Bonsai Trees – In-Depth Introduction

Whenever the word Bonsai is heard, the first thing that comes to almost everyone’s mind is the picture of a small tree growing on a tiny pot, and that the word is somehow connected to the Asian culture. Even those who have more knowledge about Bonsai than the average person usually know no more than that Bonsai is a Japanese art form where small tress are grown by investing a lot of time, care and dedication on them.

Now, because of this lack of knowledge (and maybe even because of their size as well), most people disregard Bonsai as being just a mimic and an overly simple form of gardening, but the truth is, there is a lot more to Bonsai than most people would think.

This is why, in order to really understand what Bonsai is and fully comprehend how rich and many-layered this art form can be, a more detailed study of it must be undertaken.

Let’s take a look at the origins and other important aspects of the art of Bonsai and how deep its roots go into the culture that gave birth to it: the Japanese.

An Overview of Bonsai Trees

The word Bonsai is a Japanese term that means “planting on a low pot” and while Chinese in origin, the Japanese have embedded the craft with so much of their own culture and aesthetic that it is only fair to call it their own.

Curiously enough, the term Bonsai depicts both the art form and the object of the art itself, which explains why all Bonsai trees are called that way. Now, the main purpose of the art of Bonsai resides in being able to cultivate miniature trees in small containers and to shape and direct their growth in the long term in order to make it aesthetically perfect to the eyes of the gardener. By doing so, the gardener seeks to elicit a sense of wonder and wholeness on both the viewer that contemplates the Bonsai tree as well on himself/herself.

This and all the Bonsai growing practice are of course, tremendously influenced by the Zen philosophy, a part of the Buddhist culture that focuses deeply on the power of meditation, which can lead to enlightenment according to the Buddhist teachings. This turns Bonsai into far more than a gardening task, turning it into a discipline and placing it among other well-respected art forms.

The History of Bonsai Trees

The history of Bonsai dates from as far back as the Egyptian culture, but its true origins can be traced directly to China.

It all started around the year 600, when a Japanese tale first mentioned the Chinese Bonsai (known as Penjing in China) and the philosophy behind it:

“It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one”.

After that, and through the centuries that followed, the Penjing (which contrary to the Bonsai, were cultivated mostly on flat trays instead of in pots) made their way from China all the way to Japan as part of the many import cargo that arrived to the country. These first forms of the Bonsai were at the time considered a rarity and a way in which wealthy people could show their status.

But it was not until around the year 1300, that the basic principles of the aesthetics behind Bonsai were outlined by the Japanese priest and poet Kokan Shiren in a celebrated piece of prose which name, Bonseki, carried the first hints of what would later become the name of this art.

As it gained more influence in Japan in the following centuries, Bonsai started to be practiced by many more social classes in the Asian country, and the importance of the design and simplicity of the small trees started to become paramount in the practice of this discipline. It was then, around the beginnings of the 19th century, that a group of scholars of Chinese Arts gathered in order to better classify this emerging discipline, giving it the name of Bonsai, by which we know them today.

Nowadays, Bonsai can be found in a variety of sizes and styles, and even small groups and societies are starting to emerge all around the world as this form of art starts to become popular outside of Asian countries.

Bonsai Trees Today

When considering all the factors that helped Bonsai acquire world wide popularity and renown, four main aspects stand out.

  1. Post World War II Japanese mindset: After the Second World War, the Japanese culture became far more open, with commerce deals and intercultural exchanged taking place at a far faster rate than in the centuries before it. This behavior motivated the creation of Bonsai exhibitions and associations within Japan (like the Nippon Bonsai Association), which showcased the art of Bonsai to foreign cultures.
  2. Increase in Print Publication: Also, this level of openness about Bonsai and so many other aspects of the Japanese culture picked the interest of authors and researchers from many other countries, all of who started a series of publications about Bonsai, and which were in most cases great hits in their respective countries.
  3. Japanese Bonsai Courses: Around the second half of the 20th century, expert Bonsai training started to become available first in Japan and then in other countries. This brought many foreign visitors to Japan, who underwent expert training and then brought their knowledge back to their home countries.
  4. Availability of Bonsai Plants: This was the factor that truly spread the practice of Bonsai and took it out of the realm of theory. It was led by the wider availability of all the plants, tools and soil components necessary to grow Bonsai, all of which were eagerly received by countries all around the globe.

