Growing Bonsai from seed

In Japanese: “Misho” – Growing Bonsai from tree seeds can be very rewarding and gives you full control from the earliest stage possible. Although it takes a long time (at least three years) before you have a tree you can start working on, this is the only way to grow a Bonsai right from the start!

First of all, seeds need to be obtained; you can collect these from trees in your surroundings or you can choose to buy them in an (online) shop. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as special “Bonsai tree seeds” as Bonsai are created from normal trees.

If you collect seeds from trees growing in your local area planting the seeds in autumn will do just fine, however, if you want to plant seeds out of the season (during springtime for example), or if you purchase seeds online, or if you like to grow seedlings from trees not growing in your local climate, a process called “stratification” might be necessary.


Seeds of many tree-species are genetically programmed to survive through winter and germinate in early spring, to maximize the duration of their first growth season. In fact, most of these seeds will only be able to grow after a cold period.

So if you want to plant seeds for Bonsai, it might be necessary to mimic the cold season by storing the seeds at a cold spot for a few weeks – increasing the germination rate significantly. Seed of most tree-species will need to be soaked in water first and then stored in your fridge for one or two months. The exact amount of time and optimal temperature will depend on the tree-species, a quick online search will provide you with an exact answer.

For beginners this might be a bit complicated, so it is advisable to collect seeds from tree species found near you, keep the seeds outside and plant them in early spring, just like Mother Nature does!

Video: Growing trees from ‘Bonsai tree seeds’


As mentioned previously, you can collect seeds from trees growing in your area in autumn. Seeds like chestnuts and acorns are easy to find in the forest. Seeds from conifers can be found inside pine-cones. Once you collect the pine-cones you need to store them in a warm place so they will release the seeds from between the scales. Seeds of various tree species are also easily available for purchase in (online) Bonsai shops.


The best time to sow seeds is the autumn, this way you follow nature’s time schedule and the young seedling will have a full summer to grow after germinating in early spring. This also means you don’t need to worry about stratification.

From seedling to Bonsai

Before we start propagating trees from seed, let’s look at the stages of development of seedlings first. Growing Bonsai from seed will be a test of your patience, but it is a great way to style Bonsai trees without the need to prune thick branches (which is often inherent to styling Yamadori or nursery stock).

Read the “Bonsai styling” section for detailed information about techniques including wiring and pruning. But first, six images of a Criptomeria tree that was grown from seed into Bonsai over the course of 15 years. Thanks to Jose Ontañón for sharing these inspiring images.

1 year old

2 year old

3 year old

5 year old

10 year old

15 year old

How to Care for a Bonsai Tree & Make It Live Forever

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of growing a bonsai. Me and a growing tribe of enthusiasts that keep “bonsai for beginners” trending on Pinterest all year. If you’re one of us, the idea of growing a miniature tree in your home excites you no end.

However, it’s no secret that I’m not always the best at caring for plants, and bonsai trees are known to be quite finicky (You mean it’s not enough to just water them?). Even so, I wanted to find out if these miniature trees are really as complicated as they seem, so I reached out to a few bonsai experts to pick their brains about the art form.

So What Exactly Is a Bonsai Tree?

For the longest time, I thought bonsai trees were a special species of tree! As I’ve discovered, I wasn’t alone in assuming that!

“Bonsai is a set of practices used to shape a tree artistically,” explains Eric Schrader, who teaches bonsai basics at the Bonsai Society of San Francisco.

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Young Japanese Maple bonsai

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You can use these techniques on just about any type of tree, from cherry blossoms to redwood. Some species, though, are harder to turn into bonsai trees than others. There are also several bonsai “styles,” that include informal, formal, and slanted. These refer to the general shape and stature of the tree, which you can manipulate through wiring and pruning (more on those in a minute).

Which Plant Should You Use?

Naturally, my next question was, “What type of tree is best for beginners?” Like many questions in the plant world, there’s no one definitive answer here, either—experts say it really depends on the climate where you live, and where you plan to place your tree.

Particularly, you’ll need to decide whether you want an outdoor or indoor bonsai. Schrader explains that fewer bonsai varieties thrive indoors, since “the temperature doesn’t change much inside and it’s fairly dry.” Just like a regular, full-grown tree, most bonsai do best when exposed to four seasons, as this allows them to go through a stage of dormancy in the winter (we hear you, bonsai).

A few examples of easy-to-care-for indoor bonsais include: Varieties of ficus, such as Ficus Retusa and Ficus Nerifolia, Jade trees, and Dwarf umbrella trees.

If you’re lucky enough to have an outdoor space where your plant can live, your choices get more interesting. Schrader recommends the Cotoneaster, saying that “if you’re attentive to watering, it’s a good plant to start with.”

Other easy outdoor bonsai for beginners include: Junipers, Boxwood, and Deciduous tree species (especially if you live in the Northeast).

Remember, different trees have different needs, so be sure to visit Bonsai Empire’s list of bonsai tree species to identify and optimize care for your plant.

The 411 on Bonsai Technique

As it turns out, taking a regular tree and turning it into an artistic, miniature version of itself is less complicated than I initially thought! It just requires diligent care, regular maintenance—and a whole lot of patience.

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Only three days left to head to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum for the #Autumn #Bonsai exhibit. Fall in love with these beautiful trees before the exhibit closes this weekend!

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Here is a breakdown of the techniques you’ll need to grow a happy, healthy tree.


What sounds like the simplest of tasks just isn’t. You don’t want to put your tree on a watering “schedule”—instead, monitor it closely to assess exactly when it needs water. “The most common causes of death are underwatering, followed closely by overwatering,” says Schrader.

Your tree’s watering needs will depend on the species, climate, pot, and its overall health, but in general, you don’t want to let your bonsai tree’s soil dry out completely between waterings. Bonsai Tonight explains that because these plants have small root systems, letting the soil get too dry can cause roots to die. As such, it’s best to water while the soil is still slightly damp.

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Also, because bonsai trees are in shallow pots, their soil will likely dry out faster than your other house plants. Keep a close eye on your tree, especially when you first bring it home, to ensure you don’t go too long without watering.


This next technique is key—after all, this is how you keep your tree small.

For an indoor bonsai, there are no hard-and-fast rules on when to prune. “If you get a couple inches of growth, you can usually be confident that it’s healthy enough to be trimmed back,” says Schrader. With an outdoor bonsai, you’ll generally want to do any maintenance pruning only during growth season—a.k.a. spring and summer.

When pruning, you’ll want to remove broken and crossed branches and cut back twigs with more than three or four nodes (the joints where leaves grow). You can also use pruning to shape your bonsai tree and improve its aesthetic, removing branches too close to the base of the tree, as well as those growing in the wrong direction.

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You can either pinch off or use small scissors to remove foliage, but you’ll likely want concave cutters for larger branches, which leave a smooth, indented surface that the tree can easily heal from. The general rule is to prune no more than a third of a healthy tree’s foliage at a time—taking more will ultimately hurt the plant.


If your bonsai tree isn’t the desired size yet, you’ll need to put it on a regular feeding schedule. Fully-grown bonsai require fertilizer, too, but not as frequently.

Schrader explains you can use either organic or mineral fertilizer—or a combination of the two. (Organic fertilizer tends to smell, so think twice before using it indoors.) He recommends applying a tablespoon of organic fertilizer or a “dose” of liquid fertilizer every couple of weeks.


As a beginner, you might be content to let your bonsai do its own thing, shaping it through pruning. Once you graduate into an advanced bonsai artist, you’ll want to use wiring.

“There are a couple of tools for creating shape,” explains Schrader. “You can remove things, and you can move things. Wire is used to create shape and move branches from one place to another.”

Essentially, you wrap branches in wire, then bend and reposition them, encouraging them to grow in certain directions. Anodized aluminum wire is recommended for beginners because it’s easy to work with, and you can wrap branches in water-soaked raffia fiber before wiring if you’re nervous about damaging them.

Bonsai Empire provides a thorough guide on wiring your tree if you want to learn more.

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Finally, a repotting schedule—not only will this give the tree healthy, new soil, it will also allow you to trim back the plant’s root system.

A growing bonsai should be repotted roughly every two years, while a mature tree may be able to go three or more years without repotting. You can see if your bonsai needs repotting by examining the root system—if it’s circling around the pot, it needs a trim.

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Generally, you’ll want to repot your bonsai tree in the spring before it starts growing in earnest. During the process, remove old soil from the roots using chopsticks and trim back any roots that have grown too long. Take care not to remove more than a third of the root system.

Once you’ve completed this, you can add fresh bonsai soil—typically a mixture of akadama, pumice, lava rock, organic potting compost, and fine gravel.

