Understanding Bonsai Plants: Their History, Varieties, Care, and Other Tips

You may have noticed, perhaps during a visit to a well-traveled friend’s home, or a Japanese restaurant, a tiny plant that looks just like a tree on display. These tiny trees can be usually found on patios by the garden, by a kitchen window, or in a bathroom as a symbol of Zen tranquility. It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of this miniature work of art, as the resemblance towards actual trees is truly amazing. Little do most people know that so much history and hard work has gone into that simple decorative item. What you are looking at there is a bonsai tree!

What Is A Bonsai Tree?

A bonsai tree, quite simply, is any miniature tree grown in a pot. While it may seem like a simple concept, it has taken many years for the Japanese to perfect growing Bonsai trees – literally a thousand years. While this is widely known to be an art form exclusive to Japan, the word “Bonsai” (which, when translated directly, means a plant in a container) supposedly comes from an old Chinese word, “Penzai”, which just refers to potted plants in general, without the appeal of any artistry. There are many arguments that have arisen from this claim because the word “Penzai” is rarely found in Chinese literature. Some speculate that the Japanese derived the term themselves, while others insist that the word could be found in poems made during the Tang Dynasty or Nara Period: roughly around 600+-900+ A.D. Others say that it comes from the words “Punzai”, where the word “Pun” means earthenware; or the clay pot the plant is grown out of, and “Zai” is the plant. Whichever way, it’s a clear fact now that bonsai plants are most commonly known as “Penjing” in China, and have been known as such since the early 1300’s.

It all began when Japanese Buddhist students took a trip to mainland China, circa 500 AD. On their return, they brought with them ideas and concepts from the country they visited – one of these concepts was Penjing. Initially, only the richest Chinese would gift each other these dwarf trees on special occasions, as they would view it as a huge luxury. The hobby of growing these plants and sculpting them to grow a certain way started appearing more often in prominent Japanese culture, literature, and art pieces during the Kamakura period; around 1100-1300 AD. They started appearing in ancient scrolls, and even in old folklore. In one story, there is mention of a samurai who met a traveling monk. The monk seemed to be very cold, so to warm this freezing monk, the samurai burned his last collection of bonsai trees (which the Samurai, no doubt, had to take much time, patience, and effort to cultivate). Turns out that the monk was under a disguise, and the samurai was later awarded generously for his honorable and kind actions. This story would be later be told to many generations to come and would be depicted in various forms of classical artworks spreading across different media, such as fabrics and carved wooden blocks.

Bonsai plants became more popular around the world as technology advanced during the 19th and 20th centuries, and trade became easier. Books portraying these bonsai plants were the initial source of information that sparked interest in western countries. By the time the second world war was over, Bonsai plants (and the know-how of their cultivation) slowly started to spread all over the world via other forms of media (television, trend magazines), as well as through expos, displays, and contests.

Different Kinds of Bonsai Plants

Just as there are many variations of trees, there are a wide array of different Bonsai plants as well. Its size can range from under 2 inches (Shito/Shohin) to 5-8 inches (Mami), 6-10 inches (Komono) and 10-18 inches (Katade-mochi). The two main categories that bonsai belong to are outdoor and indoor. Indoor bonsais take different conditions to thrive compared to their outdoor relatives. The kind of trunk a bonsai sports also says a lot about its type; some trunks twist and curve, with the center of gravity away from its roots, while other trunks shoot straight up. Others combine different trunks together, others have only one. Even how roots latch onto rocks are considered! They either deep within the rock itself, or over it.

There are major species that you may consider when considering to buy a bonsai plant, depending on the kind of style, look, maintenance, and symbolism you want your tree to have. Some of these species are namely Broadleaf, Coniferous, Deciduous, Evergreen, Flowering, Tropical, and Shohin. Some types can mix with each other, for example; a Coniferous plant can also be under the same category as Evergreen. Under each species are more types to choose from and grow.

Under Broadleaf, you have Cherry, Maple, and Elm just to name a few. Each subspecies varies in difficulty and maintenance. The Cherry bonsai, for example, is more fragile and difficult to grow than the sturdy Elm. Broadleaf bonsais grow quickly and shed their leaves, so you’ll have to make sure they get enough attention and cleaning. Broadleaf bonsais like the sun as well as fertilizer, so you’ll want to place them in an area (whether indoors or outdoors) where it can get enough lighting.

The Coniferous species have pointed pine leaves, which make for a different aesthetic effect. They’re outdoor bonsais, so they’re used to cold weather and can stand winter conditions more than their leafy counterparts. However, don’t forget the fact that they need to be pruned before the cold comes. Less water is required with this species, and they are sometimes planted in groups together. Examples of this species are Japanese White/Black Pine, Cypress, and Spruce.

Deciduous trees lose their leaves during wintertime because they turn dormant during these seasons. They shouldn’t be kept indoors during this period so that they experience the natural weather occurrence that triggers their dormancy. They can be moved indoors for a short period of time (a day) but they flourish outdoors. Apricot and Gingko trees are deciduous trees you might like to try out if you have more advanced bonsai care skills.

Evergreens don’t lose their leaves during the winter months, so their gorgeous leaves can be enjoyed all throughout the year. They’re also relatively easy to care for. The Chinese Elm, White Spruce, and Hinoki Cypress are bonsais that can be considered as Evergreen.