After these 4 factors converged, the Bonsai discipline exploded, and different types of publications, courses and local and online communities have appeared that keep the Bonsai experience growing and evolving.

Bonsai Tree Care and Cultivation

Over the centuries, what have differentiated Bonsai and other similar art forms are their distinct character and the great amount of discipline that they demand, and nowhere are this more apparent than in the way Bonsai gardeners take care of their Bonsai trees.

Now, one of the main aspects about Bonsai that most people fail to grasp but that is essential when it comes to cultivating and taking care of them, is that Bonsai are not (and can not be treated like) just small plants. Bonsai are trees, and as such, they require different growing methods than plants. Bonsai gardeners need to focus on every aspect of their Bonsai trees, ranging from obvious ones like controlling the size and shape of the trees, to minuscule ones like the way the first seedlings and cuttings are shaped.

The second aspect that anyone considering growing a Bonsai will need to understand is that a Bonsai tree is not a specific kind of tree. In fact, Bonsai can be almost any kind of tree that gardeners take care of and cultivate investing time, skill and knowledge in order to make them miniature reflections of nature.

All Bonsai start with the acquisition of a source plant, which tends to be usually of a certain age in order for the Bonsai to show its renowned “aged” look in a reasonable amount of time. This source plant will need a special type of soil, as well as a small pot in order to start growing. Here are the most important aspects of growing Bonsai.

Bonsai Trees Techniques

As mentioned above, one of the most important elements of growing a Bonsai is its style and its overall design. There are many techniques that can be used in order to give a Bonsai any particular style, and which gardeners choose from in order to bring to life their vision of how they want their Bonsai to look like.

  • Leaf trimming: This entails the removal of specific leaves or needles from the trunk and branches of the Bonsai.
  • Pruning: This technique is used to take care of all the elements of the Bonsai tree, including trunk, branches and roots of the candidate tree.
  • Wiring: This is one of the most important techniques for growing Bonsai, since it is used by the gardener to define the overall form of the Bonsai, as well as to direct the placement of branches and leaves.
  • Clamping: Here gardeners use mechanical instruments to further control the shape of all the elements of their Bonsai.
  • Defoliation: This technique is used mostly on deciduous species in order to achieve the short term dwarfing of their foliage.
  • Deadwood techniques: These are employed only by skillful deciduous gardeners and help the trees achieve a simulated maturity.

Bonsai Trees Tools & Materials

Like most timeless disciplines, the art of growing Bonsai can be accomplished relatively simply, but takes years of practice to truly master. The tools required for it are a perfect example of this, with some people starting their Bonsai experience with no more than just a leaf cutter, while experts and more dedicated individuals sometimes make use of an entire arsenal of tools.

Now, while none of these extremes is common, it is still recommended for anyone interested in this discipline to know about all the available tools out there, so as to make an informed decision about which ones to use. Its is also a great idea to start with the basic tools, and then to acquire more that become necessary to the gardener as he or she gains skill and experience.

The first material that one needs to get in order to start growing Bonsai is the tree specimen itself, followed by a clay pot and a specific type of soil. After those, the most important tools or growing Bonsai are:

  • A traditional leaf cutter with a long handle for pruning branches.
  • A long shear, for medium sized branches.
  • Butterfly shear, for pruning small branches as well as roots.
  • A small shear for tree defoliation
  • Small and large knob cutter for creating deep, hollow wounds on the Bonsai
  • Small concave cutter that helps with the pruning of medium-sized branches.
  • Large Bonsai concave cutter to prune large branches.
  • Wire cutter.
  • Jin tool.
  • Rade.
  • Root-hook that helps repotting Bonsai trees.
  • Copper brush, for trunk cleaning.
  • Cocos brush, for cleaning ground surfaces.
  • Trunk benders.

Bonsai Tree Style & Shaping

As has been mentioned above, considering Bonsai as trees is one of the most important aspects that anyone thinking about growing them has to bear in mind. Once this is understood however, the growing of Bonsai becomes far easier, with just a few more aspects that need to be taken into account.

One of the most important ones is that despite being small trees, Bonsai require a lot more care and attention than any “regular” tree. Bonsai in general are smaller, shorter, lighter and far more fragile than any tree, with roots that are around just 25cm long, which pale when compared to the strong meter-long roots that the average tree has.

This size difference has a great impact on a Bonsai’s maturation, nutrition, pest resistance and many other aspects of their biology, all of which in turn makes tending for their long-term health somewhat more difficult than when performing any other gardening task. This is why some special care techniques are necessary for growing a Bonsai. Here are some of them.

