Introduction To The Art of Bonsai

Article by Andrew Kozlowski

When people think of bonsai, they tend to picture tiny trees, gnarled and twisted into odd shapes, displayed on the living room coffee table. Many think that bonsai are a special breed of dwarf tree.

In reality, a bonsai is almost always an ordinary tree, such as a juniper or maple, pruned and trimmed back to maintain its small size and particular shape. What sets a bonsai tree apart from your run-of-the-mill houseplant or tree in the yard is the time and attention spent training it into a specific shape or style. A bonsai that is not shaped, trimmed, repotted, and maintained on a regular basis will end up looking like a regular tree. Bonsai can be created from a wide range of vines, shrubs, and trees, from conifers to flowering plants. Becoming a bonsai artist just takes time, knowledge, and plenty of patience.

Bonsai began in the 12th century, if not earlier, in China as part of the art of creating miniature landscapes. The word for bonsai comes from the Chinese "pun sai," or tree in a pot. Growing tiny trees in containers has traditionally been closely linked with the craft of Chinese ceramics and, even now, bonsai are often seen growing in painted, handmade Chinese porcelain containers.

Bonsai art migrated from China to Japan where it was much revered, first among societies of monks and in the homes of nobility, and eventually by everyday people. The Western world discovered bonsai after World War II, and today there are bonsai societies and enthusiasts around the globe.

If you're interested in buying a bonsai, it is recommended that you go to a garden center or nursery that specializes in bonsai trees. Don't make the mistake of buying your first bonsai at the supermarket or big-box store, as you could end up with a plant that has not been properly cared for. When picking out your bonsai, look for trees or plants with glossy, vibrant leaves, smooth bark, and no brown spots or yellowing foliage; there are several pests and fungi that attack common bonsai species. Also, it is important to ask an expert about what kind of plant to buy based on where you will be keeping your bonsai tree.

While some bonsai artists like to show off their bonsai trees indoors, most bonsai do better outdoors. In an outdoor setting your tree can get the moisture and air circulation it needs to survive as well as the natural seasonal temperature fluctuations it is used to. Many plants have a dormant period in the winter, for example. If you do want an indoor bonsai, be sure to buy a tropical species that can handle warmer temperatures and less natural light.An indoor plant will struggle with the dryness created by heating or air conditioning, so you may need to purchase a humidifier or place trays of water near your bonsai to keep it happy. Some suitable indoor species include Fukien tea, Hawaiian umbrella tree, bush cherry, and starflower. Outdoor bonsai range from black pine and other conifers to maple and Chinese elm.

If you purchase a bonsai tree, you will also need specific tools and supplies to shape it and keep it healthy. While you don't have to buy special bonsai fertilizer, you will want plant food that contains even proportions of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. You will also want high quality tools, including long-handled shears for cutting back branches, smaller scissors for trimming buds, shoots, and roots, and a root rake or hook to untangle the root ball when you re-pot your tree. Anodized copper wire will be necessary for training your tree to grow into a specific form, and soil, preferably an organic clay mix, will be needed for when you re-pot.

If you want to grow a bonsai tree from scratch, there are several methods of propagation to be aware of. Growing from seed is fairly easy, but it will take several years before you have a plant mature enough to shape into a bonsai. Growing from seedlings or taking cuttings from other plants is not difficult, and you will have something to work with a bit sooner.Bonsai are trained into one of several traditional styles that are meant to mimic the natural shape a tree might take, for example, if blown by the wind, or if reaching upward toward the sun. These shapes--formal upright, informal upright, slanted, cascade, and broom among the most popular--are achieved by wiring the branches of the tree. The wire is bent to coax the branch in the desired direction as it grows. Wires are left on for a full growing season, and trees can be re-wired in subsequent growing seasons as necessary.

Properly caring for a bonsai, whether indoors or outdoors, means providing your tree with the appropriate amounts of sunlight, water, and food. Overwatering is a common mistake; the soil should always be moist but never soupy nor completely dry. Most bonsai need morning sun and moderate temperatures, and they should be fertilized on a regular basis based on the instructions on their plant food package. Some outdoor species require a dormant period in the colder months.

Once you see your bonsai's roots circling the base of its container, you will need to re-pot it. The selection of a bonsai pot is part of the art of bonsai. Bonsai experts choose containers to complement their trees, artistically. Glazed, brightly colored pots best suit tropical, flowering bonsai; unglazed, earth-toned pots nicely accompany most outdoor bonsai varieties, such as pines. It's also important that the size and shape of the pot fit the style and height of the tree.

Want to learn more about caring for bonsai? Visit my website at to learn all about how to buy, grow, and care for beautiful, healthy bonsai trees.

Andrew Kozlowski is a naturalist, amateur botanist, and author of articles and books on topics ranging from plant care and gardening to home downsizing. For more than 20 years Andrew has managed environmental programs in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Latin America. He resides in San Francisco.