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By John Romano
You may have heard of the "Extreme Games" and the "X Games" athletes pushing the limits of their particular sport. We now have the extreme games of small bonsai: Sumo Shohin!
I read an article a few years back by Mike Page in Golden Statements (the magazine of the California Bonsai Federation) titled "Sumo Bonsai" which described a style of bonsai in which the trunk taper was quite exaggerated starting from a very wide base upwards. One would best describe a tree in this style as short and stout (a much kinder description of sumo wrestlers). From this article sprang an idea that I have been developing over the last few years in which this sumo style would be translated to shohin size. From observations of exquisite shohin bonsai seen both in exhibits and in Japanese books, the phrase "sumo - shohin" originated. Here is a description of this style.
What is Sumo Shohin?
In the article I referred to on Sumo bonsai, Mike Page defined this style in terms of a ratio of the trunk size to the overall size of the tree. He defined the parameters as (the trunk) being "1 1/2 circumference to 1 height". (Mike told me that in the article in Golden Statements, they mistakenly substituted "diameter" for "circumference" which would have made a drastic difference!) Although this definition is a good one for any sized sumo bonsai, I have made a slight variation in this definition for shohin-sized. I propose that the width of the nebari at the base of the trunk (ground level) should be approximately 2/3 of the height of the tree. A 6" tall tree would have a base width of 4". Hey, I said we're being extreme here! (I was tempted to say 3/4:1!) Obviously, some of this is tongue in cheek, but I find that this kind of challenge gets my juices flowing to create something unique and special.
It is quite hard to develop such an exaggerated, continuous taper on any size bonsai let alone a shohin size. Obviously this style is quite challenging for small bonsai. It is a feat in itself to simply accomplish it, but to make it aesthetically pleasing without being grotesque is difficult. Observe high quality shohin to see the characteristics that make it appealing. Although the taper is drastic, there should be a somewhat natural developmental pattern to the growth. This is achieved through repeated "cut and grow" stages always keeping in mind the final form and height of the tree. It takes years just to get the trunk in the right proportions. Ideally, the more extremely uniform the taper, the better.
What to look for?
In searching for material to use, the old adage "look for a good trunk first" is applicable. Pre-bonsai material with a good-sized base and roots is the first quality to look for when trying to find good shohin material. The initial task is determining where the first trunk chop will best be performed. Most of the first stages of development are with this "cut and grow" method. This is the main method of developing such extreme taper. The key is to make the cuts as hidden from view as possible always keeping in mind the final view of the tree. In these first stages, which can take years, the tree is allowed to grow out relatively unchecked in a larger container (or in the ground) with careful attention to the different leaders that sprout out. Pick the one that looks most promising as a natural leader in the overall outline of your tree. Other branches may be left to grow unfettered to allow for healing of the previous chop to the trunk. There are, of course, a lot of variables to consider depending on the particular tree species. For example, with many deciduous trees, you do not have to even think of future finished branches in this initial stage. The branch development will occur during the refinement stage. Black pine, however, are treated a bit differently since budding back is not at a premium. In Japan and Korea, you may know that certain nurseries grow out trees only to develop trunks; that is their only focus. They then sell this material to other nurseries who work on the trees in the next stage of development and creating branches, better rootage, etc. Then there are those who only work on the final refinement stage (eg. fine wiring, etc.)
If you are anxious to try this, I would recommend (depending on your climate) a deciduous species such as trident maple, crabapple or ficus as good choices of plant material for this. They grow out fast, heal well, and produce an abundance of branches.
Another way to start this process and eliminate a few years of development is to air layer a good section from another larger tree. Look for the good characteristics of extreme, gradual taper. A good place to look is on a large trunk where a branch splits off and then a small branchlet again splits off close to the first union. This gives you 3 tapered curves to work with. Airlayer the trunk close to the first branch.
I have provided 3 examples of this style: a deciduous Korean hornbeam, an evergreen Japanese Black pine, and a tropical Ficus Nerifolia to offer a range of species that can be utilized.
The first example in Photograph 1 is a collected Korean Hornbeam imported from that country. Because Korean hornbeams put out a lot of adventitious buds from older trunks, they are often collected for their trunks and then branches are developed later. This tree was not found this pudgy, but was trunk chopped (the cut is in the back) and developed from there. The tree is 7" tall with a base of 4".
The Japanese Black pine (not shown)owned by Suthin Sukosolvisit of Stoughton, MA, is a wonderful example of this gradual, exaggerated taper. This magnificent tree was exhibited in Rochester, NY last fall at the International Bonsai Symposium. Fantastic! It still needs some development of branch length, ramification, etc but it is well on its way to being a masterpiece. The tree was grown from seed and developed solely in pot training. It must have taken 15-20 years to get this kind of size in a pot. With this tree, many sacrifice branches were left to grow out along the trunk to thicken it and then they were cut off when the desired caliper was created. It is 8" tall with a root base of approx-imately 5". If you have another 15 or 20 years to do this, try this method.
The final example (not shown) is a tree in progress provided by Luis Fontanills, a member of the Gold Coast Bonsai Society of Florida, who displayed these photos in a bonsai photo gallery on the internet. He has done a wonderful job creating a natural, gradual, taper in only 7" (17.8 cm) of height. The width of the base at the soil line is 6 1/2"! This is a Ficus nerifolia/salicifolia that is approximately 4 years old and was developed from a pencil thin seedling. This species lends itself well to radical cutbacks and responds with abundant buds for branching options. As with many ficus, the wounds heal over quickly if cared for properly. This tree shows very little scarring from such pruning and will be a nice little shohin. You can see the natural gently curving trunk (all in less than 7") and the wide base at ground level. For the sumo style, it might eventually be even shorter in height. This would make the taper more "evenly extreme and okay, not too radical"
So if you are feeling a bit radical today (I know that is tough for some of you conservatives) or just want to try a project that is a little out of the ordinary, try creating a "sumo shohin" and you might have something spectacular in the future. Remember, this ain't your low calorie bonsai hobby!
A New Bonsai Style: SUMO! Golden Statements, The Bonsai Magazine, 1998:6; pgs 34-37.