Get the Help You Need

Feeling overwhelmed? Me too! It’s a lot to learn, but once you get the hang of it, growing bonsai feels like it could become an obsession.

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Many experts recommend finding a bonsai workshop, class, or society in your area to connect you with enthusiasts and give you a place to troubleshoot. Alternatively, there are plenty of great bonsai resources online, including tons of videos that cover everything we’ve spoken about here.

So, are you ready to try your hand at growing your own bonsai? I know I am—I’m signing up for my first workshop today!

What are your pro tips for bonsai care? Let us know in the comments below.

How To Make A Bonsai Tree

Bonsai is an art that creates miniature trees from regular, full-growing trees. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful art forms. Creating a bonsai tree is a combination of artistic skills, a good eye for detail and balance and patience. If someone would ask “How to make a bonsai tree?” it would be a bit challenging to answer. It is not simply making a bonsai tree but creating an art that has been defined for centuries.

The word bonsai actually does not come from the tree you want to grow but from the way you grow the tree. The talent, skills, and passion of a bonsai master allow him to make a variety of bonsai trees. A bonsai is also a form of relaxation and meditation. You will find that working with your bonsai will help calm you. And with these instructions, you will be able to learn the basics of creating bonsai. It’s entirely up to you to refine your skills as a bonsai grower and enthusiast.

What you need to follow this tutorial

Gather all the items you need to create your bonsai tree. You must have all the tools you need right at your fingertips. It’s also important to use quality tools and materials. Here is a list of what you will need.

  • Bonsai plant
    • Bonsai plants or bonsai trees are available in most bonsai nurseries and also from online stores. There are a variety of trees that can be made into bonsai and the key is to understand how trees grow and how to take care of these trees as well.
  • Bonsai Pot
    • You need the right kind of pot to grow your bonsai. Traditional pots may be plain, may be wide with a circular, triangular or rectangular shape. It must have adequate drainage to remove excess water and fertilizer to drain away from the roots.
  • Bonsai potting soil
    • Potting soil that is perfect for bonsai growing is available from garden stores and bonsai nurseries locally and online. Potting soil is usually soil that has good nutrient and water absorption properties. You need soil with good aeration. You need soil that can retain water and nutrients and drain the excess.
  • Aggregates
    • You must improve the drainage and aeration properties of your soil by using aggregate materials. These are small pieces of rocks and materials that are placed at the bottom of the pot. These will let excess water to drain and will let oxygen enter the soil. You can purchase aggregate materials from local garden shops or from bonsai nurseries as well.
  • Water
    • You must use clean and safe water on your bonsai plants. You may use rainwater or tap water but this has to be clean water which won’t pose any risk to your bonsai plants. Have your water tested for quality and safety before watering this on your bonsai if you are unsure.
  • Balanced fertilizer
    • Your bonsai should be fed balanced fertilizer to recuperate. On the other hand, some trees need specific fertilizer formulas. You can purchase this type of fertilizer from bonsai nurseries, garden shops, and garden centers.
  • Pruning shears
    • Pruning shears will let you prune and trim your bonsai depending on the style you wish to achieve. There are many kinds of pruning shears but always use clean or sanitized shears to stop the spread of disease or molds from one area of the plant to another.
  • Wire
    • You need the ideal wire to train your bonsai to the style you want. Wires come in a variety but only two are commonly used: aluminum and annealed copper. Aluminum wires are for bonsai with young branches while strong annealed copper is for older and thicker branches and trunks. Wires are also available in different gauges from as thin as 1 mm to 4 mm thick.
  • Pliers
    • You need a good pair of pliers to cut the wire and to remove it after training is over. A good pair of pliers is also needed to trim tough roots, branches, and trunks, especially on mature trees.

Step by step instructions

1) Selecting the tree that you want to make into a bonsai

Now you can’t simply plant a tree and make it into a bonsai. You need good skills and a lot of patience to be able to grow and cultivate a bonsai tree. And although almost all trees may be grown into bonsai, you must pick the right one that’s right for your skill level and the environment you are in.

If you are new to growing bonsai then there are a few easygoing trees to grow. The environment you are in also affects the kind of tree that you will grow. Consider that some trees will grow well in an environment that has wintertime while some are tropical trees. There are two ways to get a good specimen to work with:

  • Collect your specimen from nature in your local area

Collecting tree specimen from where you are will make it easier to grow bonsai. This way your trees will have the growth specifications to grow successfully in your climate.

There are bonsai growers who still persist in growing bonsai from trees that are not found locally. However, the downside is you will have to use rooting hormone and let it take root, which will add to the failure rate.

  • Purchase good cutting from a local nursery

This is considered the best option, especially for first-time growers. The reason it is the best way to start making bonsai is the large selection of different specimens at one shop. All you need is to look at them and pick whatever matches the design of the bonsai tree you wish to grow.

2) Caring for your bonsai

Now that you have your bonsai specimen in a small pot, you must be diligent in your bonsai maintenance. Take note, one of the most important things that you need to consider is that bonsai trees grow in a small pot with only a small amount of soil to hold. Therefore, bonsai trees get the only limited amount of nutrients. This is one of the reasons why you need to re-pot, replace the soil, feed and water your bonsai more often.

With such a small root system, the tree can easily and quickly suffer from under-watering. A few bonsai care tips you need to remember

  • You must research bonsai species for exact watering, feeding and re-potting requirements and adapt them to maintain the best watering regimen for your bonsai.
  • Look for the best mixture of organic nutrients for your species.
  • You can place your bonsai tree indoors or outdoors in the right weather as long as it receives the right amount of light that is specific for the tree species.
  • Use the best soil for growing bonsai
    • Every type of tree has its own specific soil requirements. It’s important that you understand these so you can provide the ideal soil to grow your bonsai tree. Most growers use sandy loamy soil. This type of soil is perfect for growing most plants because this can hold nutrients and water plus can drain excess soil and water. Sandy loamy soil can also improve aeration so oxygen will flow through the soil to the roots.
  • Add a layer of aggregates to properly drain your soil
    • Aggregates could be sand, pebbles or any small natural material that can improve soil aeration and drainage. This should be placed inside the pot as the first layer to be followed by bonsai potting soil.
  • Water your plants according to their watering needs
    • Some bonsai trees can tolerate dry environments while some would like moist soils. But no matter what, you must never water when the soil is moist to risk developing root rot or mold growth in the roots. Water only with clean water, whether you use rainwater or tap water. If you are in doubt, you can have your water tested before using this on your bonsai.
  • Re-pot your bonsai according to the ideal re-potting schedule for the tree species. Generally, fast-growing trees need to be re-potted at least yearly to make up for the growth of the roots. Slow-growing trees should be re-potted at least two to three years.
  • Replace the bonsai soil when you re-pot
    • Never reuse soil when you re-pot. Always use new soil with fresh nutrients.
  • Feed your plants with the right nutrients

As there is a wide variety of trees that you can turn into bonsai, the nutritional requirements of each one vary as well. This is where good research of the needs of the tree comes in very handy. You must look for the ideal fertilizer that will work best for your tree.

The ideal fertilizer for most bonsai trees is a balanced N-P-K fertilizer. The letters stand for the most important nutrients that plants need: Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium. There are different formulations of N-P-K in a variety of fertilizer. You must identify the right combination of N-P-K that is right for your kind of tree.

Also, when it comes to feeding nutrients to your bonsai tree, you must always check the instructions provided by the manufacturer. Feeding is also scheduled. Some bonsai trees need regular, yearly fertilization while some monthly. Again, learning about the basic nutritional needs of your tree would be a good idea

3) Training your bonsai tree

In bonsai, there is a wide range of techniques applied to shape your tree to make it look how you want it to be. If you want to make a traditional Japanese bonsai, keep in mind the number one rule: when displaying, you never want to leave anything that shows human intervention. The bonsai should look as if it naturally grew into the design. Therefore if you must keep a branch wired make sure to carefully disguise it.

Pruning branches and roots

Training techniques consist of pruning of branches and roots, leaf trimming, wiring, clamping, and grafting. Branch and root pruning are important because it will define the shape of your tree. Trimming branches will encourage new growth so you can shape it accordingly. On the other hand, trimming the roots will remove diseased roots, shape the root to fit a container or pot and to improve nutrient and water absorption. Trimming the roots and branches require years of practice but no doubt achievable. You also need the right tools to prune like a pair of pruning shears or scissors.

Pruning is also scheduled. Most of the time it is done when the tree is at its dormant stage like coniferous trees. But some trees may be pruned any time.

