more elaborate picture still.  It is contained on a dish of china porcelain, shaped like a specimen of Chinese fruit.  The inside of the dish is supposed to represent a lake; at one side is a piece of fern root, which plays the part of an overhanging crag, from which grows a tree bending down to the water.  Two fish made of rare Chinese jade are in the lake under the shade of the overhanging tree.  To a Japanese, and even to an American of imagination, this tiny scene cannot but convey an impression of coolness and shade.  But even such elaborate pictures as these give but an imperfect idea of the scope of the Japanese landscape gardener’s art.  In truth, there is no subject which the ambitious Japanese gardener will not endeavor to illustrate.  By a single shrub in a large pot he will give his notion of solitude; by a cunning arrangement of trees and stones he will translate the abstract idea of distance.  Even states of mind he will not consider outside his sphere, but will place his little stones and shrubs in such a manner as to express pensiveness, energy, joy, or, in fact, any emotion that could be the inspiration of a picture of statue.
       “But apart from abstract questions of art symbols and allegory, some of these dwarf trees possess great intrinsic value.  The pine-like ‘Chibo-Hiba,’ for instance, which dates from the twelfth century, when it was cultivated by Buddhist priests, is valued at $10,000, while others scarcely less venerable are quoted at anywhere between that sum and $1,000.  As may be readily imagined, the production of these pigmies entails considerable skill and care.  Take, for example, the dwarfing and shaping of a pine.  First, the very choicest seed is selected and planted in a suitable pot.  In the spring of the second year the seedling, which should be about eight inches high, is staked with bamboo and tied up with rice straw in the desired shape.  In the following fall it is transferred to richer soil and fertilized.  Next spring it is retwisted and restaked, and so on up to the seventh year, when it is planted in a smaller pot to prevent the roots from expanding.  For three years the new shoots are continually pinched off until finally the tree will have been effectually dwarfed and have assumed permanently [sic] the desired shape.  Its growth will then cease, but it will continue to flourish with the vigor of the stoutest monarch of the forest.  The dwarf bamboo is not generally operated upon until it reaches a height of five feet.  The trunk is then about three inches in circumference.  The first step is to remove the bark, piece by piece, from the plant.  After this has been continued for some five weeks, the stem is bent in and tied up.  Three months later the side shoots are cut off five or six inches from the trunk.  The tree is then dug up and potted in sand, no fertilizer being used.  In the following May or June the large shoots are cut off and this process is repeated annually for three years.  And so it is with every one of these strange miniature trees.  Each species must be treated in its particular way, and each gardener has his own ideas and methods.  The general principle of dwarfing and shaping, however, is the same in all cases.  The roots are compressed in a small pot and nipped from time to time, and the foliage is pruned and pinched until size and shape become permanent.  It is a toilsome business, and to some the results may seem trivial, but to the Japanese they are full of beauty and meaning.”

       As these dwarf trees are certainly very interesting, and well illustrate the way in which the art of man can produce what botanists call "monstrosities," which nature occasionally brings about by her own causes, it will be well to hear what experts have to say on the subject.  Some opinions will be seen in the following extract:

Japanese Dwarf Trees……................................………New York Times
       “It has been said from time to time that there was a good deal that was fraudulent about these little plants; that they were the result of but a short period of culture by the Japanese gardeners.  Experts, however, do not admit this.  Dr. N. L. Britton, Director-in-Chief of the Botanical Garden, said: ‘These trees are produced by taking advantage of natural conditions and propagating by cuttings or grafting on older stock.  Trees that grow in exposed positions will be dwarfed by the winds and unfavorable conditions, and by being propagated a race of dwarfs is obtained.  I do not think any of them are produced from seed [sic], for they would go back to natural conditions.  The maples, I think, are always grafted.  Many of these dwarf trees may be a hundred years old, but I certainly consider a statement that any of them were a thousand years old excessive.  They are not at all fraudulent, however.  People have become dissatisfied with them because, after paying big prices for them, they find that they will not live in the house.  They will not live without the proper conditions.  It is like trying to grow one of our maples in the house.  A wild tree would not live.  It would not have sufficient light.
       “’The first time I ever saw these Japanese dwarf trees,’ said Samuel Henshaw, the head gardener of the Garden, ‘was in the South Kensington Museum, in England, in 1864.  They had been brought there by some Japanese travelers.  They took then with the curiosity seekers, but we plantsmen did not take much stock in them.  They pander to a fashionable taste.  I think it is a perverted taste, though they are beautiful in their way.  The only dwarf trees that are valuable are the fruit trees.  By dwarfing them you can have a great variety in a small space in the orchard house and get fine fruit.  You get certain results that are valuable by dwarfing trees of that kind.’
       “’I have seen one of the dwarf trees,’ said Henry A. Siebrecht, ‘which cost sixty dollars in Japan, and altogether eighty or ninety dollars in getting it over.  It is 150 years old, and the grafts are forty or fifty years old.  From my knowledge and experience I should say that about two-thirds of the age actually given by the Japanese would be about the actual age of the trees.  The stock that is used for the “Chabo-Hiba,” which the Japanese most use, is the cedar, the “Retinospora filifera.”  These cedars are raised from cuttings or seeds, and by the time they are ten years old they are not thicker than a pencil.  They must be about ten years old before they are ready to receive grafts, and they may be thirty, forty or fifty.  Then they are grafted with little pieces an inch long, and sometimes hundreds of pieces are put into one little tree.  Then they are put under glass and are kept with the greatest care, so much light and so much heat, until the grafts are in perfect condition, when they are taken out to be developed.  The trees have been misrepresented here, for they have been called house plants, and they are not.  They will grow out in a veranda or in a tea house, but they will not live in the ordinary house.’"

