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To Bonsai or Not to Bonsai, that Is the Question

Updated on August 18, 2018

Being a gardener for the last 25 years or so, I was quite intrigued by the Art of Bonsai. On the other hand, I had a strong reluctancy about the whole concept. I did not like the idea of limiting the growth of a tree to this teeny little container by aggressive pruning and other malevolent techniques. I thought it was cruel and even painful for the tree (as I consider plants to be living beings), and did not want anything to do with Bonsais. I wanted to see trees grow in nature as it was intended, reaching the skies, and being admired in their whole glory.

My Brazilian Rain Tree Bonsai
My Brazilian Rain Tree Bonsai

Of course I was blessed with ignorance and being totally narrow minded. Don’t we trim and prune our normal trees? Every year my bougainvillea plants, knock out roses and other shrubs are pruned to the ground. My Crepe Myrtles that are indeed trying to reach the skies are pruned shorter and shorter, in the hopes that the flowers will be at eye level, and that the neighbor will stop complaining about half of my tree being on her property.

Headache Tree Bonsai (Premna Obstusifolia)
Headache Tree Bonsai (Premna Obstusifolia) | Source

Looking at Bonsais in a New Light

I had two influences that made me look at Bonsais in a new light. My daughter’s boyfriend Alex, who began Bonsai making during his college years; and my brother-in-law- Mario that began the practice of Bonsai not that many years ago. I was still reluctant to converting one of my beloved desert roses into a Bonsai. But I did, with the twisting of the arm and help from my brother in law, I surrendered to the idea with curiosity more than anything else. I still kept thinking I will probably never see its flowers again; I will have to prune it and keep it small for the rest of its life. I was still not convinced; I was unable to appreciate what I had in front of me. I wasn’t looking at the Bonsai from the right perspective, I was looking at it all wrong, and I was totally blind. But now, I can see…

Umbrella (Schefflera) Bonsai I made from 6 year old potted plant
Umbrella (Schefflera) Bonsai I made from 6 year old potted plant

What is a Bonsai

Bonsai is a Japanese art form that originated from the ancient Chinese tradition of penzai or penjing -depicting artistically formed trees and landscapes in miniature-. It was also influenced by the art of making miniature living landscapes by the Vietnamese called Hón Non Bô. This Japanese art form dates back thousands of years. The word Bonsai is a Japanese term that literally means “planted in a container”. It is an art form that produces small trees in containers, through the use of various cultivation techniques, that mimic the shape and scale of full size trees.

Headache Tree Bonsai (Premna Obstusifolia)
Headache Tree Bonsai (Premna Obstusifolia) | Source

Bonsais are not dwarfed Trees

Unfortunately, the word Bonsai is being used freely in the English language to depict many different forms of potted plants. But we must differentiate that a Bonsai is strictly a tree or a shrub grown is a shallow container following closely the Japanese traditions and principles that bring about as a result an artistic miniature replica of a full-grown tree in nature. It is also worth noting that the practice of Bonsai making is not to be confused with dwarfing. Plant dwarfing refers to the creation of selective breeding that through genetically modifications create a miniature species of the original plant. Bonsais are not genetically dwarfed trees. They are produced with normal material, stock or seeds, which through specific training, pruning, root reduction, and other techniques, generate small trees that imitate the form and style of mature, full size trees.

The Million Dollar Question

With that being said, one must wonder how this art form came to be. What compelled older generations to bring into being this diminutive model of standard trees? And what compels new generations to pursuit this peculiar ritual of creating miniscule trees. That is the million dollar question and the essence of what I wish to uncover by writing this article.

Bonsai Exhibition at Epcot Center Garden Festival 2018
Bonsai Exhibition at Epcot Center Garden Festival 2018

I asked this question to Alex, a young civil engineer in his mid-twenties that is very busy starting his life, (for some reason we often depict old society pursuing this endeavor) His answer was and I quote “We want to express ourselves through a medium, just like painters do. Trees are blank living canvases waiting to be suggested into a specific form”.