Leaf trimming

Trimming achieves the ideal shape of your tree. Trimming also encourages new growth of leaves and buds. Leaf structure is very important if you want to achieve a variety of shapes and styles. An example would be a windswept style wherein plumes of leaves only grow on one side of the tree. This shape is achieved by carefully trimming the leaves until you achieve the ideal shape.

Basically, you will want to trim all of the larger leaves and branches that are very large to properly train your tree to the ideal shape. When you trim branches try your best to cut close to the main trunk of the tree to make the cut look as natural as possible. As time goes by almost all things will heal and with a little bit of imagination, you can make any injury or mark look natural.

After you have your bonsai in a small pot and the tree is pruned keep it healthy it will begin its life cycle as a miniature version of the regular tree. This is a hobby that takes time, but with diligence, you can create lovely and healthy bonsai trees.

Wiring and clamping your bonsai tree

Once your tree is healthy and well-adjusted to its new life as a bonsai you must start training the branches according to your style as well as the traditional Japanese guidelines on bonsai. One traditional method is to make sure the tree is not symmetrical.

To achieve this rule, you must wire and clamp your tree. When wiring and clamping your trees, you must protect it from damage by using cloth or cardboard as a protective material where the wire or clamp touches the actual tree branch. This will also avoid leaving a scar or mark on the branch because you want to make every aspect of your tree as natural as ever.

Types of wire used for bonsai trees

Bonsai wiring is done with either copper or aluminum wire. The wire must be at least 1/3 the diameter of the branch or trunk. Copper wire is more durable than aluminum and, because of that this wire can hold its form and stays in place. Copper wires can damage the branches and trunk if these are not carefully monitored. This can bruise or cut the plant as well. If you use copper wire, you should monitor the growth and condition of the wired branches and trunk regularly. On the other hand, aluminum wire is easier to use and manipulate. It may not be as sturdy as copper wire but will not hurt delicate bonsai tree branches. It is more forgiving especially for anyone new to wiring. Aluminum will require monitoring every two weeks.

Both beginners and professional bonsai artists use aluminum wire because of the greater ease of use. Both wires will accomplish good results but no matter what you use, you must monitor your plants regularly to ensure their good health.

When is the right time to wire?

Wiring should be when the tree is young and healthy to create the best results. Wiring is done when the plant has been re-potted. Choosing the right time to wire depends on the type of plant. The proper time to wire is also different between deciduous and coniferous trees.

Deciduous trees should be wired during the early spring. This is done when there are new buds on the limbs. Wiring at this stage of the tree will give the best appearance of the trunk and branches before the leaves and new growth emerge on the limbs. At this point, you will be able to the structure of the tree clearly and apply the wiring without new leaves and branches getting in the way of your project.

Coniferous trees should be wired in the late autumn or early winter. This is when coniferous trees renew their foliage annually so the limbs have a certain amount of foliage. Wiring is performed when the sap is lowest in the branches so the branches are more flexible and will respond well to wiring.

Do not wire a tree when it is sick. Do not wire weak branches because these could snap off. Provide well-balanced fertilizer to the tree and improving its strength before you start applying any mechanical training. Avoid wiring a plant that is freshly watered because it will hard to do so. The branches and limbs are most flexible when they are a bit dehydrated. Wiring when the limbs are less flexible will only lead to breakage and damage to the limbs.

How to Wire Bonsai Trees

You need a healthy, young plant and the ideal wire. Do not be in a hurry because you need to be very careful about wiring your delicate bonsai plant. As you apply the wire, hold the limb in both hands. Bend the wire to the branch and not the branch of the wire to avoid any injury.

Always start with the trunk and then move from the thickest branches to the thinnest ones. The key is to bend the wire from the trunk and outwards on the branches or from the trunk to the tip. When you start wiring, place yourself in a comfortable position to give you maximum control over your bonsai. You need to position this way so you can even wrap the wire.

Wrap the wire around the limbs of the tree at a 45-degree angle. This should be done like a “barber pole” style. The wire should form the limb and guide it according to the style you wish to achieve.

Never wire the bonsai too tight because your plant is growing and needs space for its increasing size. The wires will be guiding the growth of the tree so you must never choke your tree as it develops.

You must anchor the branches to stabilize the part and prevent crossed wires or too much tension on the different limbs. Every time you start wiring, you must start with the trunk and have a strong foundation. This should be anchored on the soil or on a strong root. The tree should feel steady with a moderate amount of movement. Once you have a steady foundation, you can now start wiring the rest of your tree.

  • Start wiring at a tight angle as the wire emerges from the ground.
  • Wire at a 45-degree angle throughout the trunk and limbs.
  • Wire the branches by winding the end of the wire closest to the trunk around the wire that holds the trunk.
  • You can adjust the 45-degree angle if the limb has a sharp bend in it. Wind the wire at a smaller angle when you move past the turn. This will provide the additional support.
  • You may use the same piece of wire on two branches if these have the same thickness.
  • Anchor the wire around the trunk to secure and balance of the bonsai. Never wire branches that have different thicknesses. You must use separate wires for each branch.
  • If you have a strong branch, you can use two or three wires winded together to manipulate it.

Removing the Wire

Once the wire has achieved its purpose it may be removed. This is usually done during the same season when it was applied which is the most common practice for moderately-growing trees. The wire should also be removed if it begins to grow into the plant.

When removing wires, cut off the wire turn after turn with wire cutters. Do not unwind the wire from the limb or reuse wire. This will cause damage to the plant and even break the branch. Cut the wire at every turn so you can remove the wire without injuring your bonsai tree.


One advanced method of training is grafting. This is done by using a clipping from another species of tree. This is inserted into a specially shaped slit on the host bonsai plant.

The young plant will be able to take root in the area and soon this can be removed and be grown into a bonsai.

4) Bonsai as a lifelong hobby

Growing bonsai could later become a lifelong hobby. This is basically something that will eventually happen because some bonsai trees even outlive their growers! There are bonsai species that can grow and survive up to 500 years and of course, this is only possible when the grower takes good care of his trees.

As a grower, you have a lot of responsibilities over your plants. You must improve your skills to be able to care for your plants. There are bonsai expositions, trade shows and bonsai-related events that you can attend to help you improve your skills. You may also connect with people who love bonsai online and learn and share growing techniques.


Cultivating bonsai from regular trees is possible when you possess the right skills and have the best tools or materials to use. You also need to be patient with your bonsai plants because it could take a long time for bonsai trees to form and shape. You must learn the basic skills of bonsai growing like trimming, pruning, grafting, shaping, feeding, watering and more. All these will help you care for your bonsai in the best way possible.

When to Prune

I normally say not to prune deciduous bonsai trees in autumn. two main reasons:

A – Pruning trees spurs them into budding and putting out new growth. In late spring and summer this is fine but with winter approaching, the new growth can be damaged by cold weather. The new growth needs time to lignify – to become woody. Green shoots get frost damaged in winter basically.

B:-If you make cuts in autumn, the tree doesn’t heal in time for cold winter and can be damaged. It makes them more prone to die-back.

But then I say that winter is a better time to prune. The tree is fully dormant, so will not bud until spring. The sap has already retreated down into the trunk and roots, so the tree will not bleed sap. Surely this goes against point B? Thinking about it, yes it does. Winter protection in a greenhouse or similar would be wise for trees pruned in winter.

So in a nutshell, I normally do major pruning in mid winter and summer. Not so much in early spring, as the tree has just pumped its energy into new foliage and it needs a period of growing in order to recoup this energy, so if you just chop lots of growth off in early spring, you weaken the tree. Late spring is fine, as the tree has had time.

I’ve just had a look at this article from The University of Idaho, which says not to prune autumn as its a big time of year for fungal spores which can infect the tree through the cuts. This is a problem for big mature trees, though perhaps not so much of a problem for bonsai, as we can more easily seal the cuts with wound sealant or apply a fungicide if we get problems. I acquired a project Japanese Maple with Coral Spot recently which was living some deadwood present on the tree. A blast with fungicide seems to have got rid of it easily and the tree is very happy.

This article from Barcham’s mentions sulk-mode, which I think is a brilliant term for describing the sluggish growth than can happen with unhappy trees. It agrees with much of what I’ve been reading and also has some info on pruning evergreen trees.

I think I’m going to continue with my routine of hard pruning in midsummer and midwinter. It is probably wise to provide winter protect for trees that have been hard pruned in winter. Important to say that general, lighter pruning takes place throughout the growing season, from when new spring growth has harden off until late summer.

What is a Bonsai Tree?

A bonsai tree is a miniature tree that is planted within a container. In fact, the term “bonsai” literally means “planted in a container” in Japanese.

