Regardless of their name, the process in their creation is basically the same. A large and interesting piece of dead wood is used as the centerpiece in the planting. A die grinder or dremel tool is fitted with a router bit and used to inscribe a groove in the deadwood and then a young leggy plant (most often a juniper) is nailed, screwed or otherwise affixed in the groove.
With the passage of time the young plant grows into the groove, the screws are removed and the composite creation, which is then shaped using traditional bonsai techniques, begins to take on the appearance of an ancient tree similar to many of the California and Colorado junipers we see collected from the American desert southwest.
The Japanese Viewpoint
|Classical Tanuki Sake Set|
A Western Approach
But are they fake? Perhaps it is a question of viewpoint. The term “phoenix graft” was first coined by noted bonsai artist Dan Robinson. His garden in Bremerton, Washington is a spectacular collection of collected and classically designed bonsai, but also includes an impressive collection of tanuki or as Jerry would say… phoenix grafts. Like the phoenix bird of classical Greek mythology, rising reborn and more glorious than ever from the ashes of its own funeral pyre, the phoenix bonsai uses long dead ancient wood and young new plant material to create a new artistic vision greater than the sum of its parts.
If, like a painter or sculptor our objective is to create a work of art which evokes an emotional or intellectual reaction from the viewer, then perhaps this type of bonsai is as valid as any other. We must ask ourselves a question. Do we honor our teachers by bringing new insights and new approaches to the art or do we simply pollute and debase it? It is a debate which will continue in the western bonsai community for many years to come.
It is not our purpose here to offer a solution to such a debate, but rather to simply present the mechanics and techniques for creating a tanuki bonsai. Whether you choose to display the finished creation at a bonsai exhibit is a matter for you to decide. Call it what you will, but always remember the words of another great artist. “A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”
Selection of Deadwood
|Classical piece of deadwood before bleaching|
Tanuki bonsai are not instant bonsai. You will be working with relatively young plant material which needs time to grow. Assume that you are a good three to five years away from being able to display the tree in an exhibition. Initially, you should select an oversized container. Eventually you will transfer the planting to a container suitable for showing. For now, something as simple as a large plastic bus pan or a wooden growing box will serve you well. Lots of room for root growth will also translate as lots of top growth. We selected an oversized mica training pot.
|Bonsai lime sulfur to bleach deadwood|
Junipers are most often the plant material of choice for making a tanuki bonsai. This stems from the fact that most ancient trees with this much dead wood usually fall into the evergreen class. More often than not, they are junipers, but pines, yews, firs, and hemlocks might also be fair game. Remember the objective is to create something which looks like it could have been dug out of the landscape… not created for Disneyworld
Be guided more by the mechanical considerations. Fairly young, spindly plant material is required with a trunk diameter not much larger than your index finger. The material selected should be very flexible and willing to put up with having holes drilled through its trunk and getting banged a scuffed about during the creative process. Junipers and pines are very flexible and put up with this kind of treatment.
If you select azalea you will discover that the trunk and branches snap easily and that its delicate bark cannot withstand the bruising it will receive. At least for your first attempt, try to keep your problems to a minimum. In this instance we have selected a Shimpaku juniper. Bonsai lime sulfur is used to bleach deadwood --> click here for more details
What follows is a step by step guide to creating a tanuki bonsai. Complete these steps exactly in the order listed. Artistic considerations are not the focus of this article, only the mechanical steps necessary to complete the planting. The traditional practices of asymmetrical balance and proper triangulation of the finished planting are the same as they would be for any bonsai. How you position the deadwood, where you cut the router groove and how you position the trunk and branches should be based on solid principles of bonsai design.