Rock Clinging

This article first appeared in the January, 1986 issue of the Shibui Bonsai Kai Newsletter, and is published with the kind permission of the Author

Rocks and rock-settings

In South Africa, with its rich heritage of natural beauty; from craggy seashores to towering mountains, staggering evidence of prehistoric volcanic action and the visible effects of ages of wind and water erosion, magnificent rocks are found. From the depths of the Fish River Canyon, or the endless, intimidating, but hauntingly beautiful Karoo flatland; along our many river -shores and streams, as well as clinging precariously to towering mountainsides or, as often, on an empty lot in the city center, rocks of all descriptions and sizes are found and enjoyed by Bonsai enthusiasts. Some of us shared John Naka's intense joy when he found a magnificent Pelindaba viewing stone in the Magaliesberg. We understood why a grown man took infinite care to carry a piece of rock, the size of a man's head, past very surprised stewardesses onto his departing flight from Johannesburg!

We can understand Oswald Siren's comment that the Chinese have always regarded rocks as the most magnificent symbols of the creative force of nature, fascinating by virtue of their grandeur and their wild inaccessibility. Deborah R. Koreshoff, In her beautiful book on the Art, Science, History and Philosophy of Bonsal, tells us how greatly rocks are appreciated in the Orient. With paintings, gardens, viewing stones and Bonsai using these to capture the essence of nature. Symbolically, rocks and water are significant to the Chinese as the Taoist philosophy of nature describes water as the lifeblood of the Earth, while mountains and rocks are the bones.

As a newcomer to Bonsai, I quickly developed a keen appreciation for rocks. simply because they already embodied the very aged and timeless qualities that we seek in Bonsai. Only in time did I accept that the use of a rock or two with every tree could detract from both. rather than enhance their beauty. Most good quality trees are better displayed with minimal ground cover and no rocks. Should a rock or rocks be used, they must be well burled and judiciously placed to complement the tree naturally.

In addition to the use of a carefully selected well placed rock to accentuate, complement. or even restore (in the event that the absence of roots on one side of a tree needs to be hidden), there are five classical uses of rock with Bonsai:-

1. "Sansui-Seki ": Viewing Stones

Dr. Tony Harrison, speaking on the display and enjoyment of rocks makes us aware of how rock and stones are infinitely suggestive of nature, symbolizing strength, life and continuity. He also reminds us of the truth spoken by Kobayashi, who said that once you have found and displayed a good quality viewing stone. your enjoyment must be enhanced by the fact that it is unique and the only one in the world.

2. "Ushi-Uye": Using a rock as a container

Here a saucer shaped rock, a hollowed rock or even a piece of slate, is used as one would use a normal container, keeping the same principles of positioning, balance and harmony in mind. Special care often needs to be taken to prevent soil from being washed away, particularly with overhead watering.

3. "Saikei" : Scenes with trees

1985 became the "Year of the Saikei ", with Melba Tucker's visit. I hope that many more of this wonderfully enjoyable and demanding style will be created and seen in South Africa.

A fascinating aspect of Saikei is its infinite possibility of combining Bonsai styles in order to achieve a harmonious scene. Any or all the classical tree styles can be used. There is ample scope for the horticulturists who wish to use accent plants, special mosses and grasses or mixed species. An even further departure is the use of artifacts or ornaments such as miniature figures, small houses, bridges, etc., known as "Bonkei".

4. "Seki-Joju" : Root over Rock

This is a highly attractive style, where the roots of the tree are exposed to a far greater degree than normal. A sense of solidity is achieved by the way the roots grip the rock. It has been very successfully used in South Africa and many superb examples exist, particularly of the Wild Fig and Chinese Elm.

A feature of this style is that root growth takes place in the soil under the rock and that such trees normally grow quite vigorously.

John Naka does not distinguish between this style and the clinging to rock style in "Bonsai Techniques", possibly in view of the close relationship between the styles and the fact that many plantings are not easily distinguishable.

5. "Ishi-Zuki" : Rock Clinging Style

In this style the tree is entirely dependent upon the nourishment from the small amount cf soil surrounding its root system. No roots (or visible roots) extend down into a container of soil. In this style crevices or hollows in the rock are often used for planting, but muck is essential to keep soil from eroding or falling away. This style is discussed in more detail below.

The number of trees for the various rock settings above can vary from one to many, keeping in mind the normal principles of using odd numbers. placing of differently styled trees, positioning etc. A major feature of rock styles is that combinations are often used to achieve attractive results. It is therefore not unusual to find a rock used as a container (Ishi-uye), for a scene with trees (Saikei), with trees clinging to it (Ishi-zuki). Equally, trees can be styled in formal, semi-formal, semi-cascade or full cascade, or combinations depending on design.