Flowering bonsai are simply trees that can produce flowers. They require the same amount of care as other bonsais. Laceleaf and Bougainvillea are some of the most popular species among avid bonsai hobbyists.

If a bonsai is under 10” tall (and more or less stays that way) then it is considered as Shohin. Shohin, if translated into English, means “small goods”. That’s because it’s so small, you should literally be able to hold it in the palm of your hand. They’re almost as small as a keychain accessory!

Lastly, tropical bonsais are bonsais that grow in tropical climates. Some bonsais rely on the winter to thrive, which just doesn’t happen in countries that are near the equator. Examples of tropical bonsai strains are Brazilian Rain Tree and Fukien Tea.

The Meaning Behind Bonsai Plants

Bonsais, in general, represent a number of characteristics; serenity, balance, wisdom, age, harmony, and simplicity are some. Serenity is present in Bonsai plants because of the stillness that surrounds it; the strength that the plant holds itself with, and the patience it took to grow strong. Because the bonsai exhibits such intricate beauty in such a small size, there is a semblance of balance to it, which becomes a metaphor for how we should live our daily lives to achieve stability. Wisdom is inherent in nature, (which the plant itself is part of) and is displayed in this plant as it deals with the constrained situation it is placed in with absolute grace. Because it took a lot of time for that plant to grow, age goes hand in hand with wisdom, as it took many years to mature to such beauty. Lastly, as with many other aspects of Japanese culture, the bonsai plant is simple. It is nature, cultivated, framed in a pot, simply to be marveled at for its inherent aesthetic.

Creating Your Own Bonsai Garden

We earlier discussed the different species, but there are also different styles that you can use to groom your chosen plant. Some types allow you to manipulate the style of how they grow, while others will grow to have their trademark characteristics.

Bonsai styles appeal to the different parts of the bonsai; as for the trunk, it styles include formal/informal upright, coiled, exposed roots, literati, slanted. As for the leaf and branch aspects, you can trim them to look cone-shaped, windswept, umbrella, half-cascade, weeping willow, broom, and globe/ball shaped. If you want many in one pot, you can choose to have them set up as double, multiple, raft, and forest! Lastly, there’s the root factor; you can have the roots clinging to a rock, or over the rock. In the end, the design is up to you!

You may want to look for references online to help you finalize your preferred bonsai look. Once you’ve done this (and you’ve made sure that it suits the climate and housing situation you reside in), that’s when you start the hunt. Look for bonsai shops around your area. If you want to start pruning it, you’ll want to buy a ready-made bonsai garden (don’t forget to pick the healthiest, leafiest, most vibrant one!). If you want to see it through its infancy, you can opt to grow one from its seed form (it’s going to take 5 years, though), or from a cutting. Seeds need to be germinated, watered and monitored closely. They’re fragile! Cultivating a bonsai from a cutting doesn’t take as long as a seed will, so you’ll get to have a sooner say on how the plant matures.

Choosing The Right Bonsai Pots and Bonsai Soil

How big will your bonsai grow to be? Acquire this information, and then choose the right pot. You may want to grow it first in a simple container and move it to a container made of better material later on, but that’s entirely your choice. Take note that trees do get harassed/shocked when they are transferred as such. A big, round, deep pot the size of your hands cupped together is a good ballpark figure for a smaller bonsai plant (less than 6 inches), but anything bigger than that, you’ll want something larger so the roots have space. Make sure that there are holes in the bottom of the pots you buy so extra water can drain out. You may want to add a mesh to this to avoid soil leaking out due to soil erosion.

When transferring, it’s easier to move the plant if the soil is dry – so avoid muddy, wet soil, or watering your plant beforehand. Buy coarse grain soil for you to place at the bottom, and finer soil rests on top. Each country has its own best soil brand, so you may want to find out what that is and purchase some. Leave some extra space on top so you can cover any roots that show with more soil. Bonsai trees do well in soil that lets water pass through easily, so soil straight from your garden may not have that attribute.

Once your soil is ready, position your tree deep enough so that it’s stable. If it isn’t stable, you may prop it up using a steady stick and some string.

Bonsai Tree Care 101

Once your new tree is relocated/planted, our advice is to treat it as though it were in an intensive care unit. Try not to expose it to harsh weather conditions (heavy rains, wind, strong sunlight) and leave it in a shaded, calm area. After about a month of this, you may then start fertilizing it, adding other little plants, and even fun accessories. Remember, the kind of care and treatment your bonsai plant needs depend highly on when it was potted, as well as what kind of species it is. Don’t forget to water it when the soil gets dry!

You can purchase a tool set you’ll need to create and maintain your bonsai plants online, if not at your local plant store. The tools usually consist of shears, pluckers, concave and wire cutters, and a mini-rake.

Where To Find Bonsai Trees For Sale

If your nearest plant foundry or nursery doesn’t have bonsais in storage (which it should!) you can find cheap bonsai plant services online. Their prices can range from two dollars all the way up to the thousands, depending on the kind of plant you’d like and the quality of the pottery it comes in. If you really want it to be as cheap as possible, your best bet is to grow it from a cutting, and watch the whole process unfold!