How to choose a bonsai pot

Overview

A bonsai cannot properly be appreciated until it is combined with its essential compliment, the bonsai container. In actual fact the word bonsai means a potted tree!

When choosing a container for a specific tree, were you to ask several people for their choices you would most likely get as many different answers. It is also very likely that none of these answers would really be incorrect. Selecting a suitable container for your tree is very much a personal decision and one should definately not rely on rules or popular thought to make this decision for you. It is an artistic decision, and you being the artist should make this decision for yourself. That said there are some suggestions which might assist or guide you along the way and help you to select a particular shape, finish or size of container. Being aware of these may aid you in finding a pleasing combination as the art of bonsai is not only the styling of a tree but also the image of the tree and container combined.

In Japanese bonsai the container should never overpower the tree. The container should complement and "elevate" the tree only. If ever in doubt and you have a selection from which to choose, pick an oval or rectangular bonsai pot which rounded corner, straight sides and plain feet. Where color is concerned, an unglazed pot or glazed pots which have a light colored glaze are preferred.

Its usually better to shop for a container once the tree has attained a certain degree of development as the "feel" of the tree should be echoed in the container. So for example if the tree is powerful a more masculine or heavier pot can be used. Feminine tree should be combined with lighter more delicate bonsai pots.

The width and length of the trees branches are equally as important as the height and the thickness of the trunk. The colour of the flowers, fruit and the bark as well as the leaves all play a role. This will be discussed in greater detail in this guide.

Lastly, aesthetic considerations aside, the size and depth of the pot will be influenced by the horticultural requirements of the tree species being grown in it. Some trees quickly consume the moisture in the growing medium and therefore require a larger container. Some require better drainage and therefore require deeper pots.

Size

There are two ways in which the length of the container can be calculated. The first method is that if the tree's height is greater than its width, then the length of the container should be around 2/3 to 3/4 of the height of the tree. If the width of the tree is greater than the height, then the container should be 2/3 to 3/4 of the width of the tree.

Usually the depth of the container should be roughly equivalent to the diameter of the base of the trunk. However this suggestion is certainly not going to work for younger developing trees, or trees with a more slender trunk. Therefore this and the preceding guideline should not be strictly applied.

Shapes

Aside from the influence of color and the basic essence of the tree in the selection of a suitable container, containers themselves might be active or passive in what they contribute to the overall feeling of the composition. There is a characteristic, however subtle or challenging it may be to define, that containers add to the composition. Strong trees have a strong, wide trunk, strong angular branches, heavily textured bark and finally a mature, surface root system. A feminine tree is the exact opposite, so a more slender trunk with flowing branches and a younger bark or a bark which is of a more juvenile color. Selecting a pot which is appropriate will enhance these characteristics, but selecting an inappropriate pot will create visual confusion.

The following are a few pot shapes and their influence on the composition

Square

Provide a sense of stability to a bonsai composition. When used to plant a cascade styled tree the square pot compensates for the flow and movement typical of the style. The cascading branches are also less likely touch the pot.

Rectangular

Used to add to the feeling of strength projected by a tree. Informal upright trees are usually complemented by rectangular shaped pots. A shallower pot will enhance the appearance of trunk girth, although please consider cultivation requirement when using shallow pots. Some forest plantings work very well in rectangular pots, generally this is when there are some masculine or thicker trunks in the composition though

Oval

Particularly suitable for deciduous species of bonsai. As far as styles go, the clump style and grove or forest styles work well when planted in oval shaped bonsai pots. Fruit bearing trees also look good in oval containers as do root over rock plantings.

Round

Can be used for both conifer and deciduous trees. They are also very suited to the literati or bunjingi styles and windswept styles. They can also be used for cascade styles but sometimes it's square pots are better for this style as branches are less likely to touch the pot.

Here is a quick reference guide to the classical styles and the container usually used to plant with:

 Style Container shape
Formal upright

Shallow or medium depth rectangular

Shallow or medium depth oval

Informal upright

Shallow or medium depth straight side, oval.

Shallow irregular oval.

Slanting

Shallow or medium depth rectangular or oval.

Irregular oval.

Shallow round.

Irregular round.

Semi-cascade

Round, square, octagonal, hexagonal, semi-deep.

Cascade

Deep, hexagonal, octagonal or square.

Windswept

Rock slab, shallow.

Shallow free form.

Shallow, rectangular or oval.

Literati or Bunjin-gi

Shallow round.

Shallow free form.

Twin-trunk

Shallow round.

Shallow free form.

Multiple trunk

Shallow or medium depth square, hexagonal, octagonal, petal shaped.

Rock slab.

Shallow rectangular or oval.

Sinuous root and raft

Shallow oval, rectangular.

Free form.

Rock slab.

Decorative features

Here are a few typical decorative features you may find on a bonsai pot and what influence it may have on the tree.

