Preparing Trees for Display

Scott Elser

The goal in preparing trees for exhibit is to get them looking their best and present them in manner which maximizes their aesthetic qualities. Think of it as putting on a tuxedo, your best dress, makeup, etc... and getting ready for a really special event.

Use a soft brush to clean dirt and grime off the pot. Do not use metal brushes, steel wool or scouring pads as they will remove the natural patina of age. Old pots go with old trees. You may need to remove excess mineral salts if you have heavy water.

Lightly oil the pot with walnut or canola oil. Walnuts smashed in a sock works great. This will work for both glazed and unglazed pots. The slightest of sheen is the best and may be achieved by wiping most of the oil back off with an old but clean cotton cloth.

Moss and Top Dressing
Use short nap, fine grain moss for covering the soil surface. A variety of colors and textures add interest and realism. It's best to cover the whole surface, but partial coverage is acceptable. The moss is best applied at least three weeks before the show so that it can knit together. The idea is to make it look like it is growing right out of the pot naturally.

Begin by clean approximately 1/4 inch of soil off of the pot (below the lip) in a level fashion. Making it level allows the water to reach all the roots. Apply a thin layer of top dressing, which can be a mixture of fine Akadama and lava particles. This provides an even base for your new moss. Over this you can sift a layer of dry sphagnum moss to hold more moisture for the fresh moss.

Begin by placing 1-2 inch patches of moss onto the top dressing, working radially from the base of the trunk out. Clean the underside of the moss of excess soil by scraping with the back side of your tweezers. Fit the patches in snugly by tucking in with chopsticks. Be sure to leave nice rootage exposed.

Remove any downward hanging foliage and give the pads clean, well kept look. Clean out all brown and yellow needles and leaves, as well as any other foreign materials. Branches may be fully or partial wired, adjusting them to be evenly spaced and full. Remove any wires showing on the trunk. Carefully remove any unwanted moss from cracks in the bark with tweezers.

If any jins or shari have turned green, spray with a 1:1 mixture of vinegar and water. Wait three days and then scrub with a soft brush and water (a toothbrush works great). Finish it off with a coat of 1:20 lime-sulphur and water mixture at least two weeks before show so that it has time to turn from yellow to white. With some jin it helps to moisten the wood prior to applying the lime sulphur so that it will soak in better.

Junipers with shari should have their flaky bark removed to show the reddish bark underneath to contrast with the light colored shari & jin. Walnut or camellia oil may be used in a very light application to deepen the color. Care is needed to prevent splotching.

Broad leaved Trees
Be sure to clean your hands before handling deciduous trees - Akadama will stain the light colored bark. Clean out all old and yellowing foliage. No wire should be showing on deciduous trees.

For smooth barked trees such as Japanese maples, beech, etc.., clean the trunk and branches with a toothbrush and water. Use the 1:20 lime-sulphur/water solution at least two weeks before the show to lighten the trunks. Flaky barked species such as trident maples and quince can have their bark peeled to revealed color variations. Rough barked species such as cork barked elm and rough bark maple should be sprayed with the vinegar/water mixture to kill any green algae.

Accent Plants
Accent and companion plants should be prepared several weeks before the show. They should look as aged and well cared for as the bonsai. Use moss just as you would on the trees.

Display Stands
Display stands can be cleaned with a furniture polish. Furniture wax may be used if compatible with the finish. Check to make sure that there are no cracks. Felt pads may be used under pots to protect the stands.

Make sure to soak your plants well before bringing them to the show. This will help ensure their enjoyment of the show as much as your own.

Pack your trees well enough in the vehicle to take that unexpected brake when someone swerves in front of you. Your tree will thank you. An easy way is to use boards between the pot and edge of vehicle to prevent slipping. Make sure that they won't sit in a hot car too long or get wind damaged.

Guidelines for Bonsai Display
Presented below are guidelines for creating bonsai displays. They combine principles of basic design with Bonsai and cultural aesthetic which has developed in Japan over many centuries. As in any artistic endeavor, these guidelines are merely a springboard from which creativity may leap. Certainly there must be many interpretations possible from American materials and points of view.

General View of Materials
















Formal Upright





Wood w/legs



Informal Upright
















Informal Upright





Wood Flat






















Unusual Finish




Feature the Tree
Bonsai by definition is an art that features the tree. The tree is what we have spent years developing and what we now wish to show off. The displays that we create should tell a story of the tree in nature. It might speak to us of mountains or valleys, winter or spring. There might be a bumble bee winging by or bird tugging on a worm. There is always a story to tell. Selection of pots, stands, and accents such as Suiseki, grass plantings, or scrolls should support the story and not compete with the tree. Especially important is that they do not exactly duplicate color, dimension, or theme of the Bonsai. Neither should they conflict. The pot and stand of the tree should always be of higher formality than it's accents. For example, do not put a formal upright tree on Bamboo slats and the accent on a nice wooden stand. The tree always gets preferential treatment.

Bonsai Stands
Stands are usually made of wood and should compliment the style of the tree. When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity and grace. Stand height should never be the same as the depth of the pot. This creates and uneasy visual tension. Darker colors are almost always better. Some prefer and high gloss finish and others a softer satin finish.

Accent Plants
Accent Plantings, or Kusamono, should always pair with the trees temperament. If it is an alpine tree, then alpine wildflowers would be appropriate. It would not be proper to pair it with say, dwarf bamboo. The movement of the accent should always point back to the tree.