Pots used for Shohin and Mame are a study in themselves. Beautiful pots are now being made in the West for Shohin and Mame, especially with the increased interest shown in this variety of Bonsai since the new millennium.
The Japanese have also developed a greater interest in Shohin, resulting in the creation of a broader variety of pots. Pots in all price ranges are available from Bonsai stores or the Internet.
Japanese Bonsai pots in their present form have been produced since the early Showa period (approx. 1920-1935). Tokoname, Yokkaichi, Seto, and Shigaraki are the most famous areas for pot production in Japan. Pots come in all different sizes and shapes. Sizes ranging from less than 2" (5cm) to approximately 10" (25cm) will work for most Mini, Mame, and Shohin-bonsai.
A wonderful assortment of unique pots is now available, not only from Japan, but also from Europe and the US. In some Western countries, very high quality pots are appearing, based on both Japanese and local traditions. Over the years some very fine Bonsai pots have found their trees, and are raising the high standards of Western Bonsai. even though the tradition is still young compared to Asian countries.
Unique Shohin pot by John Pitt (UK)
Notice the antique appearance. There is no exact formula for achieving this result - it is a matter of experimentation and some luck.
Shohin and mame pots by John Pitt
One of my favorite Western potters is John Pitt, who lives in Derbyshire, England. The pots produced by John fit my personal taste and aesthetic perception of Bonsai pots. Thanks to his father’s influence, John became interested in Bonsai in 1994, and soon developed a passion for unique handmade pots.
In addition to larger pots, John has also developed a range of beautiful Shohin pots. By using different clays, various metal oxides and glaze recipes, or a combination, John creates finishes that are quite individual and sometimes impossible to repeat! Pitt says that “some of the oxide finishes I use are 'once fired', (the oxide and clay fuse together and this allows combinations to be blended on the surface of the pot itself), while other finishes require the pot to be bisque-fired first, and still others require three firings.”
Pot by John Pitt (UK)
Shohin-pot by John Pitt
This variety of Bonsai pots and potters makes it possible to be even more creative in the display of Shohin and Mame-Bonsai. Avoid mixing styles that are clearly different in the same display, as this detracts from the beauty and harmony. The pots chosen must work well together and not disturb the view of the display, but blend in harmoniously.
Acer buergerianum, Caroline Scott
What the pot does to the picture
A good tree needs to rest in a good pot. Just as a poor quality frame can decrease the value of a beautiful painting, so an ordinary or cheaply made pot will lower the quality of the tree.
Keep in mind what the purpose of a pot is when choosing one for your tree. I have spent many hours studying trees at exhibitions, in magazines, etc., in order to learn the secrets of a pot’s visual and aesthetic effects. Even so, I still have doubts and second thoughts when searching for exactly the right pots for my trees, because so many aesthetic considerations make the choice difficult.
A pot’s foremost visual function is to frame the tree and underline the feeling that the tree expresses. As the word Bonsai. tree-in-pot, describes, the pot is fully part of the Bonsai. The Bonsai pot is not just a necessary container for roots and soil, but part of an artistic relationship with the tree it supports.
A special pot used for a Potentilla fruticosa
Rules of Thumb
Here are some very general points to keep in mind when selecting pots for Shohin bonsai:
- Wide and shallow pots keep the attention more on the planting itself.
- Tall pots with narrow openings are suitable for semi cascade-style plantings, which are often used as the Fukuboku in a traditional Shohin display.
- As a rule of thumb, the pot should be about 50-75% of the width of the canopy. Remember that the volume of flowering specimens expands considerably when the flowers are fully developed. Therefore, the pot should be selected to fit the tree when exhibited with flowers.
- Choose a pot with a depth that is approximately equal to the width of the base of the trunk.
- The smaller the tree is, the less the rules need to be followed.
Always bear in mind that rules are for informational purposes only. Strict observance of rules is never required, but they are always good to keep in mind. The rules are, of course, more appropriate for exhibition purposes.
Front and back (or the other way around) of very small handmade pots for mini-Bonsai. by Elsebeth Ludvigsen (DK).
A few basic rules for selecting the right pot
- Cascade Bonsai use pots that are mostly higher than wide. They can be round or square.
- Slanting trees are often placed in round or oval containers.
- Straight upward trees are best viewed in oval or square pots.
- Lightly slanting trees can be planted in oval or round pots.
Pot styles for certain types of Bonsai trees
Formal geometric shapes with hard lines, sharp corners, and substantial feet support the formal upright style well.
Informal shapes, primitive slabs, round, oval or soft cornered rectangles.
Slanting and windswept trees
Informal shapes, oval or round pots, angled to complement the form. Primitive slabs or crescents can be used for trees exhibited solo, or with an accent planting, but are rarely used in a display that includes several trees.
This style is not used very often in Shohin-Bonsai. Shallow round or oval pots are the key to success with this style. Nailhead drums, primitive shapes, and even slabs or shallow trays support the Literati style.
