([sakura], lit. cherry-blossom)
Over the years, I have created numerous trees of various sizes and colours for game-inspired dioramas. It has not only become one of my favourite topics to tackle, it is also a beloved theme within the entire LEGO® Fan Community. You can find countless mesmerizing and unique designs online, built by fans all around the world. Still, there are certain design-solutions which are so fitting that you can find them in almost every model. The most obvious ones are the LEGO® leave parts (Part-ID 2417 and 2423), which by now are available in a multitude of colours. They are a very elegant solution as they represent both the leaves and the tree branches at once, allowing for a sturdy and convincing treetop. Yet, because the pieces are mono-coloured, most often in the colour of the leaves, they do not accurately replicate the tree branches. They merely create the illusion of there being branches underneath by blocking the view. This can be extremely useful, as one does not actually have to build a complex system of arms. I used this technique quite often, for example with the trees in Alfheim. Still, I always wanted to build a tree that would avoid this trick as much as possible and instead would have each leaf and each blossom as separate LEGO® pieces connected by visible branches. But I found this quite difficult to realise in a minifigure-scale tree.
When the new LEGO® crown piece (Part-ID 39262) was released in white in 2019, I pretty quickly imagined it as the perfect part for a cherry-blossom. Although it was mostly used as a half broken egg shell in the original sets, its shape and colour matches those of a Japanese cherry-blossom to a tee. It even has five points, just as the five petals of the flowers. The only problem was their size. Since they are larger than a minifigure head they would have simply been much too big for a tree in a diorama. Because of that, I shelved the idea for the time being.
In recent years LEGO® steadily increased their portfolio of products aimed at adults. What began as mostly IP-related huge spaceships turned into an entire sub-category of LEGO® sets with no play-features but with the sole purpose of being aesthetic decorations. It is within this category that LEGO® created one of the most innovative and inspirational product lines: the Botanical Collection. One of the sets within this collection, the LEGO® 10281 Bonsai Tree designed by Nico Vas, particularly fascinated me. Even tough bonsai are a common topic for LEGO® fan-made creations I never really considered building one up until this point. Seeing Nico's design, I realised that I could both use the crown as a cherry blossom and develop my concept of building individual branches all within a 1:1 recreation of a cherry-blossom bonsai tree. When brickset.com started its "Build a Bonsai" competition at the same time, I challenged myself to finish the bonsai within a month.
([ki no miki], lit. tree trunk)
The first part of the bonsai that I started to build was the trunk and the overall shape of the tree itself. I looked at multiple different bonsai and how they grow, but in the end I wanted to take inspiration from the curvature of the LEGO® Bonsai set and expand it from a "ɔ" to an "Ƨ" shape. So I started with the lower trunk bending to the right, forming a ¾-circle to the left and then bending back up, while simultaneously getting thinner. Additionally, the initial bend to the right extends into a fully blooming branch. That way the tree has three main clusters of flowers, one at the center top and two lower ones at either side, mimicking a podium.
To realise this concept, the tree needed a durable inner structure which consists of one continuous beam of technic axles, connectors and 3mm bars. The inner beam extends from the base all the way to the tip of the tree, becoming visible roughly half-way through, at the highest point of the curve. Here it splits into two branches which stretch to the left and reconnect at the tip. This was necessary to create a solid support for the numerous flowers which are placed here and prevent the branch from bending too far down. While the center beam is within the lower, thicker tree trunk, technic connector hubs with four bars (Part-ID 48723) are placed on the axle in certain intervals, which in turn hold four bar holders with clip (Part-ID 11090) each. These then connect to multiple flex tubes (Part-ID 75c14) that follow the shape of the inner beam. Therefore the center structure looks kind of like a helix with the flex tubes spiralling around the center beam. This makes for quite a sturdy tree trunk. Furthermore, it allows for a lot of attachment points, so most of the outer parts are directly connected to the flex tube.
