When you see a beautiful tree on the mountain, you also see the plants growing nearby which are often humble looking grasses and wildflowers. This natural setting forms the basic concept of displaying bonsai with accent plants.
Accent plants are generally smaller in size and are meant to be a complement to the bonsai on display while companion plants are grown in the pot with the bonsai such as a fern. There are two types of accent plantings – Shitakusa and Kusamono. Shitakusa (下草 under grass), unlike Kusamono, are meant to be viewed as an accompaniment with bonsai not as the center of attention. Kusamono (草物 grass thing) are generally (but not always) larger and meant to be the single focus, not as a complement to a bonsai. This Japanese botanical art derives its name from two Japanese characters, “grass” and “thing”—which together suggest humble, everyday plants. These arrangements of wild grasses and flowers in unique pots or trays are selected to suggest a season or a place. While Kusamono is a wonderful art form on its own, the purpose of this article is to highlight the ways that plants can be used to enhance bonsai displays.
When using accent plants with a bonsai display, several key principles should be kept in mind. These principles include awareness of the seasonal effect, proportion of the accent plant to the bonsai, harmony of the container or pot with the tree and the planting, and knowledge that the bonsai and accent plants exist naturally within the same habitat.
First, the seasonal effect is important. By using grasses or flowers unique to spring, summer, fall or winter an accent plant can be used to create seasonal character to a bonsai display. Accent plants show the seasonality of the display especially with evergreen trees.
Second, it is important to select grasses and flowers that are proportional in size to the bonsai so that the accent is neither too big nor too small. Bonsai is the main focus, and it does not need competition.
Third, the container should complement the bonsai and kusamono. Another important complementary aspect is that the containers should be different shapes – a bonsai in a rectangle container can be displayed with an accent plant in a round container.
Fourth, the plants selected should ideally complement the habitat in which the tree naturally grows thus creating a more realistic sense of its place in nature. For example, a native grass that is from a mountain environment would complement a bonsai tree from the same environment. An artist should avoid having a tropical grass or plant with a mountain tree.