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In Search of Bonsai Inspiration in the American Southwest



Stick figures and lemon yellow suns. That's about the extent of my artistic abilities. I'm not the Pictionary partner you're looking for. So you can imagine my struggle with bonsai design. But, like a foreign language or computer code, I think art can be learned and I'm determined to learn it.


Where better to learn the design of trees than seeing them first hand, in the wild. And there may be no better place in the world for bonsai inspiration than the American Southwest. With the sandstone bluffs as the backdrop and pines of all kinds growing and thriving, there’s plenty to see and designs to learn.


I had the fortunate opportunity to spend a few days in and around Zion National Park recently. I went for fun, but I was constantly looking to learn from the trees and the environment around me. My goal was to find and photograph as many as I could. Taking photos allows me to go back and really study the trees at a later time. My hope is that these studies will inform my designs.

Before I share my findings, let me share a few tips I think about when trying to snap photos of my favorite trees.


  1. Look up. Trees will show their silhouettes better with the background of the blue sky. If your tree of inspiration is below you, try and get lower and then take the photos.

  2. Dead is as good as alive. When looking for trees, I can learn just as much from the bones of dead tree as I can from a live one.

  3. Find the light. If you come across a tree you want to photo, consider whether you can take a photo of that tree in the evening or morning. Of course, if that's not possible, shoot away, but those times are often the best light for taking photos.

  4. Use your film. You never know what angle or look is gonna turn out best, so I always snap as many pictures as I can. Then go back later to find the ones I like the best. (All the photos from this post were taken with my iPhone)


Ok, so there's some tips for taking photos of trees. Now, onto some inspiration!




My trip began with a flight from Nashville to Las Vegas. I had a few hours before my trip-mates arrived, so I decided to go for hike through Red Rock Canyon NCA.












When I'm looking for bonsai inspiration, I'm not so much looking for actual bonsai in nature. More, I'm trying to study how trees grow. What gives them their natural beauty and grace? What aspects of the trees are important when designing a bonsai tree? In this picture, I notice how the tree grows along side the cliff until it's able to find light.










I took time to notice the deadwood and live veins of the Rocky Mountain junipers. I've heard people say that American bonsai has too much deadwood, or that it's "unnatural", but if you've been to the cliffs of the American Southwest, you'll see that massive deadwood is common among the large junipers. Notice how the live vein enters the ground and spirals around the tree. Just amazing!







After my hike at Red Rock Canyon, it was onto Zion National Park. What an absolutely stunning place.






In bonsai design, we often create isosceles triangles. Triangles are found in many art mediums. I learned plenty about asymmetry and triangles in "Principles of Bonsai Design" by David De Groot. Check it out, if you haven't already. You can see the asymmetrical design of this pine.















Trunk movement provides interest in your tree, but it's also represented in nature. This tree shows the struggle to stay alive, clinging from the cliff for decades. Also, notice how the trees want to grow towards the light. This gives the trees movement, style and natural grace.











Again, notice the asymmetry and how the tree continues to grow away from the cliff, where it finds the light.





A stunted pine with exposed roots. Notice the apex of the tree is soft. A look that is difficult to recreate in bonsai, but important to the design.

























I'll finish with another round of deadwood and live veins. Notice the natural orange color of the live vein and how white the deadwood looks after being in the elements for years. This is the natural look that I want to highlight in my designs.
























My buddies and I had a great time and I hope you all get a chance to see Zion up close and personal. And I hope these trees give you a bit of inspiration the next time you are working with a conifer bonsai.



What trees or sources do you use for bonsai inspiration? Post your pics, I'd love to see them!



Until next time, Peace Love Bonsai















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