Bonsai refers to the art of cultivating these small trees and is an integral part of Japanese culture dating back to the early 14th century. Once enjoyed by only the wealthiest aristocrats and high-ranking members of Japanese society, bonsai is now an art form that is enjoyed by people from all around the world.

Bonsai Tree Care

Caring for a bonsai tree might seem intimidating at first. Here are a few tips to show you how to take care of a bonsai tree with ease. We also created a handy guide featuring quick tips for easy reference.

How to Position Your Bonsai Tree

To determine the best location to display your bonsai, you’ll need to know what type of tree it is and whether or not it’s an indoor or outdoor plant.

Most common types of bonsai such as juniper, pine and spruce trees are outdoor plants and should be exposed to the seasons like their larger counterparts. Outdoor bonsai also include deciduous trees, meaning that their leaves change with the seasons. These include maple, elms and gingko.

Indoor bonsai trees are typically subtropical species which thrive off of stable temperatures throughout the year. These include jade plants, Hawaiian umbrella trees, and ficus trees.

Once you’ve figured out what type of bonsai tree you have, the rest is fairly simple. Here are some general tips on bonsai tree positioning that typically apply to all types of bonsai trees.

  • Positioning: Your bonsai should be kept away from direct heat or draft.
  • Lighting: Keep your bonsai in area with plenty of sunlight.
  • Humidity: Bonsais need humidity in order to keep their soil moist.

Watering Your Bonsai Tree

The number one cause of most bonsai tree deaths is under-watering. Because the soil layer is so shallow, it is prone to drying out very quickly. Bonsai trees should be watered right when the top layer of soil appears dry. Depending on the type and size of your tree, as well as the type of soil you use, the frequency of watering can differ and can even be once a day. Therefore, it’s best to water each of your bonsai plants individually, instead of sticking to a routine.

When watering your bonsai tree, the main goal is to fully saturate the root system with water. To ensure proper saturation, keep watering until water escapes through the draining holes. To allow for proper draining, many bonsai trees come with a tray to collect excess water.

Overwatering can also be detrimental for your bonsai tree. Symptoms of an overwatered bonsai include: yellowing of leaves and the shriveling of smaller branches. If a bonsai is overwatered, its roots are drowning in water and are deprived of oxygen which prevents further growth to support the tree. Overwatering can also result from poor-draining soil.

To ensure that you are watering your bonsai properly, you’ll need to assess your bonsai tree daily. The rule of thumb is to water as soon as the soil appears dry.

Pruning and Shaping Your Bonsai Tree

Pruning is essential for keeping bonsai trees small and for maintaining their compact shape. There are two main types of pruning: maintenance pruning and structural pruning.

Maintenance pruning strengthens the tree by encouraging new growth. By cutting away young shoots and leaves it exposes the leaves underneath to air and sunlight which further strengthens the tree and benefits its overall health.

Areas that require maintenance pruning include the branches, buds, and leaves. Pruning away branches encourages the growth of smaller branches and allows you to control the shape of your tree. Pruning buds away from branches produces a more compact leaf growth which encourages the growth of smaller leaves.

Typically, you should prune your bonsai tree when you see new growth that’s starting to morph the shape of your tree in an undesirable manner. For flowering bonsais, pruning should take place during the spring to encourage more flowers to grow the following year.

Structural pruning is a more advanced technique that should only be done when the tree is dormant. It involves the removal of the tree’s primary structural branches and requires the skills of a professional to ensure that the tree can recover.

Another way to properly shape your bonsai tree is to wire its branches. You can control the shape and growth pattern of certain branches by wrapping a thin wire around them. Wiring is best done during winter when the leaves of the bonsai tree have fallen off. Be sure to keep an eye on the branch’s growth and remove the wire when necessary. If the branch grows too fast, it can grow into the wire and cause scarring.

Choosing the Right Soil For Your Bonsai

The key to choosing the right soil for your bonsai is to choose one that offers proper drainage. Add large particles to your soil mixture, such as volcanic rock or stones, to improve drainage and to introduce air into the soil. The ideal soil mixture should also be able to hold water which can be improved by adding clay.

Fertilizing your bonsai ensures that it receives the proper amount of nutrients it needs to stay healthy. A balanced bonsai fertilizer contains equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Before you fertilize, make sure that you’ve watered your tree thoroughly as it is harmful to fertilize the plant while the soil is dry. Be sure to read the instructions on the fertilizer to avoid overfertilizing.

Repotting Your Bonsai

Repotting is a key factor in maintaining the health of your bonsai tree. The purpose of repotting is to remove excess roots which can cause the tree to starve, or not receive enough nutrients for its mass. Repotting also ensures that your tree can continue to thrive within a small pot. Bonsai trees should be repotted once every two to five years, depending on how quickly your bonsai tree grows.

Here are the basic steps to repotting your bonsai tree:

  1. Carefully remove the tree from its pot.
  2. Using sharp shears, trim away the outer layer of roots.
  3. Inspect the root mass for areas of rot trim away as needed. These areas can indicate where the bonsai is not getting enough drainage.
  4. Clean the pot itself and remove any brown or green spots.
  5. Place mesh squares over the drainage holes to prevent soil from falling out.
  6. Layer the bottom of the pot with soil and place the tree on top.
  7. Fill the remaining holes and gaps where the root used to exist with soil.

Bonsai Tree Care: A Quick Guide

They say that bonsai isn’t just a plant, it’s a way of life. Bonsai trees require regular care and maintenance. Just follow our tips on how to care for a bonsai tree and soon you’ll be on your way to becoming a true bonsai pro!

For beginners, Juniper bonsai trees are the easiest to care for so they’re perfect for novice bonsai enthusiasts. Flowering bonsai like the gardenia bonsai are great for adding variety (and fragrance) to your bonsai collection.

To help you remember bonsai care essentials, we created a handy reference guide below with quick tips for each stage.


Bonsai is the art of growing carefully trained, dwarf plants in containers, dwarfing trees by careful root and stem pruning coupled with root restriction.

Bonsai means “tray gardening” in Japanese. The plants are formed to create an aesthetic shape and the illusion of age. The Chinese art of penjing is very similar to and is the precursor of the Japanese art of bonsai.

A bonsai is not a genetically dwarfed plant. It is any tree or shrub species actively growing but kept small by crown and root pruning. Theoretically, any species could be used, though ones with attributes such as small leaves and twigs will generally make better bonsai, helping to create the illusion of a larger tree in miniature. Properly maintained bonsai can have lifespans that might be able to reach that of their full-sized counterparts. However, bonsai require a great deal of care, and improperly maintained bonsai will not survive.

In the art of bonsai a sense of aesthetics, care, and patience come together. The plant, the shaping and surface of the soil and the selected container come together to express “heaven and earth in one container” as a Japanese cliche has it. Three forces come together in a good bonsai: shin-zen-bi or truth, essence and beauty.

The usual plants used in Japan are species of pine, azalea, camellia, maple, beech, bamboo and plum, but there are many plants you can use for bonsai.

In Japan the bonsai plants are grown outdoors and brought in to the tokonoma at special occasions when they most evoke the current season.

The Japanese bonsai are meant to evoke the essential spirit of the plant being used: in all cases they must look natural and never show the intervention of human hands. Chinese penjing may more literally depict images of dragons or even be guided to resemble highly intricate Chinese characters, such as “longevity”, in various styles, but usually cursive.

There are many different styles of bonsai, but some are more common than others. These include formal upright, informal upright, cascade, semi-cascade, raft and literati.

The formal upright is just as the name suggests, and is characterized by a tapering trunk and balanced branches. The informal upright is much like the formal, but may bend and curve slightly, although for aesthetic quality the tree should never lean away from the viewer.

Cascade and semi-cascade are modelled after trees

that grow over water or on the sides of mountains. Semi-cascade do not lean as far downward as the cascade style.

Raft style bonsai are those that are planted on their side, and can include many other styles such as sinuous, straight-line, and group planting styles. These all give the illusion of a group of trees, but are actually the branches of a tree planted on its side.

The literati style is the hardest to define, but is seen fairly often. The word literati is used in place of the Japanese bunjin which is a translation of the Chinese word wenjen meaning “scholars practiced in the arts”. The literati style is usually characterized by a small number of branches typically placed higher up on the trunk and a long, contorted trunk. Their style is inspired by the Chinese paintings of pine trees that grew in harsh climates, struggling to reach the light of the sun.

There are many plants you can use for bonsai, including those that don’t look like a tree at all (jasmines, anthuriums, etc.). Important feature for successful bonsai is that the plant should have small leaves; fast-growing habit is a plus.

List of tropical plants suitable for bonsai

Buy bonsai starters from our store

Bonsai garden design

A well designed Bonsai garden makes your trees stand out more than anything else.

