views updated May 08 2018


Bonsai is a Japanese word formed by two ideogram characters, the first meaning "pot" or "container" and the second "to cultivate." It is a term that can be applied to any plant grown in a pot. Today it is applied to a tree or shrub grown usually in a ceramic pot, trained or styled by clipping or wiring or both. But it is so much more.

Bonsai is an ancient art form with its origins in China at least as far back as the fourth century. Soon the art spread to Korea and was found in Japan by the sixth and seventh centuries. During the last hundred years the art of bonsai spread and now enjoys worldwide popularity.

Even today, bonsai continues to touch one's soul and intellect with its beauty, tranquility, and natural character of age, just as one would react to viewing a masterpiece of art. Despite its small size, one can sense a large old tree sometimes shaped by wind, often with branches weighed down by imaginary heavy snows, and a sense of balance and perfection in this small plant in a ceramic pot. Bonsai is that ideal tree in nature.

There are two general methods used to transform a plant into a bonsai. A young tree may be grown from seed or from nursery stock. In this case the intent is to concentrate on the development of the trunk by keeping many lower branches. Alternatively, a mature tree may be collected from the field or mountains and then styled.

Care includes almost daily watering and monthly fertilizer applications. Bonsai may be trained into one of many styles. Among them are formal upright (straight trunk), informal upright (curvy trunk), slanted, windswept, cascade, multiple trunk, clump, raft, rock planting, broom, raised roots, forest planting, and literati (a variation on the others with sparse branches). Usually, the growth and structural characteristics of the tree determine the style chosen.

Once the plant is selected, the training of bonsai begins with the selection of which side will be the front of the tree, based on the width of the trunk and the sense of stability imparted by the tree. Branches on the left, right, and backside of the plant are then selected and trained. The profile of the tree as seen from all directions, especially the front, is triangular, the corners of which are formed by the apex and the ends of the major left and right branches. Copper or aluminum wire of various sizes is used over a period of several months to bend and hold branches until they retain their position. Highly specialized hand tools are used during this training process. A suitable pot is selected based on how the styled tree harmonizes with the color, shape, width, and depth of the pot. The tree is potted in a coarse or medium well-draining soil mixture.

Several species are more frequently used for bonsai. These include most junipers, pines, and many deciduous or flowering/fruiting shrubs or trees such as the Prunus family and azaleas.

It is highly recommended that beginning bonsai enthusiasts receive instruction in styling bonsai since this is more difficult than it sounds.

John Yoshio Naka of the United States is arguably the world's foremost expert in bonsai. He began his bonsai career in Los Angeles, California, in the 1940s. For his accomplishments in bonsai, Naka was recognized with Japan's highest honor for a noncitizen and a national Heritage Fellowship from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. At the turn of the twenty-first century he still continued to teach and work on his bonsai daily.

Bonsai can be formally displayed indoors for up to a week. The potted trees are placed on display stands or slabs of finished wood and accompanied with an accent plant that suggests grasses and other plants that typically grow under a tree. Almost all bonsai must be kept outdoors on large tables or individual stands, except during harsh, freezing weather.

Bonsai may be seen in several collections open to the general public. The National Bonsai Foundation has several collections at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Other public bonsai displays are the Pacific Rim collection in Tacoma, Washington, and the Bonsai Pavilion and Garden at the Wild Animal Park in Escondido, California. The Golden State Bonsai Federation has two collections, one at Lakeside Park in Oakland, California, and another at the Huntington Garden in San Marino, California.

Bonsai is an art that will continue to fascinate and amaze people of all races, cultures, and age with its universal appeal.

see also Horticulture; Tree Architecture; Trees.

Sherwin Toshio Amimoto


American Bonsai Society. [Online] Available at

Bonsai Clubs International. [Online] Available at

Golden State Bonsai Federation. [Online] Available at

Naka, John Y. Bonsai Techniques I. Whittier, CA: Bonsai Institute, 1984.

. Bonsai Techniques II. Whittier, CA: Bonsai Institute, 1985.

, Richard K. Ota, and Kenko Rokkaku. Bonsai Techniques for Satsuki. Los Angeles: Ota Bonsai Nursery, 1979.

National Bonsai Foundation. [Online] Available at

Nippon Bonsai Association. Classic Bonsai of Japan. John Bester, tr. New York: Kodansha International, 1989.


views updated May 14 2018

bon·sai / bänˈsī; ˈbänsī/ • n. (pl. same) (also bonsai tree) an ornamental tree or shrub grown in a pot and artificially prevented from reaching its normal size. ∎  the art of growing trees or shrubs in such a way.


views updated Jun 08 2018

bonsai Japanese art of dwarfing woody plants and shrubs by pruning and restraining root growth; they are primarily outdoor plants and occur naturally in cliff areas. This art, which has been practised for centuries in the Far East, is most successful with plants that have a substantial tapering trunk, naturally twisted branches and small leaves. Bonsai can be 5–60cm (2–24in) tall, depending on the plant used.