Shikatusa, companion plantings

Posted by on Apr 12, 2007 in Articles And Stories

For our April 2007 General meeting we were pleased to have Kora Dolager as a guest to lead a talk and workshop on companion plantings.   Kora spoke for a few minutes about her discussions with Japanese masters on what is important in a companion planting.  She also provided a handout which is found below.

Kora said that there are a few things which are important in a planting, the most important is that the planting show seasonality.  Plantings which are lush and green in the middle of winter are not appropriate, as dry grass is not appropriate in the middle of summer (although in California I suppose you could argue that point.)  Lushness of the planting is important, there should not be any soil showing obviously in the pot.  Also, the planting should be wild, but not untidy.  Clean out dead foliage and leaves that have been damaged by critters.  Kora indicated that glazed pots and showy pots are not the best choice since they tend to overpower the display.  The same thing is true for clumps of flowering plants in a planting.  If flowers are present there should only be a few and they should be small and interspersed with less showy types of plants.  See below for more information.

Shitakusa versus Kusamono
by Kora Dalager

When we display bonsai, we usually include an accent plant, as it has become known over the years. The correct term should be shitakusa, which is translated from the Japanese shita, below or under, and  kusa, grass. In the past twenty years or so a related art form has developed, commonly known as kusamono, kusa, grass, and mono thing. Mrs. Keiko Yamane, a student of Mr. Saburo Kato, is one of the pioneers in the art of kusamono. Now we have distinct differentiations between companion plants and kusamono.

Personally, I prefer the term complementary plant to the term accent plant or companion plant, because the shitakusa is not meant to be the dominant focus of the presentation. Rather, it is plant material to complete the exhibit of the main focus, which can be a bonsai, a suiseki, and/or a scroll. When you look at a bonsai or suiseki display you should never have the first impression, “Wow, what a great shitakusa” or complementary plant. It should round out the exhibit to form a complete impression and make you imagine that it is winter or spring, or that you are in the woods, or that the bonsai is high up in the mountains.

Kusamono, on the other hand, are the “top dog”. When they are exhibited they are the focus. You  can of course add a scroll, figurine, or suiseki to complete the picture. Kusamono can be tall, mixed plantings or all the same plant, in or out of a container. The kusamono determines the impression of place and season, such as a meadow, a bog, or the mountains.

Here then are a few guidelines to growing your shitakusa and kusamono:


·     should be in proper proportion to the main focus (bonsai, suiseki, and/or scroll.

·     should not be more “showy” than the main focus.

·     should indicate the season of the year.

·     should indicate to some extent the type of location, where the bonsai grows. For example, the woods can be indicated by ferns and mosses and deciduous trees complemented by grasses.

·     Containers for shitakusa should be unobtrusive, dull in color, and as flat as possible, to the extent that the plant material will allow. The plants can also be taken out of the container and displayed on a flat tray.


  • can be a single plant or mixed plants, in or out of the container.
  • can be displayed with either a scroll, figurine, or suiseki, but these items will be subservient to the kusamono.
  • Kusamono are usually displayed on a mat, flat board, flat ceramic tray, or, rarely, a formal bonsai stand.
  • Kusamono should conform to the seasons.
  • Kusamono can be a combination of seedling trees, flowers and grasses.

When planting a shitakusa or kusamono, be sure to select plants that have similar growing conditions. For instance, group together plants that need lots of water, or that like a lot of sun, or that grow primarily at high altitude. Also be aware of plants that are invasive. Use them sparingly and keep them in check, so they don’t dominate the planting and kill off the rest of your plants.

When displaying either kusamono or complementary plants, they should not look like they have just been potted. Please plan ahead of a show, weeks, if not months. There should be no soil readily visible; cover with moss several weeks before a show.

Have many complementary plants available so you can pick out the right combination: size compared to the main focus, shape and color of the container. Shitakusa must also be directional, so plan ahead for that as well.

Reprinted from Golden Statements with the permission of the author.

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