The Very Basics of Bonsai Trees

The Very Basics of Bonsai Trees

To many Americans, a bonsai is a cute little tree with a small straight trunk, sitting indoors on a counter or a desk, away from any windows. It's often a gift sent by a well-meaning friend or family member. This tree's new owner is initially excited with the zen addition to their interior decor, but this excitement can fade just as quickly as the tree's health. Within a few weeks the tree loses its flowers, its leaf tips brown brown or wilt, and the tree dies. After a short mourning period, the tree's owner shakes it off and chalks the death up as inevitable due to their life-long lack of a "green thumb."

Does this story sound familiar to you? Have you ever heard a friend or neighbor tell a similar tale? With just some basic information and the support of a good teacher, this story can have a happier ending. Wouldn't you rather own a bonsai tree that lives for decades? Please, let us help!

Bonsai is the Japanese term for a tree in a tray. The practice of bonsai began in China over 1,000 years ago. After centuries it also gained popularity as a craft in Japan where the cultural confluence of appreciation for nature and religion elevated interest and skill. Bonsai can be planted in ceramic pots or on stones. Landscape style bonsai are generally called Penjing, which is also the Chinese term for bonsai. 

Bonsai are not a special variety of plant. Bonsai is simply an ornamental tree in a pot, grown and styled to create a miniaturized and sometimes stylized representation of a tree in nature. Although in some cases genetic dwarfs are used for bonsai, in general, if a bonsai is planted in the ground it will eventually grow into a full size tree or plant. Any plant with a permanent wood-like structure, like a vine, tree or shrub, is a candidate for bonsai. Some cacti, succulents, and pachycaul (like desert rose) can also be used to make bonsai.

Most bonsai are grown outdoors. They can be brought inside for short periods of time, the duration of which depends on the time of year and type of tree. Some species can thrive indoors under the right conditions such as Willow Leaf Ficus, Golden Gate Ficus, and Serrisa, among others. 

Proper watering is among the most critical aspects of care. Depending on the location, weather conditions, size of the container, and other factors bonsai may need to be watered 1-2 times per week, daily, or multiple times per day. Each species has different preferences. The roots need both water and air. Generally, water when the soil begins to look dry on top. 

Bonsai are planted in special soil. To promote long-term health, good air penetration, and drainage, bonsai growers use inorganic material such as lava rock, decomposed granite, horticultural pumice, perlite, fir bark, akadama (a Japanese clay), and similar components. The particle size is typically 1/8”-3/8” with all dust and fine particles removed by sifting. This ensures that adequate air can reach the roots of the plant and that over time the soil does not decompose and become too dense. 

Bonsai have to be repotted and have their roots pruned once every 1-5 years. Because of the confined nature of the container, the roots will populate all available space. Repotting provides space and renews the vigor of the plant by removing excess root growth. Similar to pruning long branches, root pruning allows for long-term health.

Bonsai are dwarfed by pruning. The form of a bonsai is created through careful maintenance of the growth of the roots and the leaves or needles. They are not dwarfed by lack of water, fertilizer, or light - these are necessary components of plant life and their absence will weaken the tree and eventually lead to its death. In bonsai the artist generally strives to keep the plant in the healthiest possible state; pruning larger growth prevents smaller branches from dying which may detract from the beauty of the plant.

There are five basic styles in bonsai: Formal Upright, Informal Upright, Slant (photo, below), Semi-cascade, and Full cascade. These describe the angle of the trunk relative to the soil surface; there are many variations to each style.

slanting Norway Spruce bonsai tree

Some bonsai are designed to imitate what happens in harsh natural environments. They may have dead portions either on the trunk or in the branches. Dead portions on the trunk are called Shari, dead branches or twigs are called Jin.


Below we've provided more detailed answers to commonly asked questions:

Can any tree be a bonsai?

How do I start a bonsai collection?

Which bonsai species will grow best on my office desk?

How can I tell if my bonsai tree is healthy?

What are the best bonsai tree species for beginners?

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