What Exactly is a Bonsai Tree?

A bonsai tree is a tree that has been planted in a small container in order to restrict growth. Bonsai trees are not genetically dwarfed trees. Techniques like wiring branches and trunks, pruning leaves and branches, and restricting fertilizers are often used.  Any tree that has a woody trunk or stem and grows branches can be grown in a container.

What tree you should grow depends on your climate and your preferences. There are both indoor and outdoor bonsai trees to choose from. Indoor bonsai trees are tropical or subtropical, which require stable, high temperatures all year round and can only be kept outdoors when temperatures are high all year. Outdoor bonsai are trees that go dormant in the winter in order to prepare for the following spring. These trees need to be exposed to the four seasons in order to thrive.

The Definition of Bonsai

