Newcomers to bonsai are often surprised to learn that most bonsai are outdoor plants. Usually it isn’t long before the question comes up: what do you do with them in the winter?!
Winter care is a subject for another time but there are multiple silver linings for the bonsai hobby in winter. First, you can get some valuable “down-time” to rest, recharge, and then brush up on your bonsai knowledge.
When it comes to deciduous trees, you can more easily work on them without leaves on the branches. Without foliage (an important distinction because there are deciduous needle conifers) you can more easily see the branch structure and work on the tree without the hindrance of the foliage. You do still need to be careful you don’t damage buds on the branches but certainly wiring is a lot easier.
As an example, consider this Chinese elm.
This was taken fairly early in the season yet the foliage still obscures most of the branch structure.
But when dormant you can much more easily see the branch structure and be able to make better decisions regarding where to prune or wire.
Not only that, but there are even bonsai shows in winter (not this year, though, thank you COVID…) where deciduous trees can be enjoyed for their “nude” form. In winter silhouette shows you can truly appreciate the ramification of the branches while they’re not hidden by the foliage.
When bonsai are displayed in this state at a winter silhouette show it really reveals the work that went into the creation of the tree. Scars, poor branching, graft unions, and artist mistakes can be easily hidden by foliage. With bare branches, every inch of the tree’s structure can be seen, admired, and/or critiqued. That can be nerve-wracking for the artist but quite beautiful for the show attendees. It is often said that beginners grow trees for their summer form but seasoned artists grow for the winter form. The pictures accompanying this article really show the beauty of these winter nudes.
There is an interesting concern often raised about winter shows that goes back to the fact that bonsai are primarily outdoor plants: is it harmful to the tree to be indoors and warm in winter?
Usually not! Early winter shows are safer than late winter shows in that the tree hasn’t been dormant for long enough to be easily woken up. The hormones that keep a tree asleep are broken down by light and heat so as long as they’re not inside in the warm temperatures for more than a couple of days it is no more harmful to a tree than a few warm, sunny days in the middle of winter. This isn’t to say you should tempt fate by regularly bringing dormant trees indoors to enjoy them in the winter but occasionally displaying a tree in a winter silhouette show is generally a safe endeavor.
As you can see, it isn’t all gloom and doom for a bonsai hobbyist in winter. Take advantage of the opportunity to refine your collection’s branching, you and your trees can get some rest, and maybe next winter you can take in a Silhouette Show!