Forest Bonsai – The Art of Penjing [Chinese Bonsai Landscapes]

Penjing is an ancient Chinese tradition that dates back more than 1,000 years. Most people refer to penjing as “bonsai forest.”  Penjing uses plants, soil, water, and art to create potted gardens. It compresses all the beauty of the universe into small pots and expresses human emotion and artistic beauty. 

Saburo Kato Penjing Artist Standing Next to Penjing Bonsai
Saburo Kato (Penjing Artist) – Image Credit NBF

Penjing is a malleable art form, created jointly by man and nature. It also exhibits artistic beauty and human emotion. The plants show energy that nature has to offer, which is changed with the passage of time. 

Landscape Penjing

Landscape Stone Penjing
Landscape Penjing – “Spring Rain” Stone Penjing – Image Credit: NBF

Landscape penjing is a way to show a miniature landscape. It involves carefully choosing and shaping rocks. These rocks are placed in shallow containers that come in direct contact with water. The combination of water and land penjing is a unique form of penjing in China.

Natural scenery can be created using plants, soil, water, and small ornaments. 

Bonsai Forest

Penjing in a Bonsai Garden
Penjing in Bonsai Garden – Image Credit NBF

Forest penjing (bonsai forest) is the most common type of penjing. It has the best contrast and gives the most natural impression of nature. It can also present poetic and picturesque scenes and demonstrate the creator’s artistic cultivation. 

You can think of it as a miniature garden. 

The creation of forest penjing is a relatively free-form art form. Forest penjing was first published in books and paintings during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It is featured in many exhibitions both within China as well as abroad. Forest penjing’s value is clearly demonstrated by the emergence of new and better works.

Cypress Penjing from NBF
Cypress Penjing – Image Credit NBF

Trees

Trees are the primary materials used in forest penjing. They are not only beautiful in their natural forms and colors but also have vital signs and natural charm. 

A forest penjing is a living piece of art made from trees.

It demonstrates a relationship between plants that is similar to a natural forest. A forest penjing is not like a painting or sculpture that can be finished once it’s complete. It requires constant effort as the trees grow and change. While some penjing might not be satisfying right now, the plants will grow and improve over time.

John Naka Penjing and Bonsai Artist next to a Penjing Grouping
John Naka Bonsai & Penjing Artist – Image Credit NBF

Arrangement

Forest penjing is a reinterpretation of nature’s layout and shape. However, it is not a copy of any particular scene. It is an artistic interpretation or generalization of a natural scene. 

The striking contrasts create an emphasis on the work’s theme. 

Penjing is a harmonious, subtle, and dynamic layout that displays variety and unity. The aesthetic Chinese art is also reflected in traditional Chinese landscape painting. It is primarily based on the natural environment.

Types of Plants Used for Penjing

For forest penjing, the plants are mostly woody (just like most bonsai plants.) They will look like large trees once they have been cultivated. Trees are usually tall and thin, with fewer branches at the bottom of the trunk.

This is a characteristic that conforms to natural forest ecology. 

Tree trunks can be straight, oblique, or crooked. The tree should be well-rooted. It is best to keep the tree in a small container. To give the tree stability, it is important that its roots spread out in all directions if it is being used as a close-up view.

Each tree in forest penjing is not an individual object but a part of a larger scene. 

The tree chosen does not have to be perfect, but it should be compatible with other trees to create harmony. If properly organized and processed, some trees can help create a perfect overall effect, even though they may not look the best. 

Trees with distinctive characteristics are usually unsuitable for forest penjing as they can’t coordinate with other trees. 

Sometimes, multiple species of trees can be used. However, one must hold the focus point or main position, and others should take their place to maintain stylistic unity. 

One tree must be the tallest and most dense, while others can serve as the subsidiaries. 

It is important to avoid choosing trees with similar heights and thicknesses, as this can make it difficult to arrange them. Sometimes, smaller trees and stumps from mountains can be used. You can’t use them until they reach their original form.

Juniper Penjing with rocks

Popular Conifer Penjing Trees

Five-needle pine Pinus parviflora 
Huangshan pine Pinus taiwanensis 
Black pine Pinus thunbergii 
Japanese red pine Pinus densiflora 
Golden larch Pseudolarix amabilis 
Buddhist pine Podocarpus macrophyllus
Chinese juniper Juniperus chinensis
Chinese weeping cypress Cupressus funebris 
Procumbent pearlwort Sabina procumbens 
Spruce Picea asperata 
Dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides 
Bald cypress Taxodium distichum 
Japanese yew Taxus cuspidata var. nana aurescens
Maple tree penjing scene

Popular Decidious Penjing Trees

Japanese zelkova Zelkova serrata 
Chinese hackberry Celtis sinensis 
Chinese littleleaf box Buxus sinica 
Orange jasmine Murraya paniculata 
Polan Poilaniella Fragilis 
Chinese tamarisk Tamarix chinensis 
Hornbeam Carpinus turczaninowii 
Purpus Privet Ligustrum quihoui 
Chinese banyan Ficus microcarpa 
Fukien tea Carmona microphylla 
Chinese ash Fraxinus chinensis 
Japanese maple Acer palmatum 
Trident maple Acer buergerianum 
Maidenhair tree Ginkgo biloba 
Crape myrtle Lagerstroemia indica 
Azalea Rhododendron simsii 
Flowering quince Chaenomeles speciosa 
Snowrose Serissa japonica 

Penjing Containers

A proper container or pot is essential to forest penjing’s overall composition. If forest penjing were viewed as a three-dimensional landscape painting, the container would be the paper on which the painting is printed. 