But designing one is incredibly difficult, especially because you need to find a way to display your trees at eye-level, while keeping in mind the individual requirements of each of your trees. Some trees will need at least partial shade on the warmest days, while other trees prefer as much sun as they can get. Most professional Bonsai gardens have shade-cloth systems, with varying amounts of shadow provided, that can be used in summer. This article can help you to find inspiration and offers a few guidelines to get started; good luck!

Displaying your Bonsai on vertical poles in the garden

Professional Bonsai gardens (think: Japanese Bonsai gardens) often display their most important trees centrally in the garden, placed on poles. Placing the trees at eye level makes them stand out and gives visitors the opportunity to gaze at the trees while strolling around.

Placing the poles is relatively straightforward, so the only difficulty is in choosing materials. We’ve come across wooden pillars (old railroad ties or tree trunks), stone slabs and concrete pillars.

For inspiration, let’s take a look at some gardens where Bonsai are displayed on poles.

This photo was taken at the famous Bonsai garden in Tokyo; Shunka-en. The garden is quite spacious and this is the center patio; around it the masterpiece trees are displayed on poles made of wood. Most of these trees are pines.

Another shot taken at Shunka-en, more trees on display, around a pond filled with Koi fish. The poles are made of concrete, shaped like trees. The benefit of using concrete is that the pillars can be quite thin.

This Bonsai backyard successfully creates depth in a rather limited space, by placing the pillars in the front a bit lower than those at the back. The simple color of the fence makes the trees stand out. I found this picture at StreamLink, but I’m not sure whose garden this is.

This Chinese Penjing garden puts all emphasis on the trees by using simple materials; a plain background and clean concrete pillars. Chinese Penjing landscapes are often bigger than the Japanese counterparts. Photo by Paul Thompson.

One of the most beautiful Bonsai tree gardens in Japan, Taikan is located in Obuse. The trees in the photo catch the eye, as the background and ground are plain. The owner of the garden, mr. Suzuki, is known for his great skill at displaying Bonsai, so this is one garden to look at for inspiration. The trees are fixed to the poles they stand on, mostly to protect the trees from storms and heavy snowfall.

Using benches in your Bonsai garden

Building a bench to put your trees on is more difficult than it seems, especially when you want it to last longer than 1 – 2 years. In the fourth photo below you see a bench that you can create yourself. First, let’s have a look at some examples.

This photo was taken at the Kouka-en garden located near Osaka. The Bonsai garden has several rows of wide benches, on which smaller trees are placed at the outsides and larger trees in the middle (sometimes on crates or tables to create some depth in the displays).

This is the Bonsai Garden Oakland (photo by Aureliak), in which a bench is made out of concrete in a circle. Difficult to create for the beginners, but absolutely stunning! The display area is open, but a glass roof protects the trees from the elements.

This is the Weyerhaeuser Bonsai garden (photo also by Aureliak). The bench photographed here is absolutely wonderful.

Bonsai bench created by Jeremy Norbury. He explains how to create one yourself here: creating a Bonsai bench for your garden.

Vertical Bonsai garden

We finish the article looking at a great way to display Bonsai plants; in vertical gardens.

This vertical Bonsai backyard is created by a plain and natural wall to which several platforms are attached. Photo by Alex Lamb.

This stunning display is found at the Arboretum in Washington Dc (photo by Aaron Karnofski).

Bonsai (–~Í) are potted miniature trees which are carefully styled to achieve an aesthetic effect. The concept was first imported into Japan from China more than a thousand years ago. Since then, a distinctive style of this art form has been developed in Japan.

Various techniques such as the trimming of roots and wiring are used to keep the trees small but in proportion to how they might have looked if grown in nature. This achieves the effect of condensing the appearance of a natural tree or forest within the pot, leaving room for artistic imagination.

Typical Trees

Typical trees used in bonsai include those with needled leaves such as pine trees (matsu), with broader leaves such as maple trees (momiji), with flowers such as cherry trees (sakura), and with fruits such as quince trees (karin). Some art pieces also use grass as the subject.

Some trees purposely feature white colored, dead parts without bark to represent the struggle of a tree in nature. A partially dead trunk is called shari, while a partially dead branch is known as jin.

Yezo pine tree demonstrating elements of jin and shari


Bonsai come in various styles. Below are some of the most commonly encountered ones:

  • Formal and Informal Straight
    The trunk in a formal straight bonsai is straight, and the pinnacle of the tree is in line with the body and the base. In case of an informal straight bonsai, the trunk slants slightly, but the top of the tree still ends up directly above the center of the base.
  • Slant
    As the name suggests, the entire tree is slanted to one side.
  • Cascade
    Rather than in an upright fashion, the tree grows downwards to one side to a degree where its pinnacle ends up at the same height or lower than the pot, like a tree at the edge of a cliff.
  • Forest and Multi-Trunk
    In a forest style bonsai, multiple trees are grown in the same pot, carefully fashioned to mimic a forest. A multi-trunk bonsai is similar to the forest style, except that the multiple trunks have a common root, i.e. they are actually a single tree.
  • Rock
    The tree grows on a rock with its roots anchored in the rock’s cracks or in the soil below.

Formal straight Slant Forest Using grass as the subject

Other Elements

The pots and stones used are also important elements in bonsai. Contrary to their Chinese counterparts, Japanese bonsai tend to use pots with less flashy colors. The idea of deriving beauty from simplicity is prized, and containers used usually have earthen or dark colors. Stones or rocks are not chosen for their rarity or value, but are selected according to how they can blend in and contribute to the aesthetics of the art piece.

How to appreciate Bonsai

The way to appreciate bonsai is to first look at it and gain an overall impression, and then to lower your line of sight to the same level as the art piece. Try to imagine yourself being small, looking at the tree in a natural environment.

Appreciating bonsai: imagining oneself being small

Where to see Bonsai

One of the best places to see bonsai is the Omiya Bonsai Village in Saitama, just north of Tokyo. The village is a collection of bonsai nurseries that relocated there from Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The village also has an excellent Bonsai Art Museum which explains well the various aspects of bonsai.

Another excellent area to see and purchase bonsai is the Kinashi Bonsai Village in the outskirts of Takamatsu. Get off at the rural Kinashi Station, a seven minute ride by local train from Takamatsu Station in direction of Okayama. Kinashi is a leading producer of pine trees used for bonsai as well as actual pine bonsai pieces. Over 30 nurseries are located in the rural surroundings of the station.

In the rest of Japan, single bonsai plants are sometimes encountered as displays in Japanese gardens or in the alcoves of traditional Japanese rooms.

A nursery at the Kinashi Bonsai Village outside of Takamatsu

Definition and meaning

The word “Bon-sai” (often misspelled as bonzai or banzai) is a Japanese term which, literally translated, means “planted in a container”. This art form is derived from an ancient Chinese horticultural practice, part of which was then redeveloped under the influence of Japanese Zen Buddhism.

It has been around for well over a thousand years. 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 “Akirafutokoro Prince” (706 AD). Source: Ritsumeikan University

What is a Bonsai tree exactly?

Techniques such as pinching buds, pruning and wiring branches, and carefully restricting but not abandoning fertilizers are used to limit and redirect healthy growth. Most commonly kept under four feet (or about a meter) in height, Bonsai are not genetically dwarfed plants. However, plants with smaller leaves do make these compositions easier to design. In fact, any plant species that has a woody stem or trunk, grows true branches, can be successfully grown in a container to restrict its roots/food storage capability, and has smaller or reducible-leaves can be used to create a Bonsai.

Look around at your trees, bushes, hedges, the copses in your yard or park, plants in the nursery or wild landscape – essentially any of those can be starter material. Carefully collected during the appropriate growing or dormant season with proper permission, your composition is begun. Most native plants can be grown outdoors; material from more tropical climates needs at least some protection from the elements in the temperate zones. In our Bonsai tree species guide you can find more information about specific care per species. Or use this guide to identify your Bonsai tree species in three steps.

Bonsai size classifications

The ultimate goal of Bonsai is to create a realistic depiction of nature. As a Bonsai gets smaller (even down to a few inches/centimeters) it increasingly becomes abstract, as opposed to resembling nature in a more precise way. Several classifications of Bonsai have been put forward, and although the exact size classifications are disputed, they help to gain understanding of the aesthetic and botanical aspects of Bonsai. The classifications are originally based on the number of men needed to lift the actual tree.

The size classifications, increasing in size

Read more about the smallest trees in the Shohin and Mame Bonsai article.

Bonsai for sale in a market, Japan.

