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What is a Bonsai?

The word bonsai, pronounced “BONE-sigh,” literally means a tree planted in a pot. Sometimes called a “living art” our goal is to create small scale trees that look much older than actually are. To do that we carefully prune trees to stimulate growth in the right areas. We also use wire, wrapped around branches, to train branches to grow in the desired direction. We don’t want the tree to look artificial. We want a miniature version of what is seen in nature, but better.

Our club mostly follows the Japanese style of bonsai. The art actually originated in China in the eighth century and was known as Penjing. Not long afterwards examples were imported into Japan, but an independent style didn’t really develop for a couple hundred years. By the seventeenth century the art became important to rich and powerful people. Some of those bonsai survive today.

The main goal when creating a bonsai is to create miniature trees that suggest a mature tree, but with an an idealized appearance – “better than nature.” To do this, the designer manipulates the tree’s proportions, foliage, roots and pot in which the tree is planted.

Tree Species to Use

People often think bonsai is a particular species of tree, but nearly any kind of tree can be a bonsai. Certain species are more popular – Japanese Black Pine, Japanese White Pine, Maple, Elm, Juniper, Ginkgo, Oak, Redwood, Elm, Crab Apple, Pomegranate, Hawthorn, Olive, Quince and Flowering Crabapple. People also use subtropical trees like Ficus, Bougainvillea, Boxwood and Camellia. The first list of trees must be grown outside because they need a lot of light to be healthy. They can be brought inside for a couple of days, but no longer. Subtropical trees usually can be kept indoors and, must be protected from freezing temperatures.

A bonsai tree can start it’s life as a tree grown for a nursery, collected from nature (or a neighbor’s yard that’s being re-landscaped) or grown from seeds or cuttings.

Bonsai Styles

Bonsai may be styled in a variety of different ways – each one an artistic representation of a style seen in nature. Below you’ll see a catalog of the most common styles. For more info about tree styles see our article – Tree Style Basics.

Thanks to BonsaiEmpire.com for use of this image

Bonsai Sizes

  • Mame – 2.5″ to 8″ tall
  • Shohin – 6″ to 8″ tall
  • Medium – 8″ to 24″ tall. This size is the most common one.
  • Imperial – Up to 48″ tall. Very large, often requiring multiple men or a forklift to move and rare outside of Japan

Here are a couple of examples to show the range of sizes:

Shohin Black pine. The tree is about 6-inches tall
Imperial-size bonsai seen near the gate at Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt. This tree is about 4-feet tall.

Smaller size bonsai are generally more difficult to take care of than larger ones. Obviously because the trees are shorter, the branches must be smaller diameter to be in proportion. That makes them more difficult to prune and wire. Smaller pots dry out faster so must be watched and watered more closely. But the smaller size and weight makes such trees easier to move around.

There are additional subcategories, but we’ll skip those for this intro. If you want know more see www.growingbonsai.net/bonsai-size

For More Details

See the larger, more detailed article – Intro to Bonsai

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