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The Living Art of Bonsai Trees

Updated on April 30, 2009

Bonsai is a plant, especially a tree, that has been deliberately dwarfed. A mature bonsai tree should be knotted, gnarled, and look old, but it must be normally shaped and in perfect proportion despite its small size.

The art of cultivating bonsai probably originated in China, and was introduced to Japan before the 13th century. Its purpose is to re-create in miniature the beauty and form of a tree. The art of bonkei, another form of bonsai, attempts to capture the feeling and mood of a natural landscape. In both forms of the art the tree is the most important element.

The four basic kinds of bonsai are mame-bonsai, which are less than 6 inches (15 cm) tall; ko-bonsai, which range from 6 to 12 inches (15-30 cm); chiu-bonsai, which grow to 2 feet (60 cm) tall; and dai-bonsai, more than 2 feet tall.

Both deciduous and evergreen trees may be used in bonsai. The most widely used deciduous trees are the Japanese maple, hawthorn, quince, Japanese elm, ginkgo, beech, and birch. Popular evergreens include the flowering Japanese apricot, pine, juniper, spruce, cedar, and fir. Shrubs and vines may also be used.

Dwarfing is accomplished by raising the plants in small amounts of soil and by feeding and watering them only enough to maintain healthy growth. The plants are shaped by pruning away unwanted branches and by wiring the remaining branches until the desired shape is achieved. Some bonsai have been cultivated for more than 200 years, and experts consider them more beautiful as they age.

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