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The Living Art of Bonsai

Updated on December 1, 2016

A bonsai is a miniature plant, usually a tree dwarfed by special techniques and grown as a potted plant. The Japanese word bonsai is derived from the Chinese p'en tsai, meaning "tray-planted."

The effectiveness of bonsai is based on an illusion created by scale and proportion that suggests the character and beauty of large trees in their natural settings... perhaps a gnarled pine rooted to a mountain bluff, or a stately elm on a plain. Thus bonsai training techniques are aimed at developing in a small plant the characteristics of a large, mature tree. The easiest way to make a small plant look like a big tree is to make it look old. Actual age is irrelevant; it is the appearance of age as well as the graceful and characterful qualities of trees that are significant in producing the desired illusion in bonsai.

Photo by Homero Chapa
Photo by Homero Chapa

Plant Selection

Some bonsai originate as wild plants of unknown age that have been stunted by an unfavorable environment and are then collected and raised as potted plants. Others are brought to a state of highly realistic miniaturization through years of careful training. In modern practice, however, the time required for developing a bonsai may be greatly shortened by proper selection of specimens. The usual procedure is to start with normal plants that have already developed some of the desired characteristics of trunk and branching or to hasten the development of these characteristics by a preliminary period of training very young plants in containers or ground beds. Starting with such specimens, hobbyists often produce interesting specimens in an hour or so. Further training of two or three years can produce bonsai specimens worthy of display.

Most plants grown as bonsai by the Japanese have been varieties of hardy trees, shrubs, and vines common to the temperate zone. These include flowering apricot, pine, spruce, juniper, holly, willow, wisteria, and others. As interest in the art has spread, plants in many parts of the world have been used, both from the temperate and warmer zones, including such species as bald cypress (North America), beef wood (Australia), knob-thorn (South Africa), banyan (India), bougainvillea (South America), and many more.

Plant varieties with naturally small leaves, flowers, or fruits are preferred. Leaves may be reduced in size somewhat by bonsai culture, but flowers and fruits are produced in their normal proportions.


Bonsai are healthy plants. They grow continually and must be continually shaped and controlled by the grower. Normally bonsai that are not pruned and trained become less treelike as they grow older.

When seedlings, rooted cuttings, and small grafted plants are to be developed as bonsai, they are sometimes started in ground beds, where pruning of tops and roots each season develops compact habits. The more vigorous growth in ground beds encourages the trunks to fatten during this training period.


In the preliminary training of older plants, the first treatment usually is to prune the plant to reveal part of the trunk and branch structure. A good start has been made if the plant already has a tapering trunk, a base supported by a splay of roots partially revealed at the base, and low branches that can be trained to form a new, natural-appearing crown. To develop or to maintain the form of the plant, pruning may be done once a year or repeatedly, according to the growth habits of the plant.

At the time the top is first reduced drastically, the roots also are pruned sharply. Subsequent repotting of bonsai involves root pruning; its primary purpose is to make it possible for a plant to continue healthy growth in the same size container. At repotting, about a third of the soil and some roots are removed and fresh soil is used to replace the old. The best season for this work is early spring.

Other Techniques

In addition to pruning, various other means, such as tying and bracing, are commonly used to shape branches and trunks. A means widely employed is to wrap soft copper wire spirally around the branch or trunk and then to bend the part into the desired position.


Pots favored for bonsai usually are of earthen colors and of shapes and sizes calculated to harmonize rather than compete for attention with the plants. Proportions are important. In the case of upright specimens, the depth of the pots often is 20% or less of the overall height.

Growing Conditions

Care of bonsai must be gauged by the nature of the plant. Although some tender houseplants have been given a bonsai-style potting and training, most traditional bonsai plants require normal outdoor conditions. It is usual to keep bonsai plants on tables outdoors where they may be watered frequently in summer. In cold climates even hardy species should be given some protection against extreme weather in winter.

Soils and Feeding

The selection of a potting soil depends on the type of plant being grown, the materials available, and the personal preferences of the grower. Many growers use a basic potting mixture of one third loam (granular top-soil), one third sand, and one third humus (peat moss, or leaf mold or other materials), which is varied to meet the needs of the plant. For example, for conifers, except pines: 30% loam, 40% sand, 30% humus; for pines: 30% loam, 60% sand, 20% humus; for flowering and fruiting plants in general: 50% loam, 20% sand, 30% humus.

Feeding also varies with the kind of plant. Flowering and fruiting plants often are fed several times a year, while conifers, such as pines and junipers, are fed much less frequently. Use of a complete, soluble fertilizer in weak solution is common practice today.


There is evidence in art and literature that the growing of small trees in containers had a very early beginning in Japan. For example, a scroll believed to be a thousand years old shows a pine as part of a tray garden, and an early Japanese no play describing life in the 14th century is called "The Potted Trees". Scholars believe that the Chinese were among the earliest to grow potted trees, possibly to ensure the blooming of plants with symbolic value at the time of certain festivals.


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    • chinese bonsai profile image

      chinese bonsai 8 years ago

      Lovely pics!