  • Watering: Watering must be done in regular intervals, but it will be highly dependent on the specific requirements of each Bonsai species.
  • Repotting: This must be done at regular intervals as well, and in this case the frequency is dictated by the specific resistance and age of each tree.
  • Tools: Use of the appropriate tools when taking care of a Bonsai is essential.
  • Soil: Although soil composition is usually the same for the vast majority of Bonsai, some particular species require of specific compositions, so gardeners are advised to learn about this beforehand.
  • Indoor survival: As is the case with the soil, some species of Bonsai can easily survive inside a house, but there are some that can’t, which makes it very important for gardeners to learn as much as they can about their specific Bonsai trees.

The Aesthetics of Bonsai Trees

As has been mentioned already, the essence of Bonsai resides in its aesthetics and in what they try to convey to both the viewer and to the gardener as well.

In the Japanese culture of old, to which the Bonsai owes almost all of its characteristics, the influence of Zen Buddhism was tremendous, and most of its philosophy filtered down to even the most menial tasks, which is plainly evidenced in the art of Bonsai. Two of the most important elements of the Zen philosophy that have heavily influenced Bonsai gardeners and their aesthetic style are the Japanese concepts of Mono no Aware and Wabi Sabi.

Mono no Aware can be described as “a sensitivity to ephemera”, which denotes a sense of awareness for the fragility and impermanence of things, and Wabi Sabi denotes the nostalgic acceptance of the beauty of the “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”. Together, both concepts define the aesthetic value of Bonsai as something imperfect and temporary, but beautiful because of that, which is exactly the feeling that Bonsai gardeners strive to convey with their miniature trees.

Of course, with time this has translated more into a series of guidelines than into rules themselves, which is why even when complying with all of them, different gardeners achieve radically different-looking Bonsai, and not every time their specimen achieve their full potential. These guidelines are as follows.

  • Miniaturization: Bonsai trees should be small enough to fit in a small pot or container.
  • Proportion among elements: The proportions of a Bonsai should resemble those of a “traditional” tree.
    Asymmetry: Bonsai should not be perfectly symmetrical, since this is not the case in nature itself.
  • No traces: Gardeners should take care of not leaving any scar or sign of their intervention in growing the Bonsai.
  • Poignancy: As mentioned above, the Bonsai should convey a feeling of nostalgia and beauty.

The Importance of the Display of Bonsai

Displaying Bonsai is regarded by gardeners just as important part of the process as any other. This is because here is where they get to show their Bonsais’ aesthetics in the way that pleases both them and the audience. Think of it as the artist showing his or her particular vision or point of view of a whole, like a director chooses the angles in which he will shoot his or her movie.

Now, when it comes to displaying Bonsai, there are a series of guidelines and principles that can be as complex as the growing process itself.

To start, all Bonsai have a “front” side that gardeners try to emphasize when showing their Bonsai. Another aspect is the height at which it is displayed, which plays quite an important part as well. With this, gardeners will have to find the perfect balance of height so as to show their Bonsai in a way that viewers will have the impression of being looking at a real tree from the distance. This is why balance is so important, because if the Bonsai is placed too low or too high, the effect will be completely broken.

If displaying the Bonsai outdoors, gardeners have to take great care in avoiding excessive amounts of sunlight, wind and water, as well as sticking to simple display components of either stone or wood. In similar fashion, the background and even the distance have to be all considered.

In general, most experts agree that Bonsai should be displayed as any other piece of art would: devoid of any accessories or other redundancies and with appropriate lighting and in a clean, minimal and distraction-free environment.

Popular Bonsai Trees Styles and Specimen

While Bonsai in general can be a very straightforward discipline when it comes to its guidelines and principles, this form of art sports an unexpected variety of styles in which gardeners choose how to shape their Bonsai. Here are the most representative ones.

  • Formal upright: A Bonsai with straight tapering trunk.
  • Informal upright: A Bonsai that grows mostly straight upwards but that shows slight curves.
  • Slanting: These are Bonsai with trunks that are straight, but that come out of the soil already at an angle.
  • Semi-cascade and Cascade: Two of the most beautiful styles. Molded after trees that grow over cascades or at the sides of mountains. In these styles the tip of the Bonsai bends over and even falls below the base of the pot.
  • Raft: Bonsai with sinuous or slanting trunks.
  • Literati: A Bonsai which branches have been reduced to a minimum.
  • Forest: As its name states, this style encompasses many trees, which together should resemble a small forest.

