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What is a Bonsai Tree?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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A bonsai tree is not a specific type of tree but any tree that is grown in miniature to resemble an aged tree. The more mature a bonsai tree, the more value it gains. Literally hundreds of types of trees can be grown and trained to be bonsai.

Bonsai (bone-sigh) is Japanese for tree in a pot. However, simply placing a tree in a tiny pot does not make it bonsai. The grower must possess vision and skill to train the tree's foliage and guide its shape. This is done through pruning the roots to keep the tree small, wiring the branches, and using other techniques to make the bonsai tree take on the look of a mature tree in nature.

Bonsai also require special care because of the small amount of soil in which they grow. The trees cannot have "wet feet" so special bonsai soil is used which dries out easier than standard houseplant soil. But because there is so little soil, bonsai require frequent small waterings. A moisture meter can be used to let you know when the bonsai tree requires water.

Bonsai must also be fed nutrients in spring and fall. The three most important nutrients are nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash, but chelated iron is also a good idea. It may be beneficial to rotate fertilizer brands since they each contain varying trace elements.

Trees that grow in nature enjoy humidity that is missing from an indoor environment. It is therefore recommended the bonsai pot sit in a shallow tray with water that can be allowed to evaporate in order to add humidity to the air surrounding the tree. A flat rock or pebbles should be placed in the tray under the pot so that the bonsai is not sitting in the water. Again, the roots of the bonsai tree should not be kept wet.

Sunlight is required for bonsai except under special circumstances, such as when they have just undergone extensive pruning or repotting. A southern, western or eastern exposure will be necessary inside the house so that the tree receives bright sun. If it cannot get direct sun you should select a bonsai tree that can grow in reduced sunlight, or plan to put your bonsai outside for several hours each day.

The goal with bonsai is to achieve the desired shape while balancing the growth above ground with the root growth. The process of shaping begins right away while the tree is very young, and continues while it matures. Small growth can be trimmed away with sharp scissors, but larger branches need a concave cutter which will not leave visible scars.

Some people use copper wire to train their bonsai tree. The wire is carefully coiled around the branches in the direction you wish them to grow. Once a branch is wrapped it is bent once into the final position. The wire should be snug without biting into the tree. Six to twelve months later, before the wire starts biting the bark, it is snipped away at each turn or coil so that it drops away. Uncoiling the wire without cutting it will damage the branch.

Some popular styles of bonsai include: formal and informal upright, cascade, windswept, slanting and forest, but there are countless variations and many more styles. In fact the only thing limiting the bonsai tree is the vision of the grower.

Bonsai originated in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and was known then as penjing which means tray scenery. Early bonsai were known for their gnarled trunks that resembled dragons, birds and other animals. Bonsai was truly an art of the imagination passed into the tree. This form of bonsai is much different that the form we practice today. During the period known as Kamakura (1185-1333), bonsai was introduced to Japan where it continues to represent a bridge between humankind, the soul, and nature.

Bonsai is a challenging but rewarding hobby and art that anyone with an artistic eye, patience and appreciation of nature can enjoy.

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Discussion Comments

By Planch — On Nov 12, 2010

Do you think that growing bonsai trees would be a good project for a class of fourth-graders? I am starting a unit on basic biology with my kids next month, and I'm looking for a good hands-on project for the kids to do.

I've looked into those little bonsai tree kits; that seems like it would be a nice, easy project, and since they're so small, they would be just the right size for the kids. And at the end of the semester we could even have a bonsai tree sale to raise money for the school!

So what do you think -- would growing a bonsai tree be a good project for my class? The only thing I worry about is all that bonsai tree pruning required. Kids that age aren't so great with the sharp instruments, and that could be a little dangerous.

Have any teachers reading this done this kind of project before? Do you have any input?

By StreamFinder — On Nov 12, 2010

I recently got the opportunity to visit Japan, and let me tell you, the bonsai tree thing is huge there!

It was so cool to see all these incredibly intricate designs that people had crafted into these trees over the years. And I guess that this is just my ignorance, but I had no idea that you could grow bonsai style trees with so many species.

I mean, they had juniper bonsai trees and ficus bonsai trees and even one that kind of looked like a mini Christmas tree.

It was amazing to see the artwork that people could created out of something as innocuous as bonsai tree seeds. I know that I would never have the patience to do all the intricate pruning and care required for a bonsai -- but I sure do love to look at them!

By rallenwriter — On Nov 12, 2010

I had absolutely no idea that so much went into growing bonsai trees. I mean, you see these little bonsai tree kits for sale and it looks like it would be the easiest thing in the world, but obviously the whole process is a bit more complicated.

I really do think that I would like to get into this though -- it sounds like a hobby that I could really get to enjoy. Do you have any recommendations on which species make the best indoor bonsai trees, and whether I should try to grow the bonsai tree from seeds, or if it's better to start with a cutting?

I really am very interested in this, albeit slightly intimidated after reading this article! Can you give me some more information?

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