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Pots ... Shapes ... Colours

Pots ... Shapes ... Colours

Choosing a pot depends on the species, the shape and the colour of the bonsai that it should hold. This is also true for shohin pots that often display more vivid colours.

What Is Bonsai?

To briefly give the meaning of the two characters of the word "Bon-Sai", one could simply say that it means a plant in a container. This could lead you to think that every plant in a container is a bonsai, which is however not the case. Plants cultivated in pots cover a wide array of species, from house plants to cacti, from orchids to grasses and container plants in the garden. For the cultivation of these different species, containers of various shapes and materials are used, from porcelain pots to wooden containers.

Let's get back to the question: What is bonsai? A more suitable definition would be that it is a potted plant which, irrespective of its natural size, is trained in a manageable size and is reminiscent of old, full-grown trees in nature. The container in which a bonsai is cultivated is therefore used to emphasize this appearance and the evocative power of the plant to which it should stand in a harmonious relation.

How should one decide which type, size, colour and shape is best suited for a specific bonsai? A bonsai is not a copy of a tree in nature, but an image consisting of a tree and a pot. None of these elements should dominate the other one. Without this essential complement, the pot, a bonsai cannot be appreciated as such. Inseparably linked by this necessity, Bon and Sai form a unity that should satisfy both the physical and the aesthetic requirements of the tree. Their relation is like that between a painting and its frame. The selection of a pot always has subjective character, but it should also account for the "spirit" of the tree: Is it robust and powerful, or is it tender and elegant - the pot should harmonize with that. The thickness and length of the branches is an as important factor as the height and thickness of the stem, but the colours of flowers or fruit and the colour of the bark all need to be considered as well.

Shapes And Designs

A powerful tree is characterized by strong branches and a substantial trunk, rough bark and well developed and defined surface roots. The pots for such a tree can be active or passive, depending on the desired effect. There are features of visual strength in a pot which give it an active role - the more pronounced the feet and rim of a pot, the more active it is in the composition. Passive pots, by contrast, are those that do not have prominent feet or rims, where these elements are more integrated into the pot's walls. The walls are more smooth, straight or slightly curved.

1 Types Of Pots

There are three big categories that comprehend all shapes of pots: Round, oval and rectangular shape. The pots can be deep or shallow. Some shapes have variants, such as a quince flower's shape which is derived from the oval shape. Production-wise, two types can be distinguished: Manually produced pots, which usually look better and are more expensive, and machine-made pots which are of course cheaper and sufficient for the development phase of a tree.

1. 1 Round Pots

Round pots are often used as training pots. For aesthetic reasons, they have a limited application for  bonsai. They are however ideally suited for accent plants, azaleas and bunjin style trees. A variant of the round shape is the flower shape where the bottom of the pot is round and the upper part forms the petals of the flower.

1. 2 Oval Pots

Oval pots are  the most common shape and are suited for almost all bonsai styles. They can be produced manually or with machines, but there is a big difference in quality. In manual production, the clay is cut into an oval shape to create the bottom of the pot, onto which a stripe of clay is mounted to create the walls of the pot. Producing such a pot requires more time and several production steps, which is why such pots are relatively expensive. The quince-flowered shape is a variant of this shape.

1. 3 Rectangular Pots

Angular pots, with or without cut corners, can be sub-classified into square and rectangular pots. The manual production steps are similar to the oval pot, but the clay is cut separately for the rim. This takes more time and is more complex, so the price is higher. Producing with a mould can be done about ten times cheaper, but again there is a considerable difference in quality. A variant of the square or rectangular pot is a pot with cut corners, in which case eight sides need to be prepared, which again increases the price. Another variant are hexagonal shapes.

2 The Depth of a Pot

Pots can have depths ranging from several millimeters to several decimeters. Choosing the right depth must be guided more by horticultural aspects than by the designer's ideas.

3 Handmade Pots

There are countless variations of the round form when the clay is modelled with the fingers without using a potter's wheel. It's important to appreciate the sometimes rugged, unrefined and flamboyant beauty of these pots.

4 Pots From A Mould

All shapes from mass production are made this way. There is a manual production too where series of pots are made in plaster moulds. Small pots are also pressed or slip cast into moulds with machines. Of course, the less manual work is involved, the lower the prices are. The quality difference is considerable.

5 Manually Painted Pots

If unglazed pots are painted individually, they will of course differ from each other. This produces authentic masterpieces of paining which of course are priced accordingly.

6  Colours Of The Pots

Three categories of colouring can be distinguished: Unglazed pots, which have different shades depending on the clay used: grey, greenish, yellow, black, purple, red etc.; glazed pots, which are most widespread, and painted pots.

