chewing ideas down to stubble, then moving on…

Bonsai for Non-bonsai People

Posted by Jason on November 21, 2008

After some great questions from my sister-in-law regarding my new favorite hobby of bonsai, I thought I’d give a post a brief introduction for those readers who aren’t necessarily tree or plant nerds like myself. **Fellow bonsai fanatics please feel free to add to anything in the comment section=)**

Bonsai is a mix of art and horticulture (growing plants) that actually originated in China, but has been refined and taken to several other levels in Japan. The word bonsai literally means “tray tree” or something similar to that. At its very core, bonsai is the art of growing and shaping plants in containers. The goal of bonsai is to create in the viewer the impression that one is looking at an old and ancient tree. It’s not really like a scale model, but more like a representation of that wise old tree that hopefully gives similar feelings of awe and veneration.

Some people think that bonsai are just dwarfed trees that came from years of breeding smallish trees with other smallish trees, kinda like how miniature poodles came from regular poodles. This isn’t true, however. Any bonsai, if planted in the ground and allowed to grow for a few dozen years, would be just as big and look just the same as any other tree of the same species. That being said, pretty much any type of tree can be used for bonsai. Olive, oak, pine, juniper, cedar, spruce, cypress, redwood, elm, maple, pomegranate, crabapple, boxwood, bougainvillea, and dozens of other species have all been used and can be used in bonsai. Some species or varieties of plants are more prized for bonsai due to certain qualities like smaller leaves/needles, quick healing, good recovery after pruning, etc.

Bonsai artists use several methods to keep the trees small, yet still maintaining an appearance of age and weathering. The first and most important is the container, usually a ceramic/clay pot that compliments the tree in some way. The container limits the amount that the roots can grow, and therefore limits the amount of energy that can be stored by the tree during the dormant seasons. It’s like when wifey forces me to use a little coffee cup for my ice cream instead of a big bowl: the amount of fat stored in my gut is less and less. Because the roots system is not as extensive, growth on the top of the tree (leaves and branches) becomes smaller and slower. In a completed bonsai, new growth on the other parts of  the tree are pinched off or pruned in order to create a fine branch structure closer to the trunk, as well as to limit the amount of energy coming into the tree to slow root growth.

Anyway, I think that’s about enough to give everyone ammunition for a billion more questions, so bring it! I’ll do my best…and if I’m totally wrong about any of the above, I hope a real bonsai person will correct me. Peace out…


3 Responses to “Bonsai for Non-bonsai People”

  1. Will Heath said

    Root restriction does slow the growth rate, but constant pruning, pinching, and leaf reduction are what help keep a bonsai in proportion to its form. A tree never stops growing unless it is dead, hence even the oldest bonsai need re-potting, pruning, etc.

    Think of an shrub in the landscaping of your house, it is kept in shape by diligent pruning, if allowed to grow wild, it would get much larger, messier, and eventually the lower and inner branches would die out from being shaded. Even though it is not in a pot, we still keep it in a form we like by pruning. The same is true of grass, we cut it to a visually pleasing height and maintain it there.

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