Usually, the containers used for forest penjing tend to be very small. 

A large container can dwarf the trees and decrease the feeling of spaciousness. A shallow container, on the other hand, can make the trees look taller and larger, create a wider visual effect, and increase the sense of spaciousness. 

You can also use rocks and soil to make hilly terrain in a shallow container. This gives the work a more rustic appeal. 

Shape

Most containers are naturally shaped and can be rectangular, oval or round. Containers can also be square or round. They should be concise and simple in their shape. Avoid complicated designs and complex lines. Clay pots made from clay and stone are unique and can be shaped differently. 

They can be rustically charming when used for forest penjing. The ratio of the container’s length to its width is determined mainly by the depth of field. It is usually about 2:1. The ratio can be increased to 1:1 if the depth of the field is greater.

Color

Red or purple clay pots create a classically elegant scene for evergreen conifers. Rich in color are miscellaneous trees, particularly their foliage, flowering, and fruiting tree. 

A brightly-colored sheen on glazed pots can create better contrast. A vibrant sheen is a good choice to enhance the viewing experience.

Penjing Soil

Forest penjing trees can only grow in a small space, such as a container. They must have adequate water, air, nutrients, and other nutrients to ensure healthy development. To maintain trees’ growth, the soil can be used to store and provide water, air, and nutrients. The requirements of Penjing soil is similiar to Bonsai soil.

Soil is a significant contribution to trees’ health.

The soil is also responsible for stabilizing the trees and shaping the terrain of the forest penjing. It must be able to hold enough water to support the plant’s growth, allow the plant to absorb nutrients from fertilizer slowly, drain away excess water quickly, and meet its soil acidity or alkalinity requirements.

It must be free from germs, viruses, and chemical residues. 

Organic soil can refer to peat soil, humus soil, pine bark, and humus soil. These all have high water holding capacity. Non-organic soil refers primarily to mountain sand, volcanic soil, weathered clay, expanded clay, and other soils.

Composition Rules of penjing

Every item in penjing is imbued by the creator’s subjective feelings, thoughts, or emotions. A forest of many trees can evoke the viewer’s infinite imagination, like a poem that conveys rich feelings in a few lines. 

A work that is charming and appealing can have a powerful impact on the viewer. However, it is not enough to create a great work of penjing. 

The creator must learn from nature and consider how the trees are used. 

This is also not an issue in a penjing with two trees. It is crucial to balance interdependence and competition in a forest penjing of three or more trees. 

It is important to show the relationships between roots, trunks, branches, leaves, and trees. Composition principles, such as unity and diversity in all things, must be used. 

They do not restrict artistic creation but rather help to represent it. These are the main composition principles for forest penjing.

Penjing Care

Like all living things, penjing requires specific conditions to thrive. This next portion is dedicated to how to care for penjing properly.

Environment

Forest penjing should normally be placed outside in an area with adequate sunlight. A work of forest penjing cannot be placed indoors or under shade trees, especially during the growing season. 

The plants will not grow well if the work isn’t exposed to sunlight or placed outside under shade trees. 

It must be covered with a protective cover in the summer to prevent it from being burned. It is best to keep it covered from the summer sun and prevent it from getting too hot. You should arrange them in different locations depending on their habits and the climates at their origin. Every species has different requirements.

Watering

Forest penjing requires frequent watering because they have a small container and very little soil. 

The work should not be overwatered as the branches and leaves will grow too quickly. 

Overwatering can also cause oxygen deficiency in the roots due to a lack of air. This will eventually lead to poor growth. 

This decision must be made based on many factors, such as the tree species, season, soil, containers, and soil. Different tree species have different watering requirements and habits.

Fertilizer

Because there is not enough soil in the container, the soil alone cannot provide sufficient nutrients for the trees. 

Penjing should be fertilized regularly to ensure healthy growth. They should not be over-fertilized as this can lead to fertilizer burn. 

The characteristics and growth of each tree determine the fertilizer that is used. Some plants require more nitrogenous fertilizer, while flowering and fruiting plants need more phosphatic fertilizer. Potash fertilizer is used more often to encourage the growth of roots, stems, and branches.

Normally, organic fertilizer in a diluted form is applied to the soil’s surface. 

Over-fertilization is not a good idea for trees that aren’t growing well. In both cases, fertilizer must be applied appropriately. Fertilizer should not be applied to trees with undeveloped roots or those that have been recently moved into a container. 

Learn More About Penjing

There are many sources of information to learn about the wonderful art of penjing. Many are physical books, while others are informative digital materials such as Youtube. We used the following websites and materials as our sources for this article. Here’s a list to follow to continue your pursuit of penjing information.

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