  • A lip on the upper rim of the pot provides a feeling of stability, even when a strong tree is planted into it.
  • Straight sides that slope outwardly at the top work well with delicate trees.
  • Straight rims have sharp lines, but do not detract from the strength of the tree.
  • Soft corners, essentially soften the outline of the pot and make it slightly more feminine.
  • Rounded corners make a bonsai pot look a lot softer and perhaps even results in it beginning to resemble an oval pot.
  • Feet with a cloud design make the pot appear older and more valuable. It also adds a degree of elegance to the bonsai tree planted into it.
  • Stepped feet provide a sense of stability and add a little interest to the tree.
  • Short or almost inconspicuous feet are stable, but add nothing to the tree so are ideal for feminine trees such as Japanese maples or Stinkwoods with delicate branching. Not all trees combine well with pots with ornate feet, so a bonsai pot with simple feet can harmonize with the visual strength of the tree while not over powering it.
  • Side panels on a bonsai pot will add a little interest to the composition of pot and tree. These work best with strong trees of a more formal appearance.
  • Reliefs or raised ridges will generally echo the shape of the pot. It adds interest but is not as dominant a feature as side panels for instance.
  • Pots without ornamentation on their side walls do not detract from the trees strength in any way and are well suited to informal styles and delicate trees.
  • Convex sides which bulge complement strong trees in informal styles

Unglazed pots

With conifers, unglazed pots are generally used although they can sometimes be used with deciduous trees. However unglazed pots can be found in different colour hues of clay. It is best to choose one which harmonizes well with the tree. Brown can be considered a universally acceptable colour as it is the colour of the earth.

Glazed pots - Selecting a glaze colour

When choosing a pot of a certain colour, usually one takes into consideration the feature of the tree which you wish to enhance and then select a complementary colour to that feature. It is not uncommon for a tree which is to be exhibited in a specific season, to be repotted into a container which will enhance the most attractive feature of the tree at that time. To help you better be able to choose the right color for the feature you want to enhance in a tree it is necessary to have a little understanding of colors and their relationships with one another. The easiest visual tool with which to do this is the color wheel.

The color wheel

As you know, visible light is light which we can reduce to a spectrum ranging from purple to red. A very easy to use and familiar representation of this which most people would have seen is the colour wheel. The colour wheel shown below depicts the 12 main colours.

Primary colors

As is suggested by the heading, these colours are the main colors in the wheel and are the colors which all the others are made up of.

Secondary colours

By blending the primary colors we are able to create the secondary colors.

Tertiary colors

The last colors which are created to complete the full spectrum, at least those which we will discuss, are the tertiary colors and they are made up of the colors between the secondaries.

Analogous colors

Colors which are adjacent to a specific color is known as an analogous color. When these colors are used they produce a sense of harmony and it is also the color scheme which is normally found in nature.

Complementary colours

The complementary colors are those which are exactly opposite one another and therefore they are also known as enhancing colors.

It is this color combination which is the one most often used when we combine a tree with container. This is as when such schemes are employed the one color enhances the other. To use an example, the pink color of a flowering coleonema will be enhanced by using a green container. This is as green complements and enhances the pink.

Analogous complementary colors

Analogous complementary colors (a mouthful I know!) are those colors which are immediately adjacent to a complementary color. On occasion when such a color scheme is used visual tension can result. However they are often used as its not always possible to find a container in a color which is the perfect complementary color to the color being enhanced.

Color triad

A color triad is simply a combination of colors which can be found the same distance from one another on the wheel. When these colors are combined in a planting they may produce uneasiness in a viewer. So in bonsai it is not advisable to combine these colors. For example, where green is the dominant color of a tree and where the fruit or flowers are pinkish dont use a blue pot. This would essentially amount to being a color triad and will not be pleasing to the eye.

Warm colors

When we talk about warm colors we're essentially talking about color such as red, yellow or orange. You will note they are all adjacent to one another. These colors give the viewer a sense of warmth and comfort. They also possess a feeling of energy. These colors are also said to advance towards the viewer.

Cold colors

Shades of blue to green are know as cold colours. These colors when used in combination with a tree can provide a feeling of freshness. In contrast to the warm colors, cold color recedes from the viewer.

The following colors are the most popular in bonsai containers.

Green

Green is the most prevalent colour in all bonsai. Colours which harmonize perfectly with green are earth tones. Dark green pots complement variegated plant species well.

Dark

Darkest pots are best to emphasize flowers as they are usually white in colour. With flowers of a colour other than white, use a colour pot which complements the colour of the flower. They are also always used when you wish to display a tree without leaves but with fruit, such as a quince.

Blue

Bonsai pots with blue glazes are very popular as they are very versatile in many compositions. Powder blue will best complement red berries of a Rockspray, the fiery red of Japanese maple leaves in spring or the winter branching of a trident maple. A medium intensity blue will be ideal for any tree with an orange berry such as a Firethorn or an orange flower. Dark blue is best for yellow berries and flowers.

Cream/Bone

Greyish bark like that found on maples, stinkwood and hackberry harmonize very well with very light coloured pots, such as the creams. Light coloured pots are also traditionally used when you wish to display fruiting trees with fruit and leaves. These light coloured pots are not distracting and therefore are focus the viewers attention more on the tree and less on the pot.

The following table is provided as a quick reference.

Main color of the tree Suggested color of the container
White Light yellow, green, celadon, matte red, dark or light blue, white, very dark colors
Yellow Dark green, dark without glaze, blue, celadon, bone color.
Red Light blue, dark blue, green, off-white
Orange Dark brown, green
Pink Blue, green, white, bone.
Blue Red, yellow, matte white, bone, steel gray.
Variegated or whitish leaves Black or dark green
Evergreen conifers Brown, reddish, black, unglazed gray, matte white.
Junipers Unglazed brown or reddish
Deciduous leaf of soft and delicate appearance Soft gray (with or without glaze)