Bonsai. literally means 'a plant in a tray,' the generally accepted meaning however is a tree in a pot. An ancient art form that originated in China, known as Pen-Jing. Japan, where the art form was developed has had the greater influence on bonsai.

The aim of bonsai is to capture the beauty and strength of an ancient tree, bringing together tree and pot in visual harmony. 

Both Coniferous and Deciduous trees are used in bonsai, with Pine, Maple and Juniper forming the 'Classic' bonsai. With the spread of the art throughout the world many indigenous species have been used to good effect.

The pots are ceramic and may be glazed in a colour to harmonise with the colour of the tree's foliage. Pots need to be able to withstand frosts as most bonsai are kept outdoors throughout the year. 

Bonsai do not differ genetically from trees found in nature and stay small because they are confined in a container, however they are well fed and watered. Their tops being pruned as needed to ensure they do not appear out of balance with the pot and that the foliage pads indicative of a mature tree are maintained. 

How often the tree is repotted and the roots are pruned depends on it's age, younger trees may be repotted every year, older trees perhaps every three or four years . This causes fine new roots to develop near the trunk, increasing the tree's vigour. This operation is carried out in the spring, prior to the new buds opening.

Age is not a prerequisite for bonsai. There are several techniques available to the grower to increase the apparent age. Branches on young trees are wired down for as long as needed, to encourage them to set into the desired position, increasing the impression of age. Jin and Sharimiki are two techniques involving the removal of some of the bark and subsequent carving of the exposed wood. This adds to the effect of an ancient tree that has suffered a trauma many years ago.

Bonsai may have more than one tree, these being referred to as group plantings. Trees in a group planting should be of the same species, mixed species plantings with rocks and ornamental figures are called 'Saikei'

A bonsai should have a well-tapered trunk and branches all around the tree to give it visual depth. The lower part of the trunk should be visible to show its 'power', 

Bonsai are classified by styles, relating to the trunk angle, shape or the number of trunks, formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade and group planting's are the most common. They vary greatly in size from sub-mame trees grown in pots the size of a thimble, to trees needing several people to move.



Bonsai Styles, some pointers

The problem with providing a set of styles for folk who are new to the hobby is that it is easy to lead them to believe that, if their tree doesn't conform to one of the styles, it's a bad bonsai, when it's not!. Some of the most interesting trees I've seen barely look like the common perception of trees, let alone fall into one of the styles listed.

Many years ago I said to a friend of mine "The thing is Bob, all of your trees look like trees!". I don't believe, at the time either of us understood what I meant by that, however we do now. It isn't necessary for a bonsai to look like a tree. A bonsai can be an icon, a symbol used to evoke what we all know a tree should look like, without following rigidly the shape of a tree, or fit into a style pigeonhole.

Every tree should tell a 'story' and that story is reflected in the style when a tree is being developed as a bonsai.

A lone seedling in the open may have grown up tall and straight (in the formal upright style). A tree growing on a cliff top buffeted by wind may have all it's branches growing on the leeward side of the trunk in the Windswept Style. But the basic storyline should be of the tree's struggle to survive and the beauty and power that the tree has acquired in that struggle.

When attempting to style a tree you will need to know a little about the growth characteristics of the species you are using, as not all trees suit all styles. The Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo Biloba) for example, makes a good bonsai but its growth habits are such that it will not respond well to wiring and it tends to be best trained in its natural shape, which resembles a candle flame.

Conifers don't grow in the broom style and few, if any deciduous trees occur naturally in the formal upright style.

Further Reading

Yoshimura, Yuji and Halford, Giovanna, The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees & Landscapes. Charles E. Tuttle 1957 

Lesniewicz,Paul, Bonsai: The Complete Guide to Art and Technique .Blanford Press 1984 

Adams, Peter D, The Art of Bonsai, Ward Lock Ltd 1981 

Adams, Peter D, Successful Bonsai Growing, Ward Lock Ltd 1987 

Koreshoff, Deborah, Bonsai: Its Art, Science, History & Philosophy, Boolarong Publishing 1984 

Samson, Isabelle & Remy, The Creative Art of Bonsai, WardLock Ltd 1986

Naka, John Yoshio, Bonsai Techniques I, Bonsai Institute of Calif. 1973 

Naka, John Yoshio, Bonsai Techniques II, Bonsai Institute of Calif. 1973 

Chan, Peter, Bonsai Masterclass, Apple Press1988 

Lesniewicz, Paul, Indoor Bonsai. Blandford Press 1985 

Lesniewicz, Paul, The World of Bonsai, Blandford Press 1990 

Owen, Gordon, The Bonsai Identifier, Apple Press1990 

Ainsworth, John, The Art of Indoor Bonsai, Trafalgar Square Publishing 1988 

Tomlinson, Harry, The Complete Book of Bonsai, Abbeville Press 1990 

Lesniewicz, Ilona and Zhimin, Li, Chinese Bonsai: The Art of Penjing, Blandford Press 

Web Sites

The Bonsai Primer

Allen. C. Roffey 23:26 10/09/2008