by ROBERT J. BARAN :: Over the centuries in Asia, various small plants were potted up and displayed in ceramic containers. We know this from paintings in China (since at least the 12th century, first image) and in Japan (since at least the 14th, second image).
In Japan, these kusamono (草物, lit. “grass thing,” a term dating only to the early Meiji era, c. 1870s) were originally small herbaceous plants brought in with collected naturally-dwarfed woody trees. The smaller plants were then grown in separate pots to remind the collector of where the tree came from – which often was a mountainous location, but could also be a wetland, meadow, or woodland. These grasses, wild flowers, moss, lichen, bamboo, or bulbs are known as accent or, more properly speaking, companion plants. In time the growing of plants to accompany trees in displays or tokonoma [presentation alcoves] or teahouses became more popular. They became an accepted way of depicting a feeling, season or location, adding that atmosphere to the display. They have played a supporting role by acting as an accompaniment to the main tree bonsai, viewing stones or other artwork when displayed in the formal Japanese style indoors on special occasions. Special arrangements can be chosen for honored guests.These arrangements are not temporary, but are cultivated over time and grow more interesting and refined with age, much like bonsai. Indeed, mature kusamono have no soil readily visible and those that are container-bound tend to reduce their leaf size and “tighten up” their internodes as well. With a thoughtful choice of plants a kusamono will change in appearance not only throughout the growing season but every year. As the design matures some species will disappear while others will establish and flourish. It is with sensitive intervention and insight that the grower can thin out, prune or add plants to maintain its visual balance.
Companions come in many sizes and can be single plants or mixed plantings and are used in tokanoma or shohin [very small bonsai] displays or as stand-alone presentations in their own right. They are widely used throughout Japan – and also in regions where the Japanese-style of display is popular, such as in America and Europe. In the last few decades creating kusamono has developed into an art form of its own with more creative designs. The separate lesser plants which accent bonsai displays and are not meant to be the dominant focus of the presentation are now more properly called shitakusa (lit. “undergrass”).
Kusamono are usually displayed on a mat, flat board, flat ceramic tray, or, rarely, a formal bonsai stand. Nowadays these are also displayed alone in the tokonoma with a tenpai (small little figure) and/or a kakejiku (Japanese scroll) when the planting is mature, at least 3-5 years old. Sometimes they are planted on driftwood or even stones.
Accentuation has been a grey area, not rigorously defined. Current bonsai display involving a kusamono/shitakusa has a companion plant that is smaller than the main tree, assists in communicating the message of the display, and does not “steal the show” or draw the viewer’s eye too much. Looking through some old exhibition books one will note often massive kusamono and over-sized stands, in comparison to the more recent preferred proportions. The large winter shows rely on mainly evergreen-heavy shitakusa that are at their best during that season. Bonsai with flowers should not be displayed with companions in flower but with grasses and moss. Evergreen bonsai should be complimented with shitakusa having small blossoms or fruits matching the tree.
Companion plants have gained importance over the last decade or so, because many bonsai shows have become increasingly aware of what the art of bonsai display can mean. It is not just concerned with the quality of the tree exhibited – it’s now about the bonsai, the pot, the stand, the scroll, the complimentary plant, or other accent item (e.g. a bronze figure) as they all relate to each other.
In China, exhibitions of penjing and other dwarfed potted landscapes usually take place outdoors, and companion plantings are rarely used. As the Chinese compositions themselves have often included various small plants to add detail to the scene, separate containers of small plants were never considered as important as they are in Japanese-style displays. [RJB/USA]
e-mail from William N. Valavanis to RJB, 19 Oct 2013