Updated: Mar 17
Windswept bonsai are assuredly one of the most beautiful and awe- inspiring types of bonsai. In order for me to deepen my understanding, and in addition spread knowledge regarding the subject, I interviewed Sarah Tiller about windswept bonsai.
Sarah, how did you get into bonsai originally?
Ah, thats a hard one. I can tell you the first time I saw one was when I saw The Karate Kid. I was probably about 7 year old and didn't think too much of it until I was fourteen years old and I started playing with my moms trees. She had some maple trees in the backyard and i just started cutting them! About thirty years ago, and I starting reading books on it, but i didn't really start to get better until i joined a club. I'm very grateful to the club and the community for giving me that. Everything happens in bonsai so slowly, and it didn't help that i was in the Southern Hemisphere and i was reading books written about the Northern Hemisphere.
Scene in The Karate Kid which seeded Sarah's bonsai love.
Is there a bonsai community in Australia now?
There is a big community there, but there wasn't an online community, I would have had to go to different nurseries and inquiring, and it didn't occur to me. Now we can use the internet to find each other. In fact, the world bonsai convention will be held in Perth this year.
Photo from Australian Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park. Picture: Tourism South Australia
Are you going?
Yeah it's actually pretty close to where I live, so yeah I think I am going to go to it. But my family is going to say the only reason I went was for the trees.
What is your favorite tree to make a windswept bonsai with?
That would be a juniper. My inspiration comes from seeing them on the rocky cliff faces in the Sierras where they have an incredible majesty. Maybe it's a weird word to use. It’s something about the age that comes across and when they are windswept on the side of the mountain. Junipers have great foliage for being windswept, while some trees like maples can break the illusion. It can look large and unright and difficult to keep the illusion of a tree in a tiny pot.
Windswept trees and bushes in The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Such inspiration as this is pristine. Photograph from Sarah Tiller
What other trees have you made to look windswept?
I have a windswept maple that I feel I don't think I've made looked very windswept. I’ve done it, but I don't think that it's worked. I had a pine! I don't want to talk about the ones that died but I think it's good to talk about the failures. I haven't been able to do it in a way that didn't kill the tree, but it’s possible. Maybe there was a flowering one like a quince. Maybe it wasn't super successful.
A beautiful dead bonsai tree, an image many bonsai enthusiasts can relate to. Photo from horticultureandsoilscience.fandom.com
What is an interesting way to make a bonsai appear windswept?
I think its important to have it be consistent. You want to tell a story of how the wind is blowing through in waves. You want the branches in the same direction and you want the wood to be on the swept side as exposed. You want an illusion of a story about how the wind is pushing the branches. To make it interesting you want it to be consistent about how the wind is making the branches move.
A bonsai in the windswept style. Photo: National Bonsai Foundation
Do you think jin is a good looking addition to a windswept bonsai?
For a juniper, yes. Thats why I like junipers because its actually super common because the wind blows in from one side. The bark on that one side looks really interesting. Some of the most beautiful ones I've seen have jins coming off of the trunk and kinda twisting around. So I’ve seen both.
Have you ever used a blow torch on a bonsai?
Yes I have, and it's kinda fun! That right kids, don't do this at home. It's pretty cool. And I've also stuck to conventions, but it's a crowd pleaser for sure. You have to be careful to protect the living parts of the tree. You can do this by wrapping the living part of the tree with a wet cloth and then aluminum foil over that. Do make sure the towel is wet. You don't want to use dry napkins and watch the whole thing go up in flames.
Bjorn Bjorholm nonchalantly using a blow torch to burn jin and shari on a Sierra juniper. Photo from gsbf r/Bonsai on reddit.com
What are some cool accents to a well windswept bonsai?
Oh, accents! Ah, ideally I like to match the accent recreating things that could occur in nature. Like a juniper using something that would occur in the same habitat. I have never shown a windswept tree in a bonsai show, but that's a really good nuance to think about because you would want the accent plant to be helping the imagery of the windswept. It is communicating with the main tree. I’m going to have to defer to the internet on that one (laughs). It's a good question!
Possible accent plants in an arid, windy environment. Photo from Sarah Tiller
Is there an accent plant you like to pair with junipers?
When I was hiking recently I saw some sage brush which I think would pair nicely. I wish I knew their name. I wouldn't pair a fern or something tropical because the juniper grows in more of an arid dry area.
Is there a particular pot that looks good for a windswept bonsai?
Actually yeah. The best is putting them on a slab instead of a pot, but if you do use a pot to have it be narrower and longer than what you usually have. Usually the standard bonsai pot has a pretty standard ratio, but for a windswept bonsai you want something longer and narrower. On a slab it looks more natural and looks more like what you'd expect.
Shakan style bonsai on a slab with Jin. Photo from Napa Master Gardener Column
That's interesting! Why do you think it looks like that?
Because you can pick up a texture like its a cliff face. One of them is on top of a hill, and you have a mound of moss with the tree on top growing and getting blown by a face. The other is when you have a vertical rock, and it's planted attached to the rock and you put the wind as coming from that perspective.
There is one type of windswept tree I forgot to mention. When you think of windswept bonsai you see and it looks like it's been blown for hundreds of years, but there's one that looks like it's being blown, but there's a style where it looks like it's being blown through at just a moment, instead of having been blown for hundreds of years. I dont have the materials to do it right now, but I'm always looking for that.
Oftentimes when people are showing windswept bonsai they will defoliate the tree. If they feel like the leaves are breaking the illusion, stripping the foliage off and showing the frame helps to reinforce the shape of the tree. Sometimes the leaf size is just too big for the tree. But you know it's still a risky move to defoliate the tree. But it's totally doable. But if they're good enough to be showing the tree, I imagine they may be good enough to safely defoliate the tree. I'm not speaking from experience though! (Laughs)
Photo of windswept Japanese Maple appearing as though a gust of wind is passing through in an instant. Photo National Bonsai Foundation
In conclusion, windswept bonsai are wicked cool, and can be made from a variety of trees, anything from maples to junipers. To find inspiration for windswept bonsai, a trip to a windswept location (cliff sides like those found at 3 mile or in the Sierras) might provide some good insight. Good additions to the windswept style include jin, exposed wood, and consistent direction of branches.