Sunday, June 06, 2010

1956: First known mention of dwarf plants in Russian horticultural literature

Thanks to the links in the web site of Phoenix Bonsai Society I stumbled across an interesting passage from a Russian book. Apparently, it is the first known mention of bonsai/penjing in Russian literature. Here is the passage translated to English:
“Dwarf plants are miniature copies of pines, cryptomerias and other trees and shrubs. Dwarf plants are used for creating beautiful miniature landscapes on flower tables. Occasionally, pines, spruces, junipers, rhododendrons and other trees and shrubs grow for decades on mountain cliffs in rock crevices in nutrient-poor soil. Their growth is often measured in centimetres. At present, such plants have become difficult to obtain. Despite the dangers of dwarf plant ‘hunting’ (they grow on vertical cliffs, ravines, rock outcrops, e. g.) they have become rare in nature. For this reason dwarf plants are now grown artificially. There are various methods for achieving small size in plants. The smallest seeds of a cultivated variety are chosen. The seeds are sown in thimble-sized containers with low nutrient compacted soil. The plant is watered just enough to be kept alive. This way, plants are kept weak and develop very slowly. However, the plant growth is reduced even further. The plants are mutilated. The tap root is severed and main trunk is replaced with a side branch. Side branches are regularly pruned, bent, curled and coiled. As a result of practicing these techniques for prolonged periods of time, the plants become ugly and small. Dwarf plant care is aimed at stunting their normal growth, while keeping them alive. Do not keep dwarf plants in warm indoors for too long. Cool environment similar to the conditions in the wild is more suitable for them. Fertilisers are never used. Watering is very limited and carried out just to keep the plants alive. Plants which can be cultivated in dwarf form include pines, spruces, cryptomerias, junipers, rhododendrons, quinces, birches, ornamental apple varieties, maples, bamboos and others.”
Unfortunately the reference is incomplete and goes like this: Kiselev G. E. 1956. Dwarf Plants. In: ??? (Eds) Indoor Gardening. State Publishing of Agricultural Literature, Moscow. p. 278. The author was obviously not a bonsai practitioner and chose not to use the term ‘bonsai’ or ‘penjing’. The passage fails to mention China or Japan as countries where growing of dwarf plants was originally practiced. The passage also contradicts itself: “ugly” plants are used to create “beautiful” landscapes.