What are Bonsai ?

It's easier to start by laying to rest a few misconceptions about what bonsai are, or are not.

Bonsai are not genetically different, that is to say they are NOT dwarf versions of a species. Take a Scots Pine bonsai out of a pot, put it in the ground and hang around for a hundred years and see what happens!.

That's not to say that you will not find use made of cultivars of a species that happen to produce smaller leaves or needles than the original species. Maples and Pines are good examples of this, however the vigour and growth patterns of the species generally remain the same.

Bonsai is the tree and pot brought together in visual harmony. Artistic shaped trees in the ground "In the Bonsai style" are topiary not Bonsai.

Bonsai come in all sizes from 'Shito and Mame', trees grown in pots the size of thimbles, through 'Shohin', to 'Man' trees, two man trees, three man trees etc (It's the number of men it takes to move one). By far the greater number of trees kept are in the 1ft - 2ft range.

A bonsai should give the impression of being a tree not a shrub, the difference being that trees have defined foliage pads with open area's between them, a shrub is a blob of foliage, pruning will allow you to define and improve the branch structure.

Bonsai are not fixed in time. As they grow and you become familiar with the techniques involved in maintaining and creating them, you may decide to alter the shape of a tree. You may remove a branch, or allow one to develop in a desirable location. Perhaps you will see a better front for your tree, allowing more of the trunk to be seen. Repotting will allow you to put this into practice, as wiring will allow you to alter the position of the branches.

One of the greatest misconceptions about bonsai, concerns root pruning. It is generally assumed that this is one of the essential techniques used to keep the tree small, this is not the case, in fact root pruning is used to increase the trees vigour.

There is nothing as annoying as having a tree die on you. Anyone with a reasonable sized collection has lost trees, but as your abilities increase you will find this a rare event.

Don't consider starting a collection if you think you may not have the time to maintain your trees, you may find yourself devoting more time to them than you would spend on the average dog (or kid), Bonsai are far less messy than both, don't bite, and don't drop things on the carpet!, it is a civilised and civilising pastime.

Bonsai can be obtained in a number of ways, a bonsai from a dealer may seem an expensive option, however you will be buying much more than just a tree, you will find someone to talk to if you have a problem. Most dealers run classes for beginners and indeed some organise workshops run by internationally known figures in the world of bonsai. These courses are of great benefit if you want to take your knowledge that little bit further. Bonsai dealers will also be able to put you in touch with any local group. You should also bear in mind that the price tag on the tree reflects the time that someone has put into creating it and indeed if the tree is imported will reflect the shipping charge and any costs incurred while the tree is in quarantine.

However the most rewarding way to start a bonsai collection is to create your own Bonsai.

What makes a bonsai ?

A bonsai may be developed from any woody plant (tree or shrub), however you should bear in mind that:

  1. A Bonsai is the tree and the pot.
  2. The trunk is what gives the tree its "stature", poor trunks make poor bonsai. Ideally the trunk should have a good taper, with a good root formation visible at soil level.
  3. Bonsai have larger branches at the bottom of the tree, the branches decrease in size as they get nearer the top of the tree. The distance between the branches decreases the nearer the top of the tree they are.
  4. There should be "negative" (open) areas between the branches, this gives the impression of a tree rather than a shrub.
  5. A bonsai may have areas of dead wood to give an impression of age.

Allen. C. Roffey 21:47 11/06/2005