Beginners often assume that the art of bonsai started in Japan because of the term “bon-sai”. But the term is
simply the Japanese pronunciation of the earlier Chinese term “pun-sai”.
The art form actually started with the Chinese elite 5000 years ago. A thousand years later, during the Bronze Age, it was among the chosen traditions revived by the Chinese for religious and political ceremonial purposes.
It then remained a family practice of the Koumintang in mainland China. The Chinese Nationalists became a major political party of the opposition, ruling China from 1927 to 1948.
After some time, the group migrated to Taiwan, bringing their art and traditions with them, including the art of bonsai.
While in Taiwan, bonsai was scarce and they were forced to look beyond the border in order to continue their tradition.
This is where the Philippines’ unrecognized contribution to the history of bonsai comes in.
The Koumintang or KMT started to import vast numbers of species, including our local Bantigue (Pemphis acidula).
The Bantigue became a favorite of the bonsai industry because it has that gnarly trunk and seemingly ancient finish. Being unfamiliar with the species, the Chinese had a difficult time keeping it alive. The beauties needed extra care because of their endemic necessity to have salt water, thus making it one of the most-prized of all.
Some 800 years ago, during the Kamakura period (800 years ago), the Japanese began promoting this type of art (bonsai) and making it known throughout the world.
Not for public viewing
Because of the political climate at the time, bonsai gardens and nurseries were considered sacred spaces and were obscured from the public eye.
To this day, it is said one has to earn the owner’s trust to be able to get invited into their sacred space, which is why it was an honor to have been invited to Balai Paraisol, in Angono, Rizal.
Today in our country, there are several active groups in the bonsai industry. Our hosts, Dr. Erwin Fabros, president of the Rizal Institute of Bonsai and founder of Pinoy Tropical Bonsai and BonScience, and Vincent Ferrer, founding member of BonScience and Philippine Tropical Bonsai, have already made a name for themselves, having been part of a group of bonsai artist pioneers in the Philippines. Both of them are also members of BSAPI, a national club. If you have been following their practice, you may have seen them as judges in national bonsai competitions.
A showplace for local talent
Balai Paraisol is their brainchild. The paradise is formally owned by Ferrer who, aside from being an artist himself, collects the best bonsai pieces from local artists here in the Philippines.
When asked why they put together this majestic garden, he humbly answered that he wanted a place where local talent can be proudly exhibited.
According to him, many internationally acclaimed artists have been longing to see a local nursery that showed the unique style of the artists in the Philippines, this is when the idea was brought to life.
“Many acclaimed international artists visit this place to be able to see what Philippine talent looks like. They stay here for a couple of days whenever they visit the Philippines to relax and enjoy the view,” Ferrer says.
Ferrer and his associates make sure they keep the garden at its best.
They make sure the prized Bantigues get their weekly salt, and all of the plants get fertilized on a weekly basis. Insecticides are applied twice a month.
Dr. Fabros shares, “There is no general way to take care of all bonsai. Each has its individual characteristic.
BonScience and Philippine Tropical Bonsai come here often to experiment for scientific research. In the group we discuss about photosynthesis, the cellular level of plants and how they grow based on species. Everyone willing to learn is invited to join us.”
Although bonsai practice has a controversial side, it is said by many that as long as you are not taking big trees and cutting them down it is still ethical. Although some locals would still be guilty of this, the more prominent groups try their best to keep the biodiversity intact.
When asked about the price of the bonsai in Balai Paraisol, Ferrer just chuckles and says, “It’s a secret.”
“We could estimate one ancient Bantigue to be around P3M, and I can surely say that all the bonsai put together is worth more than the whole house and lot of Balai Paraisol.”
It certainly is a big responsibility to take care of the work of national bonsai artists on this scale, and you can’t put a price tag on that.
“This place has only been established for three years but we are hoping that this will be passed on for generations, just as the Chinese did for their family. It is a legacy that will remain for hundreds of years to come,” Ferrer concludes.