Country & Garden: When small is beautiful

Next week, the best of bonsai is on sale at Sotheby's - and these days, a tiny tree can be worth a small fortune
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The Independent Culture
Grow your own antique," muttered a friend, on learning that Sotheby's, the London auction house, had been asked to sell a collection of bonsai trees belonging to a German enthusiast. The most expensive lot is a Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata, which is reputed to be at least 600 years old.

The yew is trained as an informal upright, one of eight recognised bonsai styles. The pads of foliage balance elegantly on the gnarled stems; the roots flow like lava over lichened rock. It is a mountain giant shrunk in the wash, perfect in every detail but only 31-and-a-half inches high.

This tree was once an imperial pet, a favourite of the Emperor Meiji (grandfather of the present Emperor). Every year, the Emperor made a pilgrimage to the island of Hokkaido to inspect the herring catch. The yew would be waiting for him, set into an alcove in the bedroom of his Otaru hotel.

So how does an Imperial toy such as this end up in a Sotheby saleroom? Because of an obsessive German called Helmut Ruger. Banking was his life until, in his early thirties, he went on holiday to Japan. Never having seen a bonsai tree in his life before, he came back a convert. He gave up the day job and set up a nursery at Schoneck, just outside Frankfurt, where he specialises in these exotic miniatures. Now, he has more than a thousand of them.

The yew, acquired from a Japanese bonsai master, is one of 25 bonsai trees which Ruger has put up for sale at Sotheby's this Thursday. Bonsai, of course, need to be kept outside rather than in. The good news is that the Japanese yew is hardier in cold areas than our native yew, Taxus baccata. The bad news is that this particular specimen is likely to set you back by pounds 50,000.

It is easier to make a good bonsai from a biggish tree chopped down to size than from a small seedling that has been allowed to grow up. The key to the paradox is the trunk. A seedling takes for ever to develop the girth that is so admired by bonsai buffs. Regrowing branches from a ready-made trunk is a less taxing option, though the little tree looks hideous while it is in the making.

The Ruger specimens, though, are fully formed works of art. They don't need any more making, though, as Sotheby's warns in its catalogue, they do need careful maintaining. The yew is a yamadori bonsai, the name given to trees originally gathered from the wild, where nature had begun the process of shaping and weathering them into suitably artistic forms.

Translated literally, "bonsai" means no more than "cultivation in a tray". That is the least of it. The real point is to distil the essence of some part of the natural world. This might be a small copse growing on the top of a hill, as in Ruger's little clump of six Acer buergerianum (lot 1112) grown asymmetrically in a cream glazed dish. Or it might be a single specimen, an acer grown in root-over-rock style (lot 1107, estimate pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000) to emulate a wild tree clinging on to life in the gully of a mountain range.

The trident maples, Acer buergerianum, adapt well to the bonsai style. The leaves are small and delicate and, like those of many other maples, colour well in the autumn. Eight of the bonsai on sale next week are maples.

Other favourites include the evergreen Chinese juniper, Juniperus chinensis, the Japanese white pine, Pinus pentaphylla, the Chinese elm, Ulmus parviflora, and the hornbeam, Carpinus betulus.

To my eye, the strangest tree in the Ruger collection is a bonsai pyracantha, the plain old P angustifolia of English gardens, grown as a superbly balanced, upright bonsai, only 20in high. It would never have occurred to me, looking at the rampant growth of the pyracantha trained on an east wall of our house, that this plant could be coaxed into a miniature of such character. If you want the bonsai, it will set you back about pounds 3,000.

However, as with the stuff that more usually swills through the Sotheby salerooms, if everybody could do it, there would not be such fancy price tags hanging off the finished products. And also, as with art, there are some styles that are more appealing than others. Some overworked, tortuous bonsai specimens are deeply claustrophobic and disturbing. You feel an overwhelming urge to liberate them from bondage and the unreasonable demands made upon them by their manipulative Svengalis.

The best bonsai draws you back to the Shinto cult of early Japan: an expression of delight in the beauties of nature - trees, rocks, waterfalls, cliffs - all equally objects of worship. At its most debased, bonsai plays no more than a supporting role in unworthy tableaux borrowed from willow pattern plates. Plastic bridges, hideous pot-bellied deities and other knick-knacks strip them of any dignity they may once have had. You won't find anything like that in Thursday's sale.

A well-balanced tree in an equally well-matched pot draws and inexorably holds the eye. The late Alan Roger, who had a fine collection of bonsai at his Scottish home, Dundonnell, commissioned special containers from fine potters such as Hans Coper and Lucy Rie. The best bonsai trees are those that are most in tune with the real world, with what we see about us. There are some things that trees do not do, and to make a good bonsai you need to understand what these are.

British taste tends generally towards the bonsai style known as the "informal upright", which gives a well-balanced, not too dramatically manipulated specimen such as the Satsuki azalea, Rhododendron indicum, an example of which is lot 1103 (estimate pounds 600-pounds 900) in next week's sale. It is the easiest style for beginners to emulate, though a beginner should perhaps choose the accommodating larch to work with, rather than the trickier azalea.

The most difficult trick to bring off is the root-over- rock style, which is why good specimens command such extraordinary prices. The tree most often used for this work is the trident maple, because it grows in similar situations in the wild and has shown that it can adapt to quite extreme growing conditions.

The style, as the name suggests, depends on a great deal of exposed tree root clinging to the contours of rocks embedded in the bonsai dish. Training starts with the roots and most bonsai experts would expect to spend at least 10 years working to perfect these before they even began work on training the canopy of the tree itself. This is not a hobby for anyone in a hurry.

A healthy root system is vital and many growers recommend a loam-based compost such as a John Innes No 2. Both juniper and pine prefer a more open growing medium, with as much as 50 per cent coarse sand or fine grit included in the mix.

The problem of watering, especially in dry summers, is the biggest headache, as bonsai are traditionally grown in very shallow containers. Feeding is not so critical. Once every three or four weeks should be enough. Use a feed high in nitrogen during the first half of the growing season, then switch to one low in nitrogen at the end of the summer.

Could I become a devotee myself? Well, if I lived cramped in a city, as many Japanese people do, I could. There would be the interesting spectacle of imperceptible modifications in a tree. The balance of the canopy would shift, but not so much as to disturb its overall equilibrium. It could become a focus for all the things of which I was deprived.

If I were suddenly deprived of my garden and transported to the top of a tower block, just one beautiful bonsai might stop me from going completely bonkers.

Further Information

THE RuGER collection of bonsai will be sold at Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1, on Thursday 17 June at 10am. Viewing is on Monday (9am-8pm). Catalogues cost pounds 5 at the auction house, pounds 6 by mail. For further information, call Sotheby's on 0171-293 5000. Beginners can read: Bonsai Survival Manual by Colin Lewis (Cassell, paperback pounds 12.99) or The Complete Book of Bonsai by Harry Tomlinson (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 14.99); join: the Federation of British Bonsai Societies, 3 Westdene Drive, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 5HE (01273 506476), or Bonsai Clubs International, PO Box 1176, Brookfield, WI 53008-1176 USA (001 414 860 8807). The society publishes a good bi-monthly magazine and holds a lively annual convention, usually in the States; buy: bonsai from Bonsai Kai, c/o 5 Knella Workshops, Knella Road, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire AL7 3NS (01707 375242), Bushukan Bonsai, Ricbra, Lower Road, Hockley, Essex SS5 5NL (01702 201029), Herons Bonsai, Wire Mill Lane, Newchapel, Lingfield, Surrey RH7 6HJ (01342 832657).