Posted July 23, 2008 by peter chan in Techniques


There is a lot of interest these days in ‘Yamadori’ or collecting bonsai material from the wild. In trendy contemporary bonsai circles especially in Europe, America and Japan, ‘Yamadori’ is all the rage.

Yamadori by Peter Chan

Yamadori is not a new concept or practice. Even in the olden days when the Chinese started making bonsai, it was generally recognised that the plants from the ‘wild’ places i.e. the jungles and mountains, were the best material for bonsai. The reason for this was because the material they found in the wild had the most interesting shapes and lots of character. These ‘wild’ plants had naturally gnarled and twisted trunks. Some were so beautiful that they were clearly far superior to anything that could be grown in gardens and nurseries.

Both Chinese and Japanese bonsai enthusiasts regarded material collected from the wild as the crème-del-la-crème. There was nothing to match this. The Japanese called it ‘Yama-dori’, which literally translated means ‘collected from the mountain’. Because much of Japan is mountainous terrain, it is hardly surprising that the best bonsai material is to be found in these locations. The harsh environment of the mountains, with its strong winds, snow and rain, had a natural stunting effect on trees and plants. Lashed by the winds and weighed down by the snow, trees and plants in the mountains seldom grew straight. They always remained stunted, twisted and gnarled – thus providing all the desired characteristics for good bonsai. It is said that man cannot do what Nature does, and this is a case in point. When trees grow in these harsh conditions, Nature sculpts them into exquisite shapes and forms. They are often found complete with the jins and sharis. In fact they are like finished pieces of sculptured driftwood – the quality of which no human being can hope to create.

Yamadori by Peter Chan

Back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such material could be found relatively easily in Japan, Korea and China. Stories have been told of how famous bonsai hunters in Japan would risk life and limb, just to collect beautiful pines, spruce and junipers from rocky precipices in the high mountains. Right up to the 1930′s there was still a lot of material to be had from the mountains, but after the Second World War, it became much scarcer because a lot of people were doing the same thing. Today of course, collecting from the wild mountains in Japan is not permitted unless it is from private land. There is a growing awareness of the need to preserve nature and the countryside and most people see the sense in observing this code of practice. There is clearly no point in digging up plants from the wild because if everybody did this, then there would be no plants left for others to enjoy.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of certain sections of the bonsai community especially in Europe, where bonsai is relatively recent and plant material from the wild mountains is quite plentiful. In the Italian, French and Swiss Alps there are lots of beautiful larches, pines, spruces and even junipers growing in rock crevices and cliffs. They have the most desirable characteristics for exquisite bonsai. This poses some difficult ethical issues for bonsai enthusiasts – Should you take such material from the wild or shouldn’t you?

If the trees are growing on private land one could say that it is OK to dig them up, but it could also be argued that if the tree or plant has been growing there for a long long time, then shouldn’t it be kept for future generations to enjoy? The worst-case scenario is when bonsai collectors take trees from public land without permission. This is tantamount to stealing or theft as there can be no other word to describe it. It is certainly not a nice thing to do.

Yamadori by Peter Chan

Fortunately, there are situations where you can collect plants from the ‘wild’ legitimately. Here in Britain, some Forest authorities will give you permission to dig up trees from their land. It is usually when the trees are growing in the wrong locations. In the South of England, for instance, there are some large tracts of forests, which have pines growing on heath land. This is land, which was originally grass and scrub land, but over the years pines have colonised the area and become such a problem that they are now considered almost a weed. In order to keep these pines under control, the forest authorities simply destroy these pines at regular intervals. Bonsai enthusiasts have always seen this as wasteful and have asked the authorities for permission to dig some of these unwanted pines up for hobby purposes. The authorities have very kindly given permission for these trees to be dug up, and they grant ‘licences’ to clubs and individuals for this purpose. With a valid licence you can dig up as many trees as you wish without breaking the law.

The pines from some of these forests make lovely bonsai material as they have been growing in boggy conditions for many years and have been nibbled by wild life such as deer, sheep and ponies which keep them stunted and short. During the early 1990′s I had occasion to go collecting with some of the clubs and have obtained some very nice bonsai material from there – all for free.

Other collecting opportunities occur when new roads or other projects are under construction. When new highways are being made, vast tracts of forest often have to be cleared. The trees are just a nuisance and they are just bull-dozed and burnt. If you can get permission to dig up the plants before construction begins, then you will be in for a treat. But it is usually very difficult to get permission to remove the plants from these sites as it can be dangerous with all the large earth moving machinery moving around. They don’t want people in the way. It’s worth a try anyway. You never know – as you can be lucky.

Yamadori by Peter Chan

It is not always the wild areas that have the best raw material for bonsai. Sometimes you can come across lovely bonsai material in the most unlikely places. I have seen potential bonsai growing on the roadside and from out of old buildings. In cities like Kolkatta, I have often seen Banyan and Peepal trees growing from the cracks of walls of buildings. This is all ‘Yamadori’ stuff, even though you don’t have to visit the jungles to get it. If you can spot the right material – all you have to do is ask permission to dig it out. A generous tip usually does the trick.

Now that good ‘Yamadori’ material is so hard to get, many bonsai enthusiasts are looking to these other sources. Old building sites, railway yards and derelict land are prime locations for collecting potential bonsai material. I remember in the 1970′s many of the slag heaps in steel factories and coal mines were happy hunting grounds for this kind of material. In recent years, I have found ‘Yama-dori’ material in suburban houses, which are earmarked for demolition. This is currently my best source for ‘yama-dori’ material.

In Japan, I am told that many of the large yews and junipers which look as if they were ‘yama-dori’ material are in fact old garden trees. Many yews, which are now beautiful bonsai, were once grown in nurseries for foliage for Ike-bana purposes. When these trees get too old to be productive (i.e. they are no longer producing good foliage for flower arranging), they are either scrapped or sold on to bonsai enthusiasts.

Yamadori by Peter Chan

During my travels to foreign countries, especially in the Mediterranean, I have come across hundreds of lovely trees and shrubs which would make beautiful bonsai. But I leave them well alone. I have seen some stunning junipers and pines in the most unlikely places, but I don’t feel it is right to dig them up. I now regard taking ‘yama-dori’ material from the wild, especially if they are on public land, as an ethical issue. It is very difficult to resist taking these old trees from the wild, but I feel that one has to behave responsibly and leave them well alone.

peter chan