The Art of Bonsai

by Kora E. Dalager, San Diego Bonsai Club

Bonsai have become enormously popular throughout the world in the last ten years, and yet, the art of bonsai is very little understood.

Even the word bonsai is commonly mispronounced. The first syllable should be pronounced as in bone, the second syllable as in sigh.

Bonsai, meaning tree in a pot or tray in Japanese, is an art form which has evolved over 4000 years. We have pictorial records from ancient Egypt and know that Hindus grew trees in pots (mainly for medicinal purposes) and that in China the rudiments of bonsai go as far back as 2000 BC.

The name bonsai is said to have been coined in Japan in the early 19th century when a group of Japanese and Chinese scholars met to discuss the latest styles of "artistic potted trees"- as bonsai was known until then.

Bonsai was most likely introduced to Japan coincident with Buddhism around the 6th century A.D. The idea of miniaturizing trees probably came from observing trees growing in rugged mountain areas, where they are subject to adverse conditions and very limited soil for root development.

A tree becomes a bonsai by applying a variety of horticultural techniques to "miniaturize" the plant. By growing a tree in a pot, we restrict the root growth. When we limit the root growth we also restrict the size a plant will reach, as root and crown are usually about the same size in nature.

We also reduce the size of a tree by frequent pruning and pinching back of new growth. Contrary to popular belief, bonsai are not tortured trees. With adequate water, fertilizer and proper growing conditions, such as the amount of sun, temperature, bonsais grow well within the small amount of space in the container.

Trees are shaped by wiring the branches and pruning and carving the trunk and dead branches. Some of the most popular styles of bonsai include formal upright, informal upright slanting, windswept, literati and group plantings. Bonsai are also classified according to size, ranging from about 4 feet all the way down to microscopic or "poppy seed" size.

The most often asked question about a bonsai is: "How old is this tree?" The age of a bonsai is not important and bears very little relationship to the value of a tree. A tree should look old, but need not be old to be prized for its beauty. In Japan however, many bonsai have been handed down from generation to generation.

Bonsai potters look for a pleasing relationship between container and tree. Though most bonsai pots come from either Japan or China, but there are now a number of potters in America and all over the world, who make beautiful bonsai pots.

In general, bonsai must be kept outdoors and are brought indoors only for display. There are a few species that can be successfully grown indoors. Also not all species grow in all climates; some trees need a mild frost to thrive while others cannot tolerate temperatures below 50F.

If you would like to learn more about bonsai we invite you to visit the San Diego Bonsai Club, which meets on the second Sunday of each month at Casa del Prado, Room 101, Balboa Park at 11 a.m.

Bonsai books available through our online bookstore.

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