Meet Luxembourg's bonsai enthusiasts
The name bonsai brings to mind miniature trees, zen gardens and Japan. But Luxembourg has its own slice of bonsai through the bonsai enthusiasts group.
The bonsai association of Minett-Differdange was founded in 1992 and currently has around 50 members, from which a core group of around 20 meet each month. Members range from enthusiasts to the curious or even those without bonsai plants.
"Bonsai are not so difficult to grow, if someone has a little talent for keeping a plant alive," says member Tom Bendels.
Last year the association held its annual bonsai exhibition in the Grand Duchy, together with other groups from Germany and France. The exhibitions offer the opportunity to view different specimens, chat to specialists and, in the case of Luxembourg’s bonsai members, win a number of prizes for their displays.
But, it's not all about the competitions or prizes. They also organise cultural trips to places inside and outside of Europe to expand their knowledge and appreciation of bonsai.
A highlight on the group’s social calendar is the annual yamadori - a term used to describe the practice of collecting wild trees growing in their natural habitat and planting them in containers for cultivation as bonsai. It requires working closely with local landowners and communes to gain the permissions needed to responsibly uproot young trees from their land.
Today, bonsai is inextricably linked to Japan and Japanese culture, but its origins are firmly rooted in China. The practice stems from the Chinese art called penjing or penzai where tiny, intricate landscapes are formed using cultivated trees and other plants to create the world in miniature.
Japanese visitors to China used to return home with souvenirs that included so-called container gardens. From the 6th Century onwards, these otherworldly landscapes succeeded in capturing the imagination of the Japanese, eventually being adapted and adopted into their culture as bonsai.
Contrary to popular belief, bonsai are not one specific species of plant.
"Bonsai are in fact any wooded plant, tree or shrub that is planted in a bonsai pot and fulfils a certain number of criteria to be a ‘real’ bonsai," says Bendels. Under these criteria, the main branches and canopy play a part in the design and their size, pruning and potting contribute further to their style.
A constant requirement of any plant is the need to water, feed or prune it, but Bendels says this is a good way to wind down and step out of life’s “fast lane”. Bonsai provide the perfect antidote to the modern stresses and strains of life. An opportunity to take back control and master the forces of nature - if only momentarily - through the careful creation of individual miniature, zen spaces.
‘‘A real aficionado prefers outdoor bonsai’’ says Bendels.
Although, he discourages a trip to the local garden centre for such a specimen. We are lucky with the range of trees and shrubs available in the Luxembourg region. But, it begs the question, is there one which makes the perfect local bonsai? Although difficult to choose a favourite native plant, Bendels says the ‘‘blackthorn and hawthorn growing locally make really good bonsai material - they have small leaves, an interesting bark, small fruits and nice blossoms in the spring.’’
Regardless of the type of specimen you choose for bonsai, the most important relationship you will cultivate on your journey is not between your plant and yourself but between your senpai (senior) and kōhai (junior). If you want to master the art of bonsai it is important to build good relationships with your mentors and take advantage of their experience and help, Bendels says.
The art of bonsai is not to be confused with niwaki. Niwaki literally translates as garden tree, meaning trees or shrubs that have been planted directly into a garden and not cultivated in a specific bonsai pot.
What makes bonsai so special? ‘‘The best thing about bonsai is having a totally other view on nature and maybe also on life,” Bendels says. And, that is worth cultivating.
Want to enhance your Japanese experience?
Practice the art of bonsai with authentic Japanese tea at Mizu. Luxembourg’s Japanese tea shop can provide you with everything you will need, including tea, online.
Prepare a bowl of Ramen after a spot of zen gardening. Manzoku offers fresh Ramen in house or to take away.
Need inspiration? Go to view the Mudam’s Japanese-inspired exhibition, A Cloud and Flowers, open until September 2022.