Bonsai definition

The Chinese characters for their older dwarf potted tree landscapes were adopted to name the Japanese art-form. Bonsai in Japanese is written as: 盆栽. In short, the definition of Bonsai can be explained as:

“Bon” is a dish or thin bowl (“a modified vessel which has been divided or cut down from a deeper form”).

“Sai” is a tree or other growing plant which is planted – “planted,” as would be a halberd or spear or pike stuck into the ground.

“Bonsai” thus means or denotes “a tree which is planted in a shallow container”.

Bonsai meaning

We now know the literal translation of Bonsai is “tree in pot”, but what is the meaning of a Bonsai tree? A Bonsai tree is a replication of nature, in the form of a miniature tree, without displaying the human intervention too clearly.

The connotations or added/implied Bonsai tree meanings include:

  • A general tree-like shape or style (although not necessarily natural to that type of plant growing full-size in the wild).
  • A profile that is not as detailed as a photographically-real tree but has just enough features to easily suggest a full-grown tree.
  • Relative smallness, compared with those same types of trees outside of the container, for ease of transport and ability to keep nearby.
  • A sense of naturalness which has been subtly accentuated by human intervention but which is not spoiled by stark evidence of human interaction.
  • A particular representation of something much more than itself, and thus allowing each viewer to interpret what is shown and to build-upon this based on his or her own experiences and memories.
  • Something so valued that it has received care for virtually every day of its containerized life.
  • Something held in such high regard that it was allowed to be brought temporarily into the house for honored guests even though it contained soil from the garden.
  • A portable oasis and transportable miniature garden which can represent the seasons and vast or favorite landscapes close-at-hand for meditation or contemplation assistance.
  • These are just a few points, it is up to you to decide what Bonsai means to you.

Read more about the history and origins of Bonsai.

Reproduction by Takao Itabashi, original by Takakane Takashina. Poetry by Mototada Takatsukasa and others. Source: Ritsumeikan University

Horticultural practice, or art form?

Bonsai-in-training (also known as “potensai,” potential Bonsai) should point to a future, more mature creation which the artist, at least, has somewhat in mind. And because these are made with living, growing things, those future piece are never complete or finished. They will be presented within certain biological parameters, subject to health issues or remodeling by the tree with the caretakers’ assistance. The oldest and longest-containerized Bonsai because of natural changes can undergo several different styles throughout their long lives. These trees can, in fact, live longer than their full-size counterparts because of our increased attention to their health, water and nutritional needs, protection from weather extremes, injuries needing care, or pest infestations requiring containment or removal. In our “top 10 great Bonsai trees list” we have included an 800 year-old tree. The best Bonsai – whether a single tree or a multi-plant and rock landscape composition – touch us, make us take notice, stop us as they catch our experience and imaginations to show us something new.

Thick trunks, textured bark, an interplay of twisting live wood and deadwood, surface roots, branch and twig ramification, foliage pads, relatively small leaves or needles, a very complementary and relatively shallow container, tiny fruit or cones or flowers – these are just a few of the more obvious features that can be used to help portray a miniature landscape. They are not all needed or possible in any one given composition, and they cannot simply be included “just because.” A true master artisan knows, feels what is needed. And his or her creation touches us, also. Those true masterpieces are the ones which, when you first look at them, can momentarily take your breath away and raise a smile. The earliest Bonsai were collected in the wild and were interestingly-shaped specimens which told of many adventures or challenges during their long-lives growing exposed to the elements. As their availability decreased during the centuries, landscape and nursery plants were tried and experimented with. Eventually, it was learned how to shape the trees to resemble naturally-sculpted specimens.

Bonsai challenges our gardening skills, artistic aesthetics and design capabilities.

Bonsai are a blend of horticultural knowledge and art. As one’s experience with a given type of tree increases, concern about keeping the plant alive and healthy can take a backseat to concern about a particular design. The best, ideal, masterpiece compositions seem natural, without artifice or affectation. They don’t call attention directly to the artist; they don’t deliberately show off their features (or flaws). Read more about compositions at the Bonsai styles article.

As with all human crafts/hobbies/arts, Bonsai can be enjoyed by oneself or shared with others. They can be made for personal enjoyment or profit from sale. They can be designed quickly with little experience or developed over a period of time with increasing personal expertise and exposure to the creations of other enthusiasts and artists. And any combination of these characteristics.

Bonsai can challenge one’s own gardening skills, artistic aesthetics and design capabilities, time and monetary investment, and storage and display parameters. Bonsai truly are/can be much more than just “miniature Japanese trees.” They can be as inexpensive as a collected “volunteer” sapling in one’s own yard put in a plastic pot to a pricey award-winning specimen imported from overseas with an antique container. The range of this hobby/art is one of the appealing features of Bonsai. Click here for an introduction on how to grow a Bonsai yourself.

Containers for Bonsai

The containers for these trees can be an interest in themselves. Traditionally made in China and then Japan, these shallow containers of mostly fired earthenware are increasingly crafted by both professional and amateur artisans around the world. The matching up of a pot to a designed tree can be a wonderful challenge, for the pot must support the tree as well as be an attractive but non-intrusive frame to the Bonsai’s picture. Earth tones and not-so-garish decorations distinguish traditional Japanese pots from the Chinese models. And containers for cascading trees are the one exception to the shallow pot rule: these tall, narrow containers must provide adequate space for roots and a balanced center of gravity for trees designed to appear to be hanging down from the side of a mountain or cliff. More info about selecting Bonsai pots here.

Prince Zhang Huai tomb mural (AD 706), with miniature trees. Source: Ritsumeikan University

Closely related arts

While “Bonsai“ specifically refers to dwarf potted trees based on the Japanese model, it is also used as a generic term for related art-forms in other countries, which include but are not limited to the following:

  • Penjing are the older and original form of Chinese miniature landscapes. They usually include rocks to represent mountains, hills, and cliffs. Sometimes they are even all the way up to 3 meters or 10′ tall. These larger compositions are planted in non-movable concrete containers on permanent display.
  • Saikei are the newer and smaller Japanese versions of Penjing. These are made with rocks, small plants/ground-covers, and underdeveloped trees (which could someday become independently potted Bonsai).
  • Hòn non bô are Vietnamese miniature landscapes from 0.3 to 7.6 m (1′ to 25′) high, made with rocks, plants and water imitating island scenery, mountains and surroundings.
  • Mai-dăt are the Thai compositions which are more angular and symbolic, somewhat likened to stylized dancers’ poses.

Some distinct shapes are also seen in Bonsai created to reflect native trees in North America, South Africa, and Australia, for instance.

Then there are other key display options. Accent plants are smaller, separately-potted compositions which are placed near to the main Bonsai so as to provide scale or seasonal theme to the principle tree.

The most formal display setting is a tokonoma, an elevated alcove whose rear wall usually holds a hanging scroll. The combination of the scroll, Bonsai, and accent plant or viewing stone are designed to present a specific theme.

Viewing stones or Suiseki are relatively small natural rocks which resemble miniature mountains, cliffs, islands, huts, animals, or other shapes. The best of these have custom-carved bases for better display.

Read more about arts related to Bonsai.

This is a current interpretation of this gardening interest. As enthusiasm and experience with this further spreads around the world, additional meanings, appreciations and materials will be added to the overall body that comprises Bonsai. More of the local woody plants and new native styles continue to be applied to the designs of Bonsai. It is constantly developing and each of us contributes to what is this dynamic art-form. Author: Robert J. Baran (Bonsai researcher and historian).

Kids Web Japan

The big joys of growing bonsai

Bonsai are trees and plants grown in containers in such a way so that they look their most beautiful–even prettier than those growing in the wild. Cultivating bonsai, therefore, is a very artistic hobby. It’s also a good illustration of the gentle respect Japanese have for living things and an expression of their sense of what is beautiful. It’s much more involved than growing potted flowers, and requires a much bigger commitment–physically and emotionally.

The oldest mention of the word bonsai comes up in a mid-fourteenth century poem, but it wasn’t until around three centuries later that people began using it regularly. Early bonsai can be seen in picture scrolls, though, dating as far back as 1309.

In ancient times bonsai were usually enjoyed by aristocrats, priests, and other high-ranking people, but from around the seventeenth century, commoners began delighting in them, too. After Japan ended three centuries of isolation in 1868 and opened itself up to Western countries, bonsai came to be appreciated as objects of art, and people began growing bonsai not just as a hobby but also as an artistic pursuit. Large-scale bonsai exhibitions were staged, and scholarly books on growing techniques were published.

Today, growing bonsai continues to be a hobby enjoyed by members of the general public. It’s also regarded as an important part of Japan’s cultural and artistic tradition, nurtured over the years by the nation’s climate and people’s love of nature.