6. 1 Unglazed Pots

Their colours are not as diverse as those of glazed pots, since the colours are determined by the clay used - grey, green, brown, yellow, purple etc. After the first firing, the pots are fired again without glazing them. Due to their austere looks, they are particularly suited for conifers. They can also be used as training pots for young plants or deciduous plants during the forming phase, but they usually don't harmonize well with finished, matured specimens of deciduous plants. Particularly in the case of flowering or fruiting trees, the contrast between pot and tree is often not clear enough and the overall effect is rather dull. Conversely, if conifers are planted into glazed pots, their calm and dignified appearance is lost, and they can have a superficial and bizarre effect.

6. 2 Glazed Pots

There is a multitude of colours and hues from white, yellow, blue, red, orange  brown and black for every taste and requirement. These are most commonly used for deciduous trees.

6. 3  Painted Pots

Painted pots made of porcelain are fired at high temperatures. They are less porous, which means that the roots receive less air. After the first firing they are decorated with under- or onglaze painting and then fired again. (There are two possibilities here: Either the painting is applied after the first firing, optionally covered with a transparent glaze and then high fired, or an opaque glaze is applied first, then high fired, then the painting is applied and the pot is fired for a third time at lower temperatures).

Since these pots are hand painted, they are usually quite expensive, but under horticultural aspects they are not ideal for plants. For this reason they are often just used to present a bonsai on a show or exhibition, and after the exhibition the pot is changed back to one that is better for the roots' health.

7  The Relationship Between Bonsai and Pot

The correct answer would be that the pot should not play a dominant role, but rather support the bonsai that it contains. In other words, the pot should never diminish the presence of the tree, or it will jeopardise the effect of bonsai as an integral work of art.

8  A Good Idea?

Many bonsai lovers would like to create pots for their own trees, and some even give it a try. The idea to create a pot that is truly unique can be tempting, but it can easily compromise the integrity of the work of art. When aiming for a certain colour or shape, it's easy to create a pot that is too flashy: A rim that's too dominant, curves along the rim, ornamental stripes, ornaments in general ... all these devices can be used in an attempt to make a pot that is distinct from the masses of existing pots. But often such a pot will be hard or impossible to combine with a bonsai: The strong character of the pot will diminish the character of the tree that it should contain. So it is important to always remember the role that a pot should play in relation to the tree that it holds.


Satsuki Azalea, height 10cm. The glazed pot's colour harmonizes with the leaves and the blossoms, and the rectangular, rather deep pot underlines the powerful trunk.

Japanese hornbeam (Carpinus japonica), height 8 cm. The brightly coloured pot is a good match for the chaste colour nuances of the leaves.

Satsuki Azalea, height 10 cm. The rectangular pot enhances the strong trunk with its striking character. The colour of the pot is remarkable too.

Satsuki Azalea, height 10 cm. If fertilization is reduced before the plant flowers, the white colour of the flowers will be more prominent.

Asian serviceberry (Amelanchier asiatica), height 14 cm. The colour of the pot underlines the fruits that mature at the beginning of the summer, giving an overall effect of great harmony.

Satsuki Azalea, height 10 cm. The contrast between the round, purple coloured pot and the white flowers is astounding.

Grass composition, height 10 cm. What is the effect of the orange glazed pot on the overall composition? Bold, but very interesting.

Siverberry (Elaeagnus pungens), height 12 cm. The rectangular pot is the perfect choice to enhance the red colour of the fruits.

Silverberry (Elaegnus pungens), height 8,5 cm. The colour of this rectangular pot with cut corners is another good match for the colour of the fruits.

Satsuki Azalea, height 13 cm. A strong contrast.

Satsuki Azalea, height 12 cm. A blue pot for the large, simple flowers.

Satsuki Azalea, height 11 cm. This is one of the most wide-spread varieties.

Satsuki Azalea, height 8 cm. The rather deep pot is a good choice for the massive trunk, but the choice of colour seems less fortunate.

Satsuki Azalea, height 10 cm. A variety with small flowers.

Satsuki Azalea, height 13 cm. A combination that is quite austere but also graceful.

Satsuki Azalea, width 13 cm. The trunk was chopped since it would have been too large for a shohin bonsai. The wound has healed over perfectly.

Satsuki Azalea, height 8,5 cm. These flowers have a particularly strong colouring at the fringe.

Various round pots for every taste. From small to big, in a vast array of colours, these pots for shohin bonsai are a joy to behold and make great collector's items.

Oval and rectangular pots. These pots with their different shapes and colours can address all kinds of needs.

Unglazed pots. Clay in grey, brown, green, red ... these more austere gradients are paired with a great variety of sometimes eccentric shapes.

This article was kindly provided by BONSAI ART.

Translation: Stefan Ulrich

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