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What is a bonsai?

The usual definition...

The world of bonsai is often shrouded of misconceived concepts for the non-initiates. Entering the world of bonsai is entering the school of life and nature - it is a never ending cycle. Thought I am relatively new to this wonderful world, I will try to explain "What is a bonsai".

Let's first have a quick look at what wikipedia tells you about a "bonsai":

"Bonsai (盆栽 Chinese, Japanese) (lit. plantings in tray, from bon, a tray or low-sided pot and sai, a planting or plantings) is an artistic medium originating in Japan. Broadly speaking it consists of growing a tree or shrub in a container - and shaping it in an aesthetic fashion."

"The word bonsai is often used in English as an umbrella term for all miniature trees in containers or pots."

Sumi-e bonsai painting by Xavier de Lapeyre © Xavier de Lapeyre

Great! So a bonsai is a plant growing in a pot. Simple! Well not really, that's only half the story. A bonsai is much more that simply putting a plant in a pot:

Q. So is a daisy in a pot a bonsai? [That's a plant in a pot!]
A. NO!
Q. Ok, not a daisy, but what about an aloevera in a pot, is it a bonsai? [That's still a plant in a pot!]
A. Still NO!

My definition, as a bonsaist, would be :

A bonsai is an artistic technique of pruning trees so that they attain mature shapes in miniature forms.

Azalea Satsuki 'Subaru' by Mariusz Andrzejak

Azalea Satsuki 'Subaru' Bonsai by Mariusz Andrzejak © Mariusz Andrzejak

Still loss? Then let's see what does NOT make a bonsai!

That's great, we now know that it's not just a plant, but actually a tree conditioned to be in a small pot and to look like a mature old tree, but that still leaves a lot of non-initiates in a total blank about what a bonsai really is.

Larch group bonsai trees by Ian, member and chairman of Northern Ireland Bonsai Society

Larch group bonsai trees by Ian, member and chairman of Northern Ireland Bonsai Society © Mariusz Andrzejak

Group of trees arranged in a pot to look like mature old trees.

To better clarify, let's look at what a bonsai IS NOT!

  1. A bonsai is NOT a tree species!

    That's the most common mistake non-initiates make. Bonsai is not a tree species, its an art of growing otherwise normal tree within a small container to resemble an aged tree.

  2. A bonsai is NOT a shrub!
    It's an actual tree that is kept small through love, attention and pruning. You could use a shrub in a pot to make a bonsai out of it, by shaping it to resemble a tree.

    Progression : From "shrub in a pot" to "tree in a pot"!

    Juniper procumbens nana by Jerry Norbury

    Juniper procumbens nana [Late March 2010]

    Juniper procumbens nana by Jerry Norbury

    Juniper procumbens nana [Mid April 2010]

    Juniper procumbens nana by Jerry Norbury

    Juniper procumbens nana [Mid April 2010]

    Juniper procumbens nana by Jerry Norbury

    Juniper procumbens nana [Late April 2010]

    © Jerry Norbury

  3. A bonsai is NOT a stick in a pot!
    Thought it can begin by being a stick in a pot, ultimately it has to become a tree in a pot!

    Progression : From "stick in a pot" to "tree in a pot"!

    Picea abies nana by jerry norbury

    Picea abies nana [in 2003]

    Picea abies nana by jerry norbury

    Same Picea abies nana [in 2009]

    Picea abies nana by jerry norbury

    Same Picea abies nana [in 2011]

    © Jerry Norbury

  4. A bonsai is NOT intended for cultivation of food!
    Though you can use fruit bearing trees [ apples trees, cherry trees, tamarind trees, etc ] to create bonsai and they will bear fruits if well cared for. Be careful of the branches though. The fruits will be real size fruits, not miniature fruits and the weight might break the branches or otherwise damage the tree.

  5. A bonsai is NOT dwarfing!
    Bonsai does not require genetically dwarfed trees, but instead uses cultivation techniques like pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation, and grafting to produce small trees that mimic the shape and style of mature, full-size trees. The most common image of a bonsai a non-initiate will have is that of a small palm size tree, but you can have 3 feet high bonsai.

    Not a dwarf, but a "wee" tree!

    Zelkova serrata bonsai

    Zelkova serrata bonsai

    Trident maple bonsai by Chris Guise

    Trident maple bonsai

    © Chris Guise

  6. A bonsai is NOT a starved and tortured tree!
    Many people believe that a bonsai is achieved by starving a tree to keep it small. In fact it is the complete opposite. A bonsai MUST be a tree that is well cared for, in terms of nutriments, water, sunlight, pest-free and weather sheltering to site only the most common factors to cater for. If a bonsaist fails to care for his or her bonsai, it dies. In short a starved or tortured bonsai is a dead bonsai.

  7. A bonsai is NOT a toy or dead nature object for display!
    A bonsai is a real live tree that needs to be cared for. It needs to be watered! It needs to have sunlight! It needs to be fertilized! And each tree species have different needs and tolerances, some like wet feet [ie you can allow the soil to be damp ] while other do not like wet feet. Some grow better in full sunlight while other needs shade rather than direct sunlight.

  8. I might add a last point, but this is my personal opinion.
    A bonsai is NOT just a plant in a pot!
    It needs an "artistic" touch added into the overall picture.