Other less common styles include the windswept style, the weeping style, the split-trunk, and the driftwood style.

Conclusion

For anyone considering venturing into the wonderful art of Bonsai, all of the above should be more than enough to give an idea of how much time, care and effort this discipline demands. However, the rewards for those who are willing to invest the necessary time and care can be priceless. This is because the practice of growing Bonsai entails far more than just the time and efforts invested, the same way as meditating means much more than just staying quiet.

Bonsai is a discipline, and those who start to learn about the cultures and principles behind it are bound to find themselves absorbed in a practice that carries centuries of tradition behind it and that in most cases, will change, shape and help the artist grow in even more drastic ways that the trees that he helps achieve their true potential.

History of Bonsai Trees

History

The first dwarfed trees occurred naturally in the wild and were discovered growing in the mountains of China. They were prized because their unique aged and gnarled appearance was not created by human hands.

Art of Bonsai Trees

Aesthetics

When it comes to cultivating a Bonsai tree, it truly is an art form that requires special tools and techniques. Through various crown and root trimming, Bonsai trees can be shaped into unique shapes that reflect the skill level of the artist.

Displaying Bonsai Trees

Importance Of Displaying Bonsai

Displaying a Bonsai tree means choosing a position that displays the trees most important features. Its position will dictate what side viewers see as its ‘front’, which will have a huge effect on how the tree is perceived.

Bonsai Starter Trees

Bonsai Starter Trees

Purchasing a Bonsai tree that has already been propagated helps beginners to stand a better chance at successfully growing a Bonsai tree. Starter trees are available in a number of different species.

Bonsai Starter Kit

Bonsai Starter Kits

Bonsai starter kits are a great way for beginners to gather tools. Finding the proper pots and tools can seem a daunting task for those who are inexperienced, but a starter kit allows beginners to get off on the right foot.

DIY Bonsai Tree

DIY Bonsai

It takes a person with a certain amount of horticultural skill to be able to create bonsai trees that you see in stores; however, learning to grow bonsai trees is quite easy.

Bonsai Tree Display Tables

Bonsai Display Tables

The aesthetic created by the development of Bonsai of course includes trees, garden arrangements, stones and the pot itself. But the presentation is not complete if the surface on which it is placed does not have the same feel.

Bonsai Tree Humidity Drip Trays

Humidity / Drip Trays

When caring for a bonsai tree or garden, people often focus on the tools and methods for shaping and arranging, with little consideration given to watering and managing soil. But once a garden is in place, water or moisture is one of the only things that will keep it thriving

Bonsai Tree Tools & Supplies

Tools & Supplies

The choice of trees, stones and shapes parallels a person’s paths, or just their moods. And in practice, many simply like how it looks, but still adhere to certain basic formulations out of respect for Bonsai as a meaningful cultural ideal in Japan.

Bonsai Tree Feeding & Fertilizers

Bonsai Fertilizers

Light, temperature and water are among the primary concerns that have to be very closely regulated and adjusted for the environment to be optimal. Sometimes, even the most attendant gardener needs outside assistance in the form of fertilizer and other chemical or synthetic products to keep their bonsai garden healthy and free of infection or infestation.

Bonsai Tree Pots

Bonsai Pots

Selecting the right pot for your tree and décor is one of the first and most important steps in setting up the bonsai. The tree needs to be re-potted soon after purchase to ensure its stability and healthy growth.

Bonsai Tree Indoor Grow Lights & Bulbs

Indoor Plant Lights

How the tree or shrub is lit is pivotal to whether or not it lives and grows. Knowing how much light a bonsai needs and adjusting accordingly is just as important as learning how frequently the bonsai needs water.

Feng Shui & Bonsai Trees

Feng Shui & Bonsai

Bonsai and Feng Shui are two ancient practices that both represent prosperity, harmony and peace. In recent years, people have begun to combine the two practices in an effort to bring balance and beauty to the home.

Finding The Best Trees For Bonsai

Finding The Best Trees

The small size of the bonsai makes it an ideal potted plant to place on a desk, dining table or an outdoor garden. However different types of bonsai require different methods of care and attention. To find the best bonsai trees, it’s important to understand the types of plants to choose from, and the origins of this unique shrub.

