What is a bonsai? It is a Japanese term that literally means “planted in a container”. The first syllable means “a dish or thin bowl” while the second refers to a tree or growing plant that is planted.
So basically, anything planted in a container is a Bonsai. However, it is a more specific term that refers to tiny trees which growth are intentionally stunted or limited.
The ultimate goal of growing a Bonsai is to create a miniaturized but realistic representation of nature in the form of a tree. Bonsai are not genetically dwarfed plants, in fact, any tree species can be used to grow one. (Bonsai Empire)
Therefore, a Bonsai plant or tree is grown based on aesthetic and botanical aspects. Enthusiasts apply various techniques to limit and redirect healthy growth. They pinch buds, prune branches, use the least amount of fertilizers, among other things. They are most commonly kept under four feet in height.
The History of Bonsai
Contrary to popular belief, the art of Bonsai did not exactly originate from Japan. It was derived from an ancient Chinese horticultural practice. A part of that practice was then re-developed under the Japanese Zen Buddhism.
The first considered Bonsai trees were discovered, not made, in China. They grew in the wild and were found in the mountains. The Buddhists created the dwarfed trees for centuries.
Thousands of years ago, the Taoists believed that recreating aspects of nature in miniature form endowed that particular recreation with a magical concentrated energy. This art form known as Penjing means tray scenery. Penzai or Punsai, a form of Penjing, translates into tray plant, which typically involved a landscape created with miniature trees and rocks. (Bonsai Tree Gardener)
Pruning, binding and shaping techniques were developed to give trees an aged appearance.
While the art of Penzai had been around for centuries, it was only until around 600 AD that it was first documented. The first pictorial evidence only came out in 706 AD when dwarfed trees were found by archaeologists in the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai.
It was during this time that the Hang Dynasty ruled. Chinese monks migrated to Asia and those who came to Japan brought the art form with them. Their Japanese counterparts quickly learned it, creating their own versions of the trees using their own methods, and calling the art form Bonsai.
Bonsai trees spread and became popular in Japan where they became status symbols of the rich and powerful. By the 14th century, Bonsai was already a highly regarded art form. Bonsai trees were soon displayed indoors on top of shelves, giving them a place of honor. Came the 1600s when the minimalist Japanese created new pruning techniques that removed most parts of the Bonsai except the most essential. It reflected their culture and philosophy.
In the medieval times, the art form became available to all social classes. There was a demand for more artists who had the skills to make Bonsai trees. Then they started using the Taoist monks’ techniques in doing miniature landscapes. Bon-kei depicted people, buildings and rocks; Sai-kei replicated a specific type/area of landscape.
News of Bonsai reached other parts of the world in the mid-1600s. By late 1700s, Japan had been holding exhibitions and competitions. The Japanese finally shared the art form and it was only a matter of time that the world would know all about it. Migration to other places, the US in particular, made Bonsai all the more popular.
A Bonsai tree can be bought, be it from online shops or actual shops. That’s great. If anyone is already eager to own a dwarfed tree and/or has no time to actually plant one, Bonsai-hunting is certainly the option. But for a seriously interested grower, wouldn’t it be nicer to learn how to plant, grow and style his/her own Bonsai tree? It does not really take a lot of talent to do so, although that helps.
Anyone can grow a Bonsai tree. It’s all about commitment. Just make sure to pick the right tree species for the surroundings, follow the basic guidelines, and it’s all good to go!
- Either way, the grower must start by acquiring a tree.
A pre-Bonsai, still not pruned or wired, can be bought and cultivated using techniques. As said, select the right ones based on the surroundings or circumstances. Sub-tropical species grow better indoors, non-tropical trees grow better outdoors (as long as they are protected from too much sunlight or freezing temperature). Most native plants do grow well outdoors. To play it safe, get an indigenous tree.The right candidate:
- has a woody stem or trunk
- grows true branches
- has roots that can be restricted in a container
- has smaller or reducible leaves
- Then it’s time to actually get one! A ready-made tree can be bought from a store. Bonsai stores offer a wide variety of trees in various shapes and sizes. Of course, this costs more than a pre-Bonsai.
- The grower can also cultivate a tree himself/herself using seeds or cuttings. The only “problem” is it could take years for a tree to be trained. It will take three to five years. Still, it’s definitely less expensive and the experience can be truly satisfying. Also, it can actually live longer than if in full-size due to the meticulous care and nurturing.
- It is important that the caretaker knows the different Bonsai styles to consider. To decide on a style or styles, do a research. Search online, hit the books, and especially consult with experienced Bonsai growers. Consider the aesthetics and the botanical aspects, learn the various techniques to cultivate a dwarfed tree, even think of the space the Bonsai tree will occupy (some trees maybe a bit taller or bulkier than needed).
Find out the size classifications, which are based on how many men can lift the actual tree(s) being considered.
- Keshitsubo: 1-3″ (3-8 cm)
- Shito: 2-4″ (5-10 cm)
- Mame: 2-6″ (5-15 cm)
- Shohin: 5-8″ (13-20 cm)
- Komono: 6-10″ (15-25 cm)
- Katade-mochi: 10-18″ (25-46 cm)
- Chumono / Chiu: 16-36″ (41-91 cm)
- Omono / Dai: 30-48″ (76-122 cm)
- Hachi-uye: 40-60″ (102-152 cm)
- Imperial: 60-80″ (152-203 cm)
The Different Styles of Bonsai
One would be surprised that there are more Bonsai styles to actually choose from. See what seems to appeal best, looks- and practicality-wise.
- Broom style Bonsai (Hokidachi)
- Formal upright Bonsai style (Chokkan)
- Informal upright Bonsai style (Moyogi)
- Slanting Bonsai style (Shakan)
- Cascade Bonsai style (Kengai)
- Semi-cascade Bonsai style (Han-kengai)
- Literati Bonsai style (Bunjingi)
- Windswept Bonsai style (Fukinagashi)
- Double trunk style Bonsai (Sokan)
- Multi-trunk Bonsai style (Kabudachi)
- Forest Bonsai style (Yose-ue)
- Growing on a rock Bonsai style (Seki-joju)
- Growing in a rock Bonsai style (Ishisuki)
- Raft Bonsai style (Ikadabuki)
- Shari Bonsai style (Sharimiki)
Make sure to learn all about the styles that have been chosen. What are the pros and cons? What should work best based on circumstance?
Be One with Nature!
With Bonsai-growing, the best trees are the ones that seem to be the most natural. The bottom line is, though, not only does one grow a beautiful plant for all to see, but for the feeling of zen to be had while caring for it. The feeling of well-being it gives is the biggest benefit.
Consider growing a Bonsai tree. It could be a gardener’s best achievement yet.