Bonsai is the art of recreating a miniature tree reminiscent of the naturally occurring trees that grew in the rocky crevices of high mountains. These windswept and gnarled trees may live for up to a century. They commanded the interest and respect of the Japanese centuries ago. Originally, naturally dwarfed trees were collected, re-potted and nurtured. Later, the techniques of creating the dwarf trees from young seedlings developed into the art it is today.

The word bonsai is pronounced "bone - sigh" and literally translates to "tray planting". It is a two character word meaning "tray" and "to plant". Some sources indicate it originated in China and was brought later to Japan during the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333) by means of Zen Buddhism. The dwarf trees exhibit the great veneration of Far-East cultures for maturity.

In the earliest times the miniature trees were found only in the homes of wealthy nobles. A scroll written in 1310 shows the oldest authentic record of dwarfed trees. The bonsai art developed during the long age of the civil wars along with the contemplative arts of flower arranging and the tea ceremony. Books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the Tokugawa Era in Japan show a well developed art with very skilled practitioners. The Tokugawa Era was characterized by long peaceful years where people were accustomed to escaping daily life in special hobbies. Bonsai practice advanced considerably during this time.

During the later half of the nineteenth century the miniatures trees achieved general popularity still enjoyed today by many in Japan and after World War II, America. Given proper care a bonsai may live for hundreds of years. Prized specimens are passed on to each generation providing a continuity and tangibility to the family "tree".

Bonsai trees are either naturally or artificially dwarfed.

Naturally Dwarfed Trees
The source and inspiration of the art of bonsai are the naturally occurring dwarf trees. They grow on rocky outcroppings high in the mountains, on perpendicular cliffs of tiny islands, in wet bogs, and on the driest and poorest mountain slopes. The hard weather and inhospitable conditions force the tree to grow short stout trunks with branches artistically shaped by the strong winds. The very shallow soil level and the lack of nutrients limits the growth of the tree.

The naturally grown trees have been collected out and are very difficult to find today. Some of the older bonsai practitioners remember tales from their youth of the professional tree collectors. The professional would lower themselves down the cliff face to the tree and spend hours carefully extracting the prize so as to preserve and later transplant it. It was dangerous, but rewarding work.

Artificially Dwarfed Trees
Most of the dwarfed trees seen today are developed from ordinary trees obtainable from a nursery. Occasionally, a collector may find the beginnings of a plant growing in the wild that may develop into a natural dwarf - given enough years to grow. These also may be harvested and "trained" by the grower into a bonsai.

The trees are shaped with wire and root pruning over a period of years. The plant develops in the shape desired and the artificial aids are removed. From year to year the dwarf tree continues to develop having settled into the desired shape. The gardener continues to pinch off selected new growth and prune the roots each year. Over decades the tree grows as a dwarf and closely matches the naturally dwarfed trees from the wild.


Bonsai are trees shaped to mimic the harsh conditions under which naturally dwarfed trees grew. While the gardener shapes the plant - the tree is also shaping the gardener. It is ironic that a process to recreate the results of extreme growing conditions for a dwarf tree, the gardener can experience a zen-like serenity if he/she allows it. By seeking three characteristics in the tree, Nature, Beauty, and Maturity, these qualities grow in the gardener as well.

  • Nature Let the tree suggest its own natural form. This requires observation and perception. Every tree has possibilities. The tree emerges from its seed and the gardener assists by listening and observing the seedling's nature.

  • Beauty There is no right way to measure beauty. Some gardeners follow the substance of the bonsai techniques to obtain the classic look of the dwarf trees. (See the descriptions of style below) Other practitioners seek the essence of the art of bonsai after absorbing the rules. The techniques have become natural to the gardener and now the gardener prunes and shapes those rules into a new form to fit particular circumstances. The result is beauty in both the tree and the human.

  • Maturity It takes patience to practice bonsai. The goal is to simulate great age and maturity in the dwarf tree. Again, the maturity takes root in the gardener as well.


Typically, bonsai are between 10 to 30 inches high. However this is not a strict rule. The sizes of different types of Bonsai overlap. The largest common style called imperial bonsai measure 60 inches up to 120 inches. They are thought of as 8-handed size meaning it requires four people to move one of this size about. The next size is called "hachi-uye", or large bonsai, and range 40 to 60 inches high. The medium size bonsai are the most numerous and can be carried in one hand. They range in size between 10 and 18 inches. There is a miniature bonsai category called "mame" (pronounced "may-may") that are palm sized plants. They range from 4 inches for a stout plant up to 10 inches for the Literati or Bunjinji style (See below). Finally there is the "Shito" bonsai which are the smallest category. They typically measure 2 inches high and are a great challenge to grow.