How Bonsai Trees Are Made

How Bonsai Trees Are Made

The bonsai pot is traditionally flat and wide to balance the shape of trunk and branches. Every bonsai style evokes natural shapes and forces that exert themselves upon full-sized trees in the environment. Some forms seem to mimic very upright trees, while others typify the action of wind, water and gravity.

Bonsai Longevity

Bonsai Longevity

The Sandai-Shogun-no-matsu in the Tokyo Palace collection in Japan is a white pine Bonsai believed to be over 500 years old and is the oldest known specimen of Bonsai in the world. In general, a Bonsai tree can be expected to have the same lifespan of other trees of its species with optimum environment and care.

Bonsai Symbolism

Bonsai Symbolism

Bonsai, like other forms of art, uses the medium of symbolism to communicate ideas and emotions. An understanding of Japanese aesthetics contributes to an appreciation of bonsai’s rich symbology.

Why Are Bonsai Trees Passed Down Every Generation

Why Are Bonsai Trees Passed Down Every Generation?

When a craftsperson designs a bonsai, he or she will spend years making one perfect specimen. Therefore, bonsai trees often remain in families for hundreds of years as the tree is passed down through the generations.

Coolest Looking Bonsai Tree

10 Coolest Looking Bonsai Trees

If you are contemplating a bonsai tree for your home or office, the selection can be difficult. Here are some of the coolest looking bonsai trees to consider in making any space an aura of beauty.

Most Beautiful Bonsai Tree

10 Most Beautiful Bonsai Trees

Asia is the place of origin of Bonsai tree concept and this concept is being nurtured to become a world famous concept. The concept of growing Bonsai trees is popular throughout the world. In this section we are going to list some of the best bonsai trees which are known for their unique shape, beauty, balance and realism.

Oldest Bonsai Tree

5 Oldest Bonsai Trees

Luckily some of the oldest specimens are on display or, at the very least, have been recorded for the sake of public knowledge. The five oldest of these are the Arnold Arboretum’s chabo hiba cypresses, the Akao Herb & Rose Garden’s red pine, the Yamaki pine, the Happo-en Garden Collection, and the Sandai Shogun no Matsu.

Bonsai Tree Care

Bonsai Tree Care

The shape and appearance of Bonsai trees are very unique and require special manipulation in order to achieve the desired look. Certain techniques are used to stunt the trees growth and create a miniature version of the tree or shrub.

How To Bonsai Tree

How To

Read our series of How-To Guides so that you may learn, refine and master the knowledge and skills required to grow a beautiful bonsai tree.

Bonsai Tree Techniques

Starting Techniques

Bonsai trees are actually normal plants that are cultivated through various techniques to obtain it’s dwarfed appearance. Training a Bonsai tree isn’t impossible for a beginner, but it does require a certain approach and patience.

Bonsai Tree Shaping

Secrets Of Shaping

Shaping a Bonsai tree is the key to obtaining a gorgeous Bonsai worthy of display. In order to shape a Bonsai, growers must practice proper pruning. Repotting will also play a role in the shape and size of the plant.

Bonsai Tree Types

Types of Bonsai Trees

There are many different types of plants used when making Bonsai trees. Bonsai trees are traditionally created from woody-stemmed trees and shrubs. Lotus Flower, Peony, Pine, and Plum blossoms are frequently utilized.

Bonsai Tree Size Classification

Size Classification

The three main size categories are the miniature, medium and large bonsai trees. Each of these classifications has subcategories of size, which tend to vary in exact specifics. Because each individual bonsai tree is unique, some may or may not fit into each category, despite their exact size.

Artificial Bonsai Trees

Artificial Bonsai Trees

Cultivating a Bonsai tree is a job unto itself and most don’t have the time to go through the work and upkeep that a real Bonsai requires, making artificial Bonsai trees the perfect option.

Bonsai Trees For Sale

Bonsai Trees For Sale

Purchasing a mature Bonsai Tree is the perfect way to bring the beauty and elegance of Bonsai into a home without having to go through the work that growing a Bonsai tree requires.

Discount Bonsai Trees

Discount Bonsai Trees

Growing a Bonsai tree can be an expensive hobby, especially because of all the supplies needed to successfully grow one. However, discount Bonsai trees can be purchased from a number of different locations for a fraction of the price.

Popular Bonsai Trees

Popular Bonsai Trees

There are a number of different types of species that are commonly used to make Bonsai trees, each of which has its own symbolic meaning in the Japanese culture.