Rock Clinging Styles

In this style the objective is to create an image of a towering mountain or rock landscape, with trees growing precariously along the heights. A major problem is the achievement of correct proportions. A rock that is 400mm high should not have trees that are higher than 75mm, else the trees dwarf the rock and destroy the illusion of mountain slopes. It is, further, extremely difficult to find suitable rocks that are light enough to be carried with ease. Most examples shown by overseas masters can only be carried by two people and should be classified as a "Niwa-ishu": garden stone! This style is not common amongst South African Bonsai enthusiasts and I hope that the interest in Saikei, generated by Melba Tucker's visit, will encourage more growers to try it.

a. Selection of rocks

This aspect is the key to the creation of a successful "Ishl-zuki". Although different rocks can be glued together and various techniques exist to build up rocks, the most attractive examples use naturally formed rock. In order to ensure stability, it may be necessary to glue a base to your rock, to trim them square. or attach your rock firmly to the container. In this regard, I have found liberal applications of epoxy glue the most successful, particularly since the mating surfaces are seldom perfectly smooth. Remember to clean all dirt or loose material off before using the glue. It is also important to avoid preconceived ideas regarding ideal rock shapes, but rather accept what nature provides and use your creativity to harness this to best effect. Color, shape and texture should all be considered to determine the best front.

I have found combinations of flat and upright rocks to be very attractive as a base for Saikei/Ishl-zuki combinations, with the flat rock, on occasion, also being suitable for use as a container. Care must be taken to keep a natural flow in rock lines and textures. Once a rock or rock combination has been found it requires careful study to determine the most suitable position, style and type of tree to complete the scene.

b. Selection of trees

In this style, trees grow extremely slowly in view of the small amount of soil available to their roots and it is therefore preferable to use trees such as Shohin or other Bonsai miniatures which are already established and fully trained. All types of tree suitable for Saikei such as Five needle pine, various Junipers, Ezo Spruce, Cryptomeria, Cypress and some others, are suitable because of their small leaves and dense fibrous root systems. The use of established well trained small Bonsai will also result in final plantings being immediately "mature" and available for display and general enjoyment. Young seedlings of plants can, of course, be used successfully, but will grow slowly, with the associated difficulties of wiring and nipping. Stems that are too thin will not achieve the desired appearance. If you choose to have a mixed planting, observe that conifers tend to grow on the higher, more rugged ground and deciduous varieties lower down. Also note that deciduous varieties are more suited to less rugged rocks than conifers, while Willows and Alders would be suitable for smooth, rounded rocks found near water.

c. The use of muck

Muck is a 50/50 mixture of well matured manure and clay soil, with water added. Derborah Koreshoff describes how she allows this mixture to develop for a full six months and, when it achieves a plasticine consistency, stores it in her refrigerator! (Using airtight plastic bags). The muck is essential to prevent the soil from washing away or eroding too readily while, at the same time, retaining moisture and containing sufficient nourishment for the tree. Muck is smeared on the wet rock before trees are placed In position and used to cover the roots as well. If you need muck immediately, already well rotted manure can be used, mixed equally with sifted clay soil and by adding enough water to knead well. A small quantity of fine compost with some bone and bloodmeal can also be added.

d. Positioning the trees

After studying the rock and available trees, the positions of the trees must be carefully determined. Avoid the temptation to use the natural cracks and crevices in the rock since these enhance the character of the rock, so rather use the uninteresting and less obvious rock faces to place your trees. The trees should show enough trunk and roots to look natural and should be placed to the side or behind the rock to avoid hiding it. Branches should also be rather sparse to ensure a good view of the rock surface, thus avoiding the appearance of small bushes growing on the rock. The top of the rock is commonly higher than the trees. The Japanese masters describe a method of using small lead balls, hammered into crevices, to fix copper wire in position for tying down trees. I have found epoxy to be perfectly suited to glue wire directly to rock, although some authors advise you to use copper rings or pieces of plastic piping to thread wire through. These must be positioned so that the roots can be firmly attached to the rock by tying copper wire around them. In some instances it may be necessary to protect the roots by the use of a piece of rubber. The trees are prepared as for Saikei, with most of the excess roots removed, leaving a small dense cluster of roots at the base of the trunk. Remember to keep the roots well sprayed during this process. It is preferable to wire, nip and do preliminary styling of your tree before removing the soil from the roots, since the small size and this relatively precarious planting makes this difficult. Final placing of branches is only done once the tree is secured in its final position, muck must be applied to cover them fully, before landscaping to suit the rocks.

e. Selection of Container

Shallow oval trays, similar to those used for Saikei, are most often used. When displaying the style, the setting may be placed in a shallow tray of water, sand or gravel and small rocks that echo the design of the major one may be planted at the base, slightly forward and to one side.

f. Rounding off and Aftercare

Moss can now be applied to the muck to round off the scene. Should it be required, a piece of shade-cloth or gauze can be tied over the soil and fastened down to help keep it in position until the tree is settled. A fine water spray should be used for the first week or two before the muck has set firmly. Regular fine pinching and pruning will be necessary to maintain the tree shape. As with all new transplants, a period of up to two months in a shady position is essential, as well as regular watering and a dash of T.L.C. Watch out for drying out. Repotting is difficult and techniques for removing portions of the soil, by either pie-cutting or coring are preferred to renew soil.


This style lends itself to immediate enjoyment and could be used as a training style for young Bonsai which could be transplanted later, should this be required. It is not always an easy style to transport and is, possibly, a good idea for a permanent exhibition in your garden, particularly when heavier rocks are used.

With reasonable ease a graceful addition can be made to your Bonsai collection, bringing something of the grandeur and fierce charm of distant mountains to your garden, enhancing the sense of enjoyment that only nature can bring.