by Dorothy Franz
To some bonsai growers the pot for their tree is only a necessity and as long as it looks right, they are happy. To others the pot is of extreme importance as Bonsai to them is a philosophy and a way of life and they therefore go to great lengths to find the pot which would complete the total design. Most of us probably fall somewhere between these two extremes, as creating bonsai is our hobby, not hunting for pots.
However, to all of us the container has to satisfy the physical or horticultural needs of the tree as well as the aesthetic need. Before elaborating on these two factors, let us consider the history of how pots were made.
Pots for plants were first made in China about 1 500 years ago. The clay found to be most suitable for this purpose was on the west bank of the Tai-hu river. When the Japanese adopted the art of bonsai, all their pots were imported from China although there were six kilns in Japan, the Chinese pots being considered superior. One must remember that at first bonsai in Japan was only practiced by the very royalty and the rich. When the art filtered down to the common folk, one of the . potteries, Tokoname, started making pots specifically for this purpose. This was in 1868 and this pottery is still making pots today. It is named after the area in which it is situated in Achi Province. Today it produces about 60% of all bonsai pots sold from Japan.
With reference to pots you may come across words such as Kowatari, Chuwatari, Shinwatari or Shin-shinwatari - these are all Chinese pots which had been brought to Japan. The word "watari" means 'crossing' so Kowatari is old crossing, Chuwatari means middle crossing, Shinwatari - new crossing (after 1911) and Shin-shinwatari new, new crossing (after 2nd World War).
Very old Chinese pots (Kowatari) usually have no seals or markings as they were made exclusively for the Imperial court and therefore there was no need to mark them. These are true works of art, extremely expensive and rare. Japanese growers who have a prized tree, try to obtain an old Chinese pot for their bonsai.
In later years both the Chinese and the Japanese used seals or marks scratched under the pots to denote the potter or kiln and, sometimes, the date. The clarity of the potter's mark often gives an indication of the care taken in the production of the pot itself. Most pots today do not have crisp clear marks whereas those made by an acclaimed potter or kiln that takes pride in its work, are clearly marked. Marks should therefore be taken into account, when ascertaining quality. Many Japanese potters who have become famous studied under Chinese masters.
There are two main differences between Chinese and Japanese pots. The first is that the clay used in China is lighter in weight than that used in Japan, although nowadays the clay is mixed. The second difference is the method used to make bonsai pots. In China they use an inside mould only and the clay on the outside is moulded by hand. This allows them more variety in design. In Japan two moulds are used, one on the outside and one on the inside. Rims, feet and extras are then cut and added or moulded by hand. This method makes Japanese pots smoother on the outside.
That is the history. Now what physical qualities does your bonsai pot demand?
- A certain amount of porosity is needed.
- Good drainage is essential.
- Air circulation is required.
- Preferably it should be able to maintain an even temperature.
- It must have the strength to withstand the elements eg frost.
- It should last through time.
Porosity is achieved by the type of clay and by applying the glaze, if any, on the outside only. Earthenware or terracotta pots remain porous which is necessary for good root growth. By being porous the water absorbed by the pot is slowly released to the roots when needed. Unglazed pots have a slight disadvantage in that evaporation takes place from the outside and they have to be watered more frequently. Stoneware is also suitable provided it is glazed on the outside only. This allows water to be absorbed and also prevents evaporation through the outside walls. Pots glazed on the outside keep temperature changes under control and have added strength. Pots made from plastic, fiberglass or porcelain should not be used except for very short periods in the early growing stages.
It is obvious that bonsai pots must have sufficient drainage holes. These should be large and sufficient for the size of the pot. Be sure when choosing a pot that the bottom is even because if it is misshapen it could create pools of water that are unable to drain away and might cause root rot.
Pots should have feet or some means by which to raise them off the solid surface on which they stand. This allows air to circulate around them.
It is a good idea to soak your pot for 30 minutes before planting. The clay thus absorbs water and will not rob your roots of moisture. Another thing to consider is that the final pot your tree is planted into can only be chosen when your bonsai is fully matured. You will find that as your tree grows older you may have to change the pot several times and you must be prepared to do this.
As presentation is an important aspect of bonsai, the aesthetic need of your tree has to be considered i.e. appearance and proportion. There are basic guidelines concerning proportion which one can read up in most bonsai books namely that the depth of the pot should equal the trunk diameter except cascades which require deeper pots and that the length of the pot should be two thirds the height or width of the tree, etc.
A point often overlooked when planting is that pots have a front - in oval and oblong pots it is the long side, while in square pots a corner or a flat side may be used. In shallow hexagonal pots a flat side is used while in deep ones a corner or a flat side may be used.
In pots with three feet a foot may be placed directly under the trunk or the trunk may be placed centrally between two feet.
Colours are either active or passive. Pots may be feminine or masculine. These aspects should be chosen to match the mood of your tree. An ornate pot with decoration is active and is used for an informal design or flowering tree. Delicate colours require feminine trees whereas dark colours are used for masculine trees with strong lines, jins, etc.
Be wary of planting trees with vigorous root systems in pots with an inward lip as it may be extremely difficult to repot. For your bonsai to look attractive pots should always be clean. Unglazed pots can be cleaned with baby oil and then buffed.
It is advisable to have a selection of pots and I would like to encourage fellow growers to purchase pots when you see one that appeals to you, even if the immediate need is not there. In this way you can build up a stock and so avoid having to go looking for pots at potting time when you are most busy.
The making of pots started off as a folk art. It grew to become a worldwide hobby and today it is an art. There are many potters throughout the world and the variety available is increasing, glazes improving and all manner of shades to be had. There are potters today, who will make an individual pot for a client. All this has led to a growing interest and a new hobby has emerged. Pots are being collected for their own sake, particularly in miniature, sizes. The antique miniature pot is especially appealing as it can be attractively displayed but these are expensive and difficult to find.
- Bonsai by Anne Swinton.
- Bonsai, Its Art, Science,History, and Philosophy by Deborah Koreshoff
- Bonsai Techniques I & II by John J.Naka.
Pots depicted in this article, and many more, are available from us as direct importers from the East. View here or contact your nearest bonsai nursery or general retail nursery.