Recently, Eric showed me a dozen or so Yaupon Holly mini-bonsai, some of which he'd planted into teacup-style containers. I thought they were pretty and would make nice additions to any bonsai collection, but I didn't really think about them in any deeper way. Then Eric mentioned that there was a special connection between the plants and the containers, and he sent me on a research expedition. It didn't take me long to see how Eric had connected the history of two cultures across hundreds of years to create these mini-bonsai.
Chadō and Chawan: The Way of Tea and the Tea Bowl, Japan
Like bonsai, Japan’s introduction to tea originated from China. As early as the 8th century, traders, diplomats, and visiting monks from China brought tea to Japan. Once in Japan, drinking tea evolved over the next five centuries from a simple habit into a broad cultural experience, and became known as chadō "The Way of Tea". There are different types of tea ceremonies, with generally consistent elements (e.g. dedicated room, hanging scroll, flower arrangement originating from ikebana, customary clothing, and meal) and equipment (tea scoop, whisk, caddy, bowl, and cleaning linen).
For many chadō practitioners, the tea bowl, or chawan, is a treasured item. Any bowl can be a chawan - the only thing that makes a bowl a chawan is the act of preparing and drinking tea from it! The history of chawan includes the formal Chinese tenmoku style, the more rustic Korean Ido, and the handbuilt Japanese Raku and playful Oribe styles (more information).
Cassina: Energy, Strength, and Focus, North America
Yaupon Holly (Ilex Vomitoria) is a species native to southeastern North America. It’s found only from Texas to Florida, and north through Virginia. It’s the only naturally caffeinated plant species that grows in the United States. Yaupon has been used as an important food, medicine, and ceremonial item by Indigenous communities for thousands of years. The Timucua people (who lived in what is today Florida and Georgia) called Yaupon cassina, and believed that it purified the mind and body of those who drank it. For sure, the leaf's natural caffeine and powerful antioxidants also gave Timucua warriors strength and energy. The leaves were roasted, infused in boiling water, and drank hot from elaborately carved whelk shells. (Yaupon Brothers Tea)
Yaupon Holly are typically used as ornamental shrubs in landscaping. Bonsai enthusiasts appreciate the small shiny evergreen leaves, numerous red berries (on female plants) and small white spring flowers, and pale gray bark marked with white patches. This established tree is part of Jonas Dupuich’s collection; you can learn more about it here.
A Decidedly Eclectic Bonsai
Now whenever I look at these beautiful Yaupon Holly in little teacup-style bonsai containers, I can't help but imagine picking a few leaves off [during regular bonsai maintenance], roasting them and infusing them in boiling water, to drink from my favorite chawan! Drawing from traditional Japanese influences and indigenous North American cultural practices has created a a truly eclectic and unique bonsai.