Whether you're a longtime aficionado or have just a passing knowledge or curiosity about bonsai, “Bonsai: A Patient Art” will provide an extraordinary look at this ancient practice.
Published by the Chicago Botanic Garden, home to a world-class bonsai collection, in conjunction with Yale University Press, “Bonsai” does a beautiful job of not only explaining the basic principles and techniques, but of illustrating them, using more than 60 examples from the Botanic Garden's collection.
Bonsai are normal trees and shrubs that have been trained to grow into particular shapes, in pots. The practice, with origins in China more than 3,000 years ago, is as much spiritual as horticultural. The trees are created and maintained for aesthetic purposes and to tell a story.
The Garden features more than 200 bonsai trees, many a century old, making its collection the fruit of a collaborative effort. The same can be said of the book. Heading the project was consulting curator Susumu Nakamura, who has served as director of education for the Nippon Bonsai Association and director of Bonsai Clubs International.
As he explains, "Unlike other arts that express through shape and color, bonsai involves living things, always growing and changing. ... Bonsai hone our awareness of the bittersweet beauty and impermanence of life and encourage humble acceptance of change and the passage of time."
Others involved in the book include Ivan Watters, curator at the Garden and a bonsai master; editor Terry Ann R. Neff; and photographer Tim Priest.
The book opens with an essay that explains the philosophy of bonsai, and, using examples from the Garden's collection, shows the five essential styles: formal upright, informal upright, slanting, semicascade and cascade. (There are more than 100 recognized styles in all.)
Then follows the individual bonsai from the garden. Each is beautifully photographed and comes with its own profile — style, age and size are all listed, along with an explanation of the plant. In all, it's a most enjoyable presentation.
William Hageman is a Chicago Tribune lifestyles reporter.
"Bonsai: A Patient Art"
Chicago Botanic Garden in association with Yale University Press, 166 pages, $40