The scale of the tree made the use of a wide variety of parts for the tree bark possible. There are snow-shoes (Part-ID 11187), triangular street-signs (Part-ID 892) and even some clubs (Part-ID 88001) placed throughout, with only a few classic wedges and slopes used to cover larger areas. As these pieces are quite recognisable, the tree bark has a unique LEGO® -esque appearance. I liked the idea that you could identify the individual parts, if you knew what to look for, but that together they formed a weirdly homogenous texture. Similarly, the closer you look at a real tree bark the more intentional and geometric each crevice and form looks, but when you step back it all blends into an organic shape.
Some of the parts that are used for the bark are also used to create the larger branches, like the plant limb (Part-ID 24204) and the mechanical arm (Part-ID 53989) which help to visually connect the limbs with the main trunk and give the impression that they naturally grew out of it. Most of the blossoms are connected to the branches with flower stems (Part-ID 24855), but I also used some leaf parts (Part-ID 2423) in dark brown (Color-ID 120) to group them closer together. For the cherry-blossoms, I placed 1*1 round plates with flower edges (Part-ID 33291 and 24866), vertical swirls (Part-ID 15470) and flowers (Part-ID 32606) in dark pink (Color-ID 47) and bright pink (Color-ID 104) on the inside of the white crowns. In between, I sparsely placed some 1*1 round plates in white and even some cherries (Part-ID 22667) to give it an irregular and natural look. Additionally, some vines (Part-ID 55236) in reddish brown (Color-ID 88) are placed underneath the blossoms to replicate tiny branches.
The LEGO® 10281 Bonsai Tree's flowers are kept solely in white, bright pink and dark pink which is very accurate for a fully blooming sakura tree. However, while designing my interpretation I felt that the tree top was missing some visual highlights. I decided to add multiple different parts in lime green (Color-ID 34) to represent small leaves or tree buds. Small LEGO® feathers (Part-ID 88490) and hair pieces (Part-ID 21268) worked perfectly for that.
([bon], lit. tray)
Having finished the tree, the next step was building a suitable tray and a pedestal for it to rest on. My original idea was to use the exact same design for the tray as the LEGO® 10281 Bonsai Tree set, but it would have ultimately looked too thin. So instead I designed a new, larger one with a similar appearance. Getting the angled surfaces to align, while keeping the look simple and elegant was quite tricky. I ended up using wedge pieces (Part-ID 43710 and 43711) at the corners and hinges to keep the outer walls at the same inclination. The tray also has an embossed surface on each side to add some texture.
For me, the tree was absolutely the highlight of the model, so the pedestal should ideally not be noticed. But it should also not stick out for being overly simplistic. This turned out to be one of the biggest design challenges, so I tried different design ideas. One concept had multiple tan (Colour-ID 2) bars with a square cross-section, held up by two longer bars. I scraped that concept, however, because I thought tan would be too distracting of a colour in this instance. I instead settled on the pedestal being similarly dark as the tray, so that the colour-palette of the model would get brighter from bottom to top. The colour I chose was dark brown as it was barely used within the tree. I took inspiration from cutting boards and the small groove they usually have at the edges to design a pedestal consisting of two plates with the same height, separated by a small crevice. To avoid overdoing the detailing of the pedestal I limited myself to one interesting part use for each half. The upper plate therefore features 1*3 containers (Part-ID 69066) forming a pattern, while the lower one uses dresses (Part-ID 36036) to create the curvature around the four feet. Comparing the LEGO® set with my own design, I was surprised how coherent they looked together. Although they are built almost completely differently they still look like they belong to the same collection.
One of my favourite aspects of the LEGO® 10281 Bonsai Tree is the fact that at the end of its instruction manual, multiple different bonsai with unique designs, flowers and colours are shown to encourage experimentation. Therefore, even tough the set is very different from most LEGO® products, it still follows this core philosophy of inspiring creativity. And from a certain point of view a real-life bonsai is the perfect metaphor for that. No two plants grow the same, and similarly every LEGO® creation can be approached in endless ways.