       It will be seen that there is a variety of opinions as to the exact way in which the Japanese produce their dwarf trees, and that there is a suspicious uncertainty about the matter, as if they had “thrown inquirers off the scent,” just as they have hitherto done with regard to their marvelous morning glories.  The subject is worth following up a step or two further.  We therefore give the following extract:

Japanese Outdone in Dwarfing Trees…..................……Brooklyn Eagle
       “These dwarf Japanese trees have recently become the rage in New York and Brooklyn.  Some enterprising Japanese imported a quantity of them.  They made an immediate hit.  Some very fine specimens have been sold on the market at fancy prices.  One fine tree with an authenticated age of 350 years was sold for $350, or a dollar for each year of its age.  A Brooklyn dealer recently secured a lot of dwarf trees, among which was a cedar a hundred years old and twelve inches high, and a pine twenty-five years old and of the same height.  The secret of Japanese tree training is said to lie in the skillful pruning of roots and branches.  The roots of dwarf trees are cramped in small pots, on the same principle that the feet of Chinese women are stunted.  In addition the trees are periodically taken out of the pots to have their roots trimmed.  The gardener’s skill is displayed in trimming just enough to prevent growth, yet not enough to impair the health of the tree.”  (Now take notice of the suspicion suggested above.)[sic]  “It is said that in the course of a hundred years or so, these pigmy trees become so accustomed to having their roots trimmed that they really enjoy it, and when the time approaches for the periodical pruning, they wave their little limbs in eager appeals to the gardener to take them out and clip their roots. [sic!!]  This part of the story, however, is not vouched for; it is merely given for what it is worth. 
      “Hugo Mulertt, curator of Packer Collegiate Institute, has mastered the Japanese art of dwarfing trees so thoroughly that he could grow a whole forest in a hall bedroom and yet not crowd the furniture.  While the Japanese confine their efforts largely to evergreens [sic], Mr. Mulertt has made a specialty of dwarfing deciduous trees.  He has some fifty specimens, principally maples, but also including larches and bamboos, all twelve years old, and from six inches to two feet high.  Mr. Mulertt is an enthusiastic botanist, and twelve years ago he learned of the skill of the Japanese in dwarfing trees, and at once resolved to try it.  Since then he has made it a hobby.  Mr. Mulertt also grows dwarf fish (like the Chinese).  The method pursued in the case of both trees and fish are the same and extremely simple.  It is nothing more nor less than starvation.[sic]  At least, that is the way Mr. Mulertt expresses it.  In other words he gives both trees and fish just enough nourishment to keep them alive, but not enough to permit any growth.  There is this difference between the treatment given the fish and that for the trees; the trees need pruning, the fish get along without it.  Dwarf trees can only be grown in pots, for success depends upon confining the roots.  The roots must not be permitted to grow too large, for large roots mean a large tree.  Occasionally the maples start a shoot out of proportion to the desired size of the tree.  These shoots must be trimmed off.  After the leaves drop in the autumn the maples must be carefully laid down and covered first with leaves and then with earth, but not deep enough to prevent freezing.  In fact, the freezing is necessary.  The trees are buried to prevent snow and ice from breaking the delicate limbs and destroying the trees.  Dwarf bamboos must not be allowed to freeze. 1


1     Blight, Robert (ed.)  "Among the Plants: Garden, Field and Forest,"  Current Literature, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 258-260, June 1900;

     Note to fellow researchers: yes, the article does end without close quotation marks at the bottom of pg. 260.  The top of pg. 261 is the beginning of a completely different article -- discoveries of some ancient Egyptian ruins.

     From 1989 through 2010, this was the earliest known usage of the term "bonsai" in English.  It was then superceded by Yamanaka & Co.'s Auction Catalog," pg. 7 in 1899.

     The fourth paragraph of the first section ("But apart from abstract questions...") was apparently partly derived from the second paragraph in Izawa's 1893 article.

     See the full article about Mulertt here.

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