Shallow oval and rectangle or square pots are good choices for this style, often represented by the quince.
Cascade and semi-cascade
Tall round, square or hexagonal shapes work very well.
Smooth and glazed pots, where the color complements the tones of leaf or bark colors.
Evergreens are best supported by subdued glazes or unglazed pots. Depending on the style of the tree, the pot can be primitive, informal, or formal; whatever suits the style.
Fruit and flower-bearing specimens
Bright glaze colors complement fruit or flower colors. Formal designs are usually the best choice.
Another kind of container is the so-called slab. It is a natural flat stone, or an imitation of a stone or cliff. A forest planting or a slanting tree would be suitable. Slabs can be made of cement or other materials, and in different shapes, like a half bowl for a half cascade tree, planted to create the illusion that it is hanging off a cliff. In the Shohin world, slabs are used less often than for larger bonsai.
Accent pot by David Jones, Walsall Studio Ceramics (UK)
Completing the picture
A more artistic approach to the meaning of the container is the interpretation of the pot’s form. An oval container suggests that the tree is living in a flat field. This can be varied by sculpting the surface of the earth and the moss or accent plantings. If the rim of the pot is slightly bent outwards, it is saying that the tree is living in a wider open field. In contrast, a thicker round rim, that closes the pot straight upwards, will suggest surroundings that are more tranquil.
Another effect of the pot form is the way the eye is led to a focal point on the Bonsai. Lines that bend outwards lead the eye away from the middle of the tree and the trunk, so the focus is at the top or outward part of the tree, leading to the canopy. Straight pots that have edges without an outward pointing rim drag attention to the trunk and inner parts of the tree, and are useful for calling attention to dramatic deadwood on the trunk.
The smaller the pot’s foundation size, the less sturdy it is. A noticeable reduction of optical weight is achieved by using rounded and closed upper pot lines. Very open shapes accept more substance and become somewhat lighter with the closing. It is therefore better to place a Bonsai with a light thin trunk in a pot that is inwardly rounded in shape.
The rim and legs
The pot is completed by the legs upon which it rests. Heavier trees require heavier pots and simple formed legs. A light and elegant Bonsai allows for the opportunity of more complexly formed legs. Through the more or less sophisticated look, they may lighten the overall work composition, supporting the elegance of the tree. The exact judgment must be made by keeping artistic considerations and aesthetic considerations in mind, and feeling the image as part of the judgment.
With these basic tools in mind, it is possible to achieve harmony and peace between tree and pot, as well as helping the viewer to focus on the important part of the tree.
Round pot from David Jones, Walsall Studio Ceramics (UK)
The practical dimension is simply that the pot serves as a container to hold the tree and soil in place. A pot will restrict the roots’ ability to grow freely, reducing the overall growth of the tree. These are the main practical purposes.
If the roots were allowed to grow freely, the branches will extend likewise and the tree will grow big. If you plant an old Bonsai in your garden, after a little while it will begin to grow into a regular sized plant. At the start of a Bonsai life, a tree tends to produce normal leaves, as if it was growing freely. After a few years, when the root mass increases, and less space is available, ramification will develop into a more detailed and finer structure. This is followed by the development of smaller leaves and finer branches. It is important to find the right balance between the volume provided in the pot for growth, and the health of the tree. Over the years it will be necessary to shift pots to increase the space for the roots as the trees slowly expand. Sometimes it’s possible to reduce the tree, redesign it, and then use a shallower pot.
Tokoname Shohin pot, Japanese
Pots used for Bonsai have to be able to withstand winter frost; otherwise they will crack when the water-filled soil expands in the cold. It is important to mention that soil should never be left soaking wet during winter, because frozen water-filled soil will crush the finer roots. Keep the soil moist, not dry or soaked, during cold periods. Choose pots that will reflect and underline the quality of the tree. They should blend harmoniously; tree and pot as a whole must express the beauty of the bonsai.
Pots for training and exhibition
Lower quality pots are sufficient for training periods, and they may be slightly larger than pots used for exhibition purposes, in order to guarantee the growth and health of the tree during development stages. Exhibition pots must be of good quality, or they will devalue the Bonsai and the expression the audience receives. Selecting the right pot for the tree relies on the artist’s taste, and not exceeding these basic rules of pot selection. Much relies on the ability of the artist to evaluate and express the right mood and feeling through the chosen composition.
Written by: Morten Albek. "I have traveled to Japan to study the art of Bonsai by having talks with some of the greatest masters, seeing numbers of Bonsai in Japan, and getting inspired by the Japanese aesthetics. Therefore I also joined the Nippon Bonsai Sakka Kyookai Europe recently, to develop my skills in that direction." Please visit his website shohin-europe.com for more information, or check his Bonsai artist profile; Morten Albek. Morten is also teacher of our online Shohin Bonsai course.