So now that we have a general idea of what is a bonsai and what is not, lets break the definition of "A bonsai is an artistic technique of pruning trees so that they attain mature shapes in miniature forms." into part to explain further more what a bonsai is:

1. A bonsai is a tree in a miniature form:

A bonsai is created by beginning with what is called a source material. This source material may be obtained via seedling, cutting, by using a small tree suitable for bonsai development that can be obtain in a nursery or by collecting small tree specimens in nature.

Bonsai can be created from nearly any perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrub species that produces true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement with crown and root pruning. It usually takes 3 or more years before the source material can be considered a bonsai.

Now, there are some bonsaist who uses succulent species [ like Portulacaria afra a.k.a. Jade Tree ] or even grass species [ like bamboos ]. Some accept it as a natural evolution of bonsai, others more purist regard this practice as misguided [ to be polite ] - Personally I'd tell you to try and see for yourself if its fit for bonsai or not ;)

2. A bonsai is an artistic technique to make a tree in a pot look like a mature full grown tree in a miniature form!

A Wee Tree!

Chinese elm

Chinese elm [and ale] by Jerry Norbury © Jerry Norbury
Just the first definition is alright with some people, or for a novice in bonsai. But for the more experienced ones, there is that little something in addition to the simple "tree in a pot", a little something that makes people stop in awe before a bonsai. A bonsai needs to be a piece of ART!

More than a tree, a piece of art!

Bag End trayscape

Bag End trayscape by Chris Guise © Chris Guise

The goal with bonsai is to achieve a desired shape that the bonsaist sees within the source material. This is achieved 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. Branches and sometimes even the trunk's flow is redirected to fit the bonsaist vision for the bonsai.

Redirecting flow of the trunk

1. Pinus Mugo – raw / source material

1. Pinus Mugo – raw / source material

2. Pinus Mugo Bonsai - Wirering

2. Pinus Mugo Bonsai - Wirering

3. Pinus Mugo Bonsai - Bended

3. Pinus Mugo Bonsai - flow of the trunk redirect!

© Mariusz Andrzejak

Often sketches are made to give direction and vision on how to tackle the source material or an existing bonsai. Those sketches become guidelines through which the bonsaist will make the "tree in a pot" become a "piece of art". The sketches would show the shape envisioned for the bonsai.

John Naka, considered by many as a master, made a series of sketches of his and other people bonsais, he explains:
Sketching has been a way for me to describe what I see because it’s easier for me explain with a pen than with words. I was able to say what I felt when I saw the bonsai material and my vision for the future of the tree. I was able to show the owner of the tree how I saw the tree in five or ten more years.


Examples of sketches

Sketch example

Sketch example by Jerry Norbury © Jerry Norbury
Orange : what the owner should aim for, especially if the owner has no prior experience in bonsai!

Blue : what Jerry would aim for, or what the long term target would be!
Sketch example

Sketch example by Jerry Norbury © Jerry Norbury
The red lines show where to cut, and the green zones the expected foliage after regrowth.

Sketching and implementing

Sketching the vision

Sketching the vision for the tree

Implementing the sketch

Implementing the sketch

© Chris Guise

What the bonsai practitioners say about this art!

Walter Pall, one of Europe's leading artists, and is perhaps best known as a pioneer in developing a naturalistic style that makes use of collected native European material says:

A bonsai is a small tree in a container which has soul. It touches your heart, you look at it and you cannot take your eyes off it. It is much more than a plant it is the essence of nature.
Walter Pall has an active blog, updated regularly, that shows the various stages a tree goes through to ultimately become a bonsai:

John Naka, considered by many as a master said the following:
"Bonsai is not the result: that comes after. Your enjoyment is what is important"

"It [bonsai] must have philosophy, botany, artistry, human quality behind it to be a bonsai"

"The bonsai is not you working on the tree; you have to have the tree work on you"

Source: Wikipedia

Pius Notter said this:

He [John Naka] opened my eyes to a wonderful and successful way with bonsai: A life dedicated to trees!"

Masahiko Kimura, renowned bonsai expert says
Every country should see bonsai differently, since bonsai is something that can be easily linked to one’s own culture. So, I would like to see each country develop its own style and people express their own feelings about nature. It would be exciting to me if I saw something new to look at.

Source: Bonsaizenmaster

Here is a video of Masahiko Kimura from YouTube Channel bonsaiculture

Instructor Megumi Bennett describes it as a form of "patience art"

"Bonsai is a patience art, a waiting art, in which you might have to wait three, four, five or 10 years to see the development of a beautiful tree. Just like children."
Listen to what Megumi Bennett has to say about the topic : [ Right-click & Save-as ]


Peter Parish, member of the Mackay Bonsai Society, says:

"You've got to understand the plants have different requirements of fertilizing, shade and sun... you need to have a reasonable grip on that to be successful..."
"Realistically we tend to put plants into pots too quickly, you're far better off trying to get your plant in a large pot..."
Listen to what Peter Parish has to say about the topic : [ Right-click & Save-as ]


Special Thanks!

  • Special thanks to WeeTrees for connecting all those "bonsaiholic" together!
  • Special thanks to John Farnan for sharing his vast flickr pool on the subject!
  • Special thanks to Walter Pall for sharing his view on the subject and for his wonderful blog!
  • Special thanks to Mariusz Andrzejak for sharing his vast flickr pool on the subject!
  • Special thanks to Jerry Norbury for sharing his vast flickr pool on the subject!
  • Special thanks to Chris Guise for sharing his vast flickr pool on the subject!


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