In fact just like a painter creates a master piece with the intention of contemplation for the viewer, a Bonsai artist creates a model with the purpose of self-expression and admiration of the observer. For the bonsai cultivator the enjoyment of going through the process of creating, refining, maintaining this piece of art throughout the years is infinite. Unlike a painting, a Bonsai is never finished. As Alex put it, “It is the most patience demanding art form”.

Bullet Tree Bonsai (Bucida Buceras)
Bullet Tree Bonsai (Bucida Buceras) | Source

A Bonsai is a survivor

Nevertheless it is a pursuit that gives great satisfaction, the “transformation” and manipulation of this live material is fascinating. You can picture a form or shape in your mind of your final creation, but the tree will let u know what it wants to do and which shape wishes to acquired. The perseverance and willingness of the tree to survive and adjust to the obstacles that one places upon it –such as reshaping branches with wire, defoliating, pot confinement, aggressive pruning, etc.- is extraordinary and very inspiring. That, in my opinion represents ultimately the beauty of a Bonsai. In fact this is a tree that through struggle and persistence to stay alive has become the most magnificent piece of art. It totally embodies what life is, the twists and turns of the woody trunk, the bent branches reaching for light, the hope and joy of producing flowers or fruit regardless of having a tough life, the triumph in overcoming what life has thrown at it. A Bonsai is a survivor, but not of any kind, a majestic survivor, one that captivates your senses and gives flight to your imagination.

Japanese Musk Maple Bonsai (Premna Microphylla)
Japanese Musk Maple Bonsai (Premna Microphylla) | Source

A Bonsai is a guided Creation

Other Bonsais’ aficionados as my brother in law are greatly attracted to Bonsai cultivation as a discipline or a branch of knowledge. Following a set of rules and strict guidelines gives them satisfaction in the process of Bonsai making. They find it to be a simple and enjoyable practice, guided by the traditional Japanese principles, which simplifies what otherwise, would be a mystifying set of decisions. Once the basic Bonsai rules are applied to a specimen you can see the Bonsai emerging right before your eyes. This guided creation can be nurtured and relished by the creator day after day.

Bonsai, a living Sculpture

In essence, the art of Bonsai has a different appeal to different people. Its alluring quality entails a complex set of virtues that no other art form delivers. It is an attractive method of creating a striking object that is thoroughly connected to nature its self; it is indeed alive and continuously changing. It is the result of a loving partnership between the creator and the tree, as enigmatic and captivating as the relationship between humans and the earth. It is only once you engaged in learning about it and making your first Bonsai that you will understand why it is so addictive and fascinating, it cannot be explained. As I swore after my first Bonsai that I will have no more! It is too time consuming and absorbing and I already have a large garden to look after. Now, after my 7th Bonsai I know I will not stop.


Bonsai Poem

I am looking in

or looking out

Within an endless dreamscape

I loose perspective...

I loose myself.

I feel so small and so immense

Submerged, under this vast

Diminutive tree…

I am the protagonist

In this non-rehearsed play

Of unspoken words.

I am the creator

Of this landscape of thoughts

That come and go

Under the shade of an oak

That could be a hundred years old

But it is a newborn to me

That gives me hope.

I sit next to a rock and

I hear my thoughts…

What does it all mean

Am I too big

Or the tree too small.

I don’t want to leave

This tiny world...

I created for me

For me and my thoughts.

As I get older

My tree gets shorter

I loose myself

I feel even smaller.

The curtains close

The landscape is gone

I don’t want to leave

This tiny world...

But the thoughts stay with me

I find my ground

The show is not over

But I must leave now.

                Poem by Laura Grace


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    • Lorna Lamon profile image

      Lorna Lamon 

      2 years ago

      This is a wonderful article Laura - lovely poem. I have had two Bonsai trees in the past however, due to my over-watering they sadly did not survive. I will follow your tips and give it another try as they are so beautiful and create such a sense of peace in the home.


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