Artistic Styles

Formal Upright (Chokkan)
The pose of the plant is very close to 100% vertical. The objective is to show balance but not strict symmetry. This style is best for conifers.
Informal Upright (Moyogi)
The pose of this style is near vertical. The main flow of the trunk will be slanted with a natural spread of branches and foliage. The angle of the slant between 10-30 degrees off of true vertical. The branching should begin about one-third of the length of the trunk above the soil. Most deciduous trees fit well in this style.
Slanting (Shakan)
The purpose of this style is to convey great strength and age. The main line of the tree is distinctly off vertical - around a 45 degree angle. The slant is balanced by a strong rootage on the opposite side of the trunk.
Cascade (Kengai)
The impression of Kengai is a waterfall of foliage spilling over the container and down to the floor. The main branch should be long and tumbles over the lip of the pot while a small crown rises just above the top of the container. The appearance is a tree growing down along the sheer face of a cliff.
Windswept (Fukinagashi)
As the name implies, this style conveys the strong winds of coastal areas where the wind has buffeted the tree for years. The foliage and trunk appear to be blown or swept out to one side due to the extreme environmental conditions.
Literati (Bunjin)
Long thin trunks that bend in difficult ways characterize this style. The foliage has the feel of cascading but the main flow of the tree is not necessarily flowing downward. On the contrary, the impression is one of contorting to grow around obstacles. It is the most unconventional style of bonsai.

Popular Trees for Bonsai

  • Sargent Juniper (juniperus chinensis sargenti). In 1959 most of the extant specimens were developed from naturally dwarfed trees. These were found in the so-called Japan Alps in West Middle Japan, in Ehime Prefecture (formerly known as Iyo Province. thanks to gnOsis for the correction), and in Hokkaido.
  • Japanese White Pine (pinus parviflora). A popular tree for bonsai. Also professionally collected from Iyo Province of Shikoku and great personal risk because they grow on high desolate mountain cliffs.
  • Trident Maple (acer buergerianum or acer trifidum). It is a much appreciated tree for its autumn colors and shapely branches. It responds well to trimming, has a tendency to form roots on the surface, and produces dense growth with small leaves.
  • Cedar of Lebanon. An excellent writeup on this tree and its use in bonsai. (Thanks to m_turner for the link suggestion.)


Most species of tree that make ideal bonsai would naturally grow to huge size if not for the main technique of pruning. A bonsai gardener prunes the roots and the new growth seasonally or annually to induce the dwarfing of the plant. The roots are pruned to maintain new grow of the fine root hair and to keep the root system to proper proportion in relation to the container within which it lives. The branches are trimmed to control growth and to create artistic poses. In the early years of a saplings growth, the main branch is usually shaped with wire to hold the main flow of the tree: Upright, Cascade, Windswept, etc. After the tree has aged and the trunk has firmed into the desired position, then the wire is removed. Branch trimming and root pruning continue for the life of the tree.

There are specific techniques for the wire shaping, branch trimming, and the root pruning (while re-potting) activities. Many guide books describe these techniques in detail. For additional information, see Care instructions for the Juniper Bonsai.


  • anonymous, An Introduction to Bonsai, http://www.www.bonsaisite.com, 08/17/01
  • anonymous, A Detailed History of Bonsai, http://www.www.bonsaisite.com, 08/17/01
  • Gustafson, Herb, Herb Gustafson's Bonsai Class 1, http://www.www.bonsaiweb.com, 08/17/01
  • Staal, Ruth, Bonsai Basics, http://www.www.bonsaiweb.com, 08/17/01
  • Thomas, Douglas, What is Bonsai?, http://www.www.bonsaiweb.com, 08/17/01
  • Thomas, Douglas, What are the Basics of Bonsai?, http://www.www.bonsaiweb.com, 08/17/01
  • Thomas, Douglas, What are the Goals of Bonsai?, http://www.www.bonsaiweb.com, 08/17/01
  • Yashiroda, Kan, editor, Handbook on Dwarf Potted Trees The Bonsai of Japan, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn, NY, Vol 9, No. 3, 1959

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