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Last modified: September 07, 2013

Orchids as Kusamono or Shitakusa or Sanyasou

A Bonsai term referring to a planting of grasses or herbs grown to be displayed with a bonsai, or for appreciation of itself in its own right.  Kusamono 草物 is the most often used term, and the most generic, the name can be used regardless of the use of the planting. When the grass or herb planting is displayed alone, as the primary focus of attention the term Sanyasou 山野草 is used in Japan. The term Shitakusa 下草 specifically means an under planting, and should be only applied to accent plants that are used to represent the grasses and herbs growing under the main tree. Hence, not all Kusamono when displayed with a main tree are Shitakusa.

Generally traditional Kusamono have more than one species in the planting, with the various textures of foliage being equally or more important than flowers or fruit. When these plantings are used as companion plants to help complete the staging for a bonsai, they are referred to as Shitakusa. In this role these plantings help evoke emotional impact by indicating the season of the year, or the place for the composition. They are also used to set perspective, to indicate how near or far the main tree is from the viewer. In the purpose of complementing a tree, most orchids are unacceptable. The flowers are so gaudy and showy that they would visually disrupt most compositions. If the tree is large enough that it has visual mass, especially if it is a species with large tropical looking leaves, such as the Ficus species, an orchid can be an effective compliment to the tree. When selecting an orchid for this purpose, choose one with a subtle flowers and foliage. Bright colors are okay if the flowers are small enough that they don't visually compete with the tree which is the focus of the composition.

When the purpose of the Kusamono is for appreciation of the planting on its own, there are few rules, but it is important to create visual poetry. Formal design is not necessary, even a bit of whimsy is appreciated. Just as with bonsai trees, a display of kusamono should evoke an emotion or response from the viewer. It needs to capture the eye, and draw the eye into the planting. Many of the design techniques used for bonsai trees can be  applied to kusamono. The goal is to create visual poetry.  

Right now most of my attempts are single species plantings. With most of them I am still at the phase where the goal is to just get the plant to grow and fill the pot. When one is ready to put a plant on display you should clean up the pot, remove dead or spotted leaves and prune off any growths that are at awkward angles. Most of my photos were taken without this level of grooming, because for the most part, the plantings are still in the phase where developing multiple growths is the goal. Grooming for display will come when these plants are better developed. 

In this page I will post images of some of my attempts. I hope to inspire others to try their hands with orchids and other unconventional plants as either whimsical plantings or as serious Kusamono. 

Stelis species

My newest attempt is a little orchid I got from J & L Orchids back in 2004. It is a member of the Pleurothallid tribe. It is a species of Stelis, that J & L has not been able to put a name on. It is a miniature that I put into a 1 inch diameter pot. The flat blue glaze sets off the light green of the flowers. I did not do any removal of growths to shape the planting. It is still in the "figure out how to grow it" stage of development for me. It does seem to be a quick growing plant. It went from 10 leaves to 45 or so leaves in only 5 years. I grow it under a shop light fixture which uses 40 watt cool white fluorescent tubes, hung about 10 inches above the plants. This set up is in the cooler part of my basement. At the time of the photo, 9/13/09 there were 2 flowering stems with 4 fully open flowers and a few buds that will bloom in a couple days. The flowers are tiny, less than inch. This plant meets the criteria for an orchid with subtle flowers. If in time, with better culture on my part, the foliage develops a bit more poetry this plant could be used to accompany a bonsai tree.



The orchid genus Promenaea offers many species of orchids that seem to adapt well to growing for Kusamono. Some are subtle enough to pair with a tree, but generally I grow these toward the goal of enjoying the plant for itself.  

Promenaea Partridge is a favorite of mine. It has taken well to a small 2 inch bonsai pot with a fine fir bark mix for media. One photo is the 2009 blooming, the other two are from 2008.

below is the same plant photo taken August 15, 2008


The following is Restrepia antennisfera 'Edwards' AM/AOS. This is an image of a flowering two years ago. This species has its ups and downs culturally, as of 2009 it is not looking as nice.

Many of the genus Masdevallia are nearly ideal for the experiment in Kusamono. This is an older flowering of Masdevallia Orange Ice. I am hoping the winter 2009-2010 blooming will be award quality. The pot is roughly 3 inches in diameter. Update, 2013 sadly we had a hot summer or two, and this hybrid requires cooler temperatures. It has gone to the compost heap in the sky.

Below is the Dryadella edwallii that was my first experiment in growing orchids as kusamono. This is a photo of the plant in an orchid display when it won an 86 point Certificate of Cultural Merit from the American Orchid Society. The following year, 2005 it won Best In Show, for the Amateur competition at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show. Nothing is permanent, in 2007 the central growths died, so I had to break up the clump. Today I have several divisions coming up to size, hopefully I will soon have a different planting of this plant equal to the original.  


Below is another member of the genus Promenaea.  This is Promenaea lentiginosa `Silver Creek', a division from Brian Lang of Freeport, IL.

Promenaea lentiginosa `Silver Creek'



copyright Leo Schordje
Last modified: May 30, 2013