Caring for bonsai is no longer just a Japanese pastime. More than 1,200 people from 32 countries attended the World Bonsai Convention that was held in the city of Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, in 1989. The convention helped launch the World Bonsai Friendship Federation, which has been a driving force in popularizing bonsai and raising bonsai-growing skills around the world. The association has organized international conventions about once every four years since the Omiya gathering; so far, they’ve been held in Florida in the United States and Seoul in South Korea. The next convention, set for 2002, will be in Munich in Germany.

Types of bonsai

All sorts of trees and shrubs are used as bonsai. In essence, any plant that can be grown in a small container can be cultivated as a bonsai. The most popular varieties are pines; maples, whose leaves change their color in autumn; flowering trees, like the cherry and plum; and fruit-bearing trees, like the quince and persimmon. In countries other than Japan, varieties that are best suited to the local climate are used. The trees can grow as tall as a meter (three feet), or be small enough to be fit in one’s palm.

Bonsai fall into a number of categories according to shape, but the most important thing to keep in mind is to allow the tree to express its individuality freely, without forcing it to fit any particular category, and to help it achieve its most beautiful, balanced form.

Just as people choose clothes in which they look good, containers should be chosen that best suit the trees in terms of size, shape, and color. This will allow the bonsai to be seen in the loveliest light.

The process of raising bonsai requires controlling the kind of shape the trees take. Sometimes you need to bend branches with wires or to cut them off altogether. You might think that’s cruel, but these steps are essential for the tree to remain healthy in a pot.

The trees have a life of their own, of course, and grow in accordance to the laws of nature, so they can never be completely controlled by humans. The key is not to force your will on them but to appreciate the dignity of each living plant and treat them with love and respect.

Bonsai that have been watered and lovingly looked after day by day can make a deep and lasting impression on the viewer–particularly when such trees are centuries old and have been handed down from one generation of bonsai lovers to another.

Unlike other works of art, there are no such thing as “finished” bonsai as long as the trees are still alive and growing; they must continue to be tended to on a daily basis. That’s why bonsai growing is sometimes called an art without end. For many enthusiasts, though, it’s precisely this timelessness that makes raising bonsai so rewarding and worthwhile.

Photos: (Top) A beautiful Kuromatsu on display (Courtesy of Nippon Bonsai Association); (middle) bonsai are often used to decorate the home; (above) the trees take lots of care.

What Does Bonsai Mean and Symbolize?


Bonsai is a Japanese art form that has transcended from the Chinese art of penjing over a thousand years ago. The term bonsai may be loosely used to reference the art of making miniature-scale trees but actually, it is more than an art form.

Bonsai utilizes horticultural techniques along with artistic applications to cultivate miniature replicas of trees as they’re found in nature. The tradition has been refined over the last millennium to reflect the aesthetic qualities found in nature through balance, simplicity and harmony. The aesthetic element of age is also predominantly symbolized in bonsai, utilizing various techniques applied to the design and cultivation of each creation by the artist. Symbolism is also employed to describe the relationship between the stylized bonsai and trees found in nature.

Bonsai uses the medium of symbolism to communicate ideas and emotions. The meanings of these symbols are often incomprehensible to the naked eye. An understanding of Japanese aesthetics can help you appreciate the rich symbolism in bonsai art.

Growing and caring for bonsai plants are using a combination of horticultural techniques and artistic applications. The goal is to create miniaturized versions of trees and plants as these are seen in nature. The practice and the art of making bonsai has been actually refined over centuries to reflect the aesthetic qualities in nature through balance, harmony, and simplicity.

Another element that it predominantly presented and symbolized in bonsai is age. Various techniques have been used to cultivate bonsai trees to create that aged appearance in miniature trees. Again symbolism is used to describe the relationship between bonsai trees and trees that are found in nature.

Balance in bonsai aesthetics

One of the first things that you will notice when you view any bonsai tree presentation is the presence of balance. This is a very important element in bonsai aesthetics. The shape of a triangle is used in overall design because the shape symbolizes strength and stability.

But rather than following the rules of symmetry in Western cultures and using equilateral triangles, bonsai use the isosceles triangle. The isosceles have unequal sides and this creates asymmetry. In various Eastern art forms like flower arranging, paintings and bonsai making, asymmetry creates “sabi” or deliberate imperfection. And this is considered a more natural sense of balanced and is much valued in Japanese culture.

A triangle and its equal sides may seem passive and motionless. Asymmetrical triangles like an isosceles triangle create a sense of moment which symbolizes the continuation of life. This natural occurrence is very significant in Japanese culture as with other cultures as well. It represents movement, freedom, and continuity.

The simplicity in every bonsai design

Simplicity is found in almost all things in Japanese culture. Their homes, offices, art, gardens, buildings, architecture and even their way of life, all evolve in a simple way of living and looking at things. Simplicity also epitomizes Japanese sensibilities and their respect for nature.

In bonsai, simplicity is found in the design of the tree as well as the container that houses the tree. Even the color of the pot or container is in a neutral tone which expresses simplicity found in nature. Bonsai predominantly focuses on the principles of aesthetics. It simply states that nature and creation should remain free from unnecessary ornamentation and the bonsai showpiece should remain as the focal point of the piece.

Bonsai pieces, no matter how simple or profound, has a sense of simplicity. The piece is usually the center point and the grower or bonsai master uses artistic skills in deviating the eyes of the beholder to look at the simple beauty of bonsai. From the intricate aerial roots, the curves and creases of the trunk to the lovely plumes of leaves and flowers, there is balance and simplicity in the bonsai design. There’s no need to use a colorful pot or add ornamental elements on the soil. The tree is already strikingly-beautiful on its own.

The harmony of different bonsai design elements

Harmony is highly-valued in Japanese culture and is seen throughout the composition of the bonsai. There is downgraded elegance in bonsai that supports Japanese philosophy that something with less power may have a greater effect.

Bonsai growers pay special attention to creating unity in shapes and textures. This helps contributes to the overall sense of harmony in nature, a dominant theme in bonsai growing. The curves of the bark, the fluid lines of the branches all symbolize the harmonious co-existence of all the elements. You will also find crooked corners and jagged edges in the bark or branches which symbolize difficult moments in life.

Harmony is very evident in Japan’s conflict-avoiding culture. It is explained in the concept of “wa” which translates to “harmony”. Japanese laws, rules, customs, and manners emphasize the need to prevent conflict as much as possible which, of course, has its positive and negative effects. Japanese people tend to prioritize harmony in groups and strive hard to create a harmonious place to live in. An example of the effects of a group harmony is the low crime rate in the country. Generally, people tend to get along well and are rare to see anger expressed between two individuals.

Harmony in Japanese culture is symbolized in bonsai. The different elements that create harmony in a bonsai piece represent the different opinions of people. When group harmony is maintained, good and lasting balance and peace will reign.

Age in the aesthetics of bonsai

Age plays a significant role in the aesthetics of bonsai. Carefully manipulated characteristics of the tree’s roots, trunk and branches symbolize different stages of life, especially those marked by age. For instance, exposed roots give the appearance of erosion and age. Trunks that break the surface at an angle and continue with the tree growing in series of circles, produce the illusion of age, and symbolize triumph over the elements of nature. A trunk with a smooth texture and without blemishes impresses upon the viewer, a sense of youth and vitality. In contrast, scarred and gnarled trunks are symbolic of old age. A dead tree trunk placed strategically within the composition can symbolize the continuity of the tree’s evolution. Bonsai trained with thick lower drooping branches appear to be old, while branches that grow upward have the opposite effect by symbolizing the vigor of youth. Full and luscious growth also symbolizes the health vitality of a young tree. Sparse growth is used to support the other characteristics of age.

No doubt that there is beauty in aging and age plays a very significant role in the aesthetics of bonsai. The tree’s roots, trunk, and branches are carefully manipulated to represent the different stages of life.

Exposed roots in bonsai provide the appearance of age and erosion. Trunks that break the surface at an angle and continue with the tree growing in circles express an illusion of age. This also symbolizes the many triumphs in nature like severe weather, dry seasons and even the onslaught of pests.

A trunk with hardly any blemishes and with a smooth texture emphasizes youthfulness and vitality. On the other hand, scared and gnarled trunks represent old age. Some bonsai presentations may have a dead tree trunk included in the design. This represents the continuity of the tree’s evolution.

You may have branches that are trained to droop which represent old age. On the contrary, branches that are trained to rise up creates an effect of youthfulness and vigor. Also, bonsai trees with full and luscious growth symbolize the vitality of a young tree while sparse growth symbolizes the opposite.

