Don't overlook Accent Plants

by David Johnson  

When getting a bonsai into show form the exhibitor must consider that the tree also needs an entire ensemble, as if it were going to the prom. Once the tree is ready, it needs the dreaded "appropriate" accessories - a container and stand, and the corsage - an accent plant. We should not take accent or companion plants for granted just because they seem of lesser consequence. Companion plants have their own beauty and can attract a lot of attention from viewers. They add to the impact of the bonsai when displayed properly.

It should be noted that suiseki, figurines or other objects of art can be used to accompany the bonsai but accent plants are the most common option.

Accent or companion plants help reinforce the feeling or mood of a bonsai when on display. Accent plants "accentuate the character of the trees they accompany with respect to the following characteristics: motion, depth, silhouette and seasonality."

Motion - Bonsai have some movement or direction even if it is a vertical formal upright. Likewise, accent plants should have a sense of direction that compliments the tree. In John Naka's Bonsai Techniques II, he suggests that the movement of the bonsai and the companion plant should be toward each other. This tends to strengthen the unity of the setting or scene that both plants create.

Depth - Perspective or depth can be created in the same way that back branches overcome the flat two dimensionality of width and height. The accent plant can be placed on either side of the tree depending upon movement, in front of or behind the overhead centre line of the bonsai container.

Silhouette refers to the shape of the tree and accent plant. Repeating the silhouette of the bonsai should be avoided in the accent plant. A tall accent plant would probably not work with a tall literati tree. A contrast of shapes, heights, flowering and non-flowering bonsai and accent plants create a better scene.

Seasonality means to take note of the time of the year. The flowers of an accent plant indicate the season. The same would be true of the formation of fruit and turning of leaf colour in the fall. Flower colour also contributes to the overall display by adding an element that might otherwise not be present. Given the Toronto Bonsai Society's traditional June and October shows, accent plants that flower, fruit or have leaves that turn colour during these time periods should be sought after.

Accent plants can serve to suggest the location where the bonsai would naturally be found in the wild. Collect companion plant material from the forest or rocky outcrops where the tree was collected, or where it might grow in nature. Wild strawberries, mosses and other legally collectible material make good accent plants.

Accent plant expert Willi Benz wrote in Bonsai Today that a companion must...

[s]ymbolically represent the main object's place of origin, whether it is a bonsai or a suiseki. Harmonize with the color of the main object. Harmonize with the central object in both shape and size. Add a seasonal reference to the presentation's theme. Reinforce the presentation's overall theme. Serve as a connection between the other pieces of the presentation."

A good mixture for accent plants is a 50/50 ratio of screened sand to top soil that allows for good drainage and water retention, a requirement for small containers. However the grower will have to recognize that some plants need more water, or more shade and try to imitate a plant's natural growing conditions. The pots for accent plants tend to be coloured or natural, round and shallow although other shapes could work. Some articles in bonsai literature recommend using shells, stones and driftwood.

Flowering plants, mosses and grasses are often used as accents. I have even seen a single dandelion used...just don't let it go to seed. The soil should be covered with the plants or in combination with moss. Sometimes arrangements made with different species combine varying heights, colours and shapes. Limiting the number of different species to three keeps the arrangement from getting too busy. The plants in a single arrangement should be from similar eco-conditions. That is, a cactus and a bog plant with different watering needs could not survive in the same container.

In the same way that bonsai are readied for a show, the accent plant should have the dead leaves removed, the pot and plant cleaned and the soil covered with moss and/or low growing plants.

To make life just a little more complicated, the accent plant also needs its own stand. Since the accent plant is smaller than the tree, its stand should be thin because it should not challenge the focus on the bonsai. A thin woven mat, piece of wood or flat ceramic can also be used.

The main objective should be to have fun while you improve the display of your bonsai and create another attractive planting. These accent plantings can also be brought inside for short periods of time to add a bit of colour and nature to your home.

While some accent plantings can be put together relatively quickly, ideally the arrangement should grow for some time in the container to get established and look more natural. Well cared for accent plants improve with age

So give your accent plantings their due consideration because according to Willi Benz, "a bonsai or suiseki without an accent plant is like a face without a smile."


1. No author, "Accent Plants" in Bonsai Today #23, 1993, p. 52
2. Willi Benz, "Kusamono" in Bonsai Today #85, May/June 2003, p. 45
3. Willi Benz, "Kusamono" in Bonsai Today #86, July/August 2003, p. 47
Direct quotes are reprinted with the permission of Stone Lantern Publishing.

John Naka, Bonsai Techniques II, 1982.