In Japan, the elderly are treated with respect. Just like bonsai where a mixture of youthfulness and aging is presented, many Japanese families have several generations in one roof. This is believed to be one of the many reasons why the elderly in Japan live longer compared to the elderly in other countries. In fact, there are now more elderly people (over 65 years old) in Japan by any age group. Experts point out that the reasons for longevity include strong community bonds, eating a healthy, low-fat diet, low stress and plenty of exercises.

There are beauty and respect in old age, as much as there are many regards for beauty and the symbolism of age in bonsai.

The symbolism associated with type

There are a variety of styles and types of bonsai and each one has a distinct meaning and symbolism. Each small detail sends a message that contributes to the larger story found in the ongoing creation. And it’s not just all about the bonsai tree, even the container and the accessories are carefully chosen to represent the many colors found in nature.

Bonsai are differentiated by styles and types, with each one represented in nature. The chokkan appears upright, with a straight trunk, symbolizing a healthy but isolated tree. The windswept appearance of the fukinagashi is representative of a tree continuously affected by strong winds, often found near the shore or on sparsely-populated plains. Cascading bonsai trees symbolize their full-size counterparts often found in nature growing on the sides of cliffs.

The art of bonsai is robust with symbolism and meaning where everything means something. Each detail sends a subliminal message, contributing to the larger story encompassed within the ongoing creation. Container and accessory colors are carefully chosen to represent the hues found in nature. Twists and turns in branches symbolize age and the journey through time. The types of trees used are symbolically significant as well. Even bonsai displays (link to displaying bonsai trees page) are carefully choreographed to represent proportion and harmony. While some symbols appropriated to bonsai appeal to its mythic nature, much of the symbolism intends to communicate the aesthetics that make up the art of bonsai.

For instance, the chokkan is an upright bonsai presentation with a straight trunk. This symbolizes a healthy tree however it is isolated from all other trees. The fukinagashi is the windswept presentation and it symbolizes a tree that is continuously affected by strong winds found near the shore or a sparsely-populated plain. On the other hand, a cascading bonsai presentation symbolizes trees that grow along the sides of cliffs. Plants and trees face hardship in surviving these very hard circumstances.

Bonsai designs and types

Broom style

This is very popular broom style bonsai design that is suited for deciduous trees with extensive and fine branches. This design oozes simplicity because it’s straight and upright. This does not continue to the top as it branches out in all directions at about 1/3 of the height of the tree. The branches and the thick leaves create a ball-shaped crown which makes a stunning sight during the fall and winter time.

Formal upright

This is a formal upright style that is a very common form of bonsai design. The chokkan style occurs in nature especially when the tree is exposed to lots of light and does not face the problem of other trees. For this style, tapering the upright-growing trunk should be clearly visible. The trunk must be thicker at the bottom and must grow thinner with the height of the tree. And at about ¼ of the total length of the trunk, branching should begin. There should be a single branch at the top of the tree that looks like a crown of leaves. The trunk should not span the entire length of the tree.

Informal upright

In the informal upright design, the trunk grows upright which looks like the shape of the letter “S”. This style is common in bonsai as well as in nature. The tapering of the trunk should be clearly visible; the base of the trunk is clearly thicker than the higher portion of the trunk.

Slanting bonsai style

The slanting bonsai style is the result of wind blowing in one dominant direction. It is also when a tree grows in the shadow and must bend towards the sun, the tree will lean in one direction. The leaning style should grow at an angle of 60 to 80 degrees relative to the ground. In this style, the roots are well-developed on one side to keep the tree standing.

On the side where the tree is leaning, the roots are not as well-developed. The first level branch grows opposite the direction of the tree to create a sense of visual balance. The trunk may be slightly bent or completely straight. The trunk remains thicker at the bottom than at the top.

Cascade bonsai style

This design depicts the natural appearance of trees in nature on a steep cliff. The tree bends down as a result of snow or falling rocks. This is quite a difficult design to maintain in bonsai because it opposes the tree’s natural tendency to grow upright.

This type of bonsai is planted in tall pots to support the tree’s cascading growth. The tree grows upright for a small stretch but then the trunk bends downwards. Meanwhile, the crown of the tree grows above the rim of the pot. The subsequent branches grow alternately left and right on the outermost curves of an S-shaped trunk. The branches should grow out in a horizontal manner to maintain the balance of the tree.

  • Semi-cascade bonsai style (han-kengai)

Semi-cascade bonsai style

The semi-cascade bonsai style is quite similar to the cascading style and is found in nature along cliffs and near the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards or sidewards. But unlike the cascade style, the trunk in this style will never grow below the bottom of the planter or pot. The crown is located at the bottom of the rim of the pot. Eventually, branching will occur below the rim.

Literati bonsai style

In this style of bonsai, the tree is found in areas that are densely populated by many other trees. As you can see, the competition is very fierce that the tree can only survive by growing taller and stronger than others. The trunk grows crookedly and does not branch out because the sun only hits the top of the tree. To make the tree look tougher, the branches are joined or removed from the side of the trunk. This is a symbol of the tree’s struggle to survive in nature. The trees are planted in small round pots to emphasize the design.

  • Windswept bonsai style (Fukinagashi)

Windswept bonsai style

This is a windswept style is a good example of trees that struggle to survive. The branches of the tree grow to one side as the wind blows constantly in one direction. The branches may grow out on the sides of the trunk however these will eventually be bent to one side.

  • Double trunk style (sokan)

Double trunk style

This bonsai style is common in nature and may not be very common in bonsai. The tree trunk branches out into two main trunks; both trunks grow out of one root system. It is possible to have one trunk smaller than the other and the other trunk thicker than the other. The thicker trunk will grow nearly upright while the smaller one will grow out in a slanted manner. Both trunks will create a single green canopy of leaves.

Multitrunk bonsai style

This style is similar to a double trunk style but it has three or more trunks. All the trunks here grow from a single root system and is basically just one tree. All the trunks that grow from the main trunk form one crown of leaves where the thickest and the most developed trunk grows at the top.

Forest bonsai style

The forest bonsai style looks like a multi-trunk but these trees don’t grow from one trunk. These trees grow from individual trunks and are arranged in one large pot. The most developed tree or trees are planted in the middle of the set. One the side of the arrangement are few smaller trees that are planted in a staggered pattern. The design has been styled to look like an actual forest.

Growing on a rock bonsai style

In the real world, trees that grow on a rocky terrain are forced to search for nutrient-rich soil using their roots. The roots may grow in cracks and holes. The roots tend to naturally protect themselves from the sun with a special bark that grows to cover them. The roots will also grow over and around obstacles; over a rock or tile or anything that will be in their way. Taking care of a seki-joju style is actually no different from growing other bonsais except that you must take care of the bonsai roots as well.

Growing in a rock bonsai style

In this style, the roots grow in cracks and holes of rocks. There is not much room for roots to grow and absorb nutrients from the soil with this formation. The tree will not grow well in this condition, therefore, you must fertilize and water the bonsai often. There is not much space to store water and nutrients in this setting as the bonsai grows in a shallow pot with a rock in the middle of the setting.

Raft bonsai style

This bonsai setting is placed in a cracked tree; all the branches are pointing outward and upward. The roots of the trees will provide enough nutrients for the trees to survive. As the new roots grow, these take over the function of the old root system. The old branches point to the air become trunks with more branches due to improved delivery of nutrients in the system. And as the new trunks grow, these contribute to one single canopy of lovely leaves.

Shari bonsai style

The shari bonsai style is all about trees developing a bald or barkless area on their trunks as time passes by. The barkless part is usually due to harsh weather conditions. The bald part usually starts from the area where the root emerges from the ground and this grows thinner and thinner to the top. The barkless part can be bleached using sunlight. This becomes a special feature of the tree. Some growers also remove the bark with a sharp knife and bleach the exposed new bark with calcium sulfate. This speeds up the bleaching process.

All the efforts involved in growing a bonsai relies on the understanding of the physiology of the tree that you are trying to grow. You must understand how a tree grows and the factors that affect its growth to shape your tree accordingly. Bonsai art creates a pleasing balance in form and maintains a respect for the physiology of shaping.

Bonsai art evolves in symbolism and meaning. Every element in a design means something. Each detail creates a subliminal message and the larger story contributes to the creation of the design. From the roots, trunks, and branches, every little detail has meaning. Bonsai also takes its design and inspiration from nature as well as cultural and environmental influences.

Every bonsai display is carefully choreographed to create proportion and harmony. And the most common symbolism are balance, simplicity, harmony, and age. These symbols are evident not just in bonsai but also in real life. Learning about these symbols will help you create a healthy, strong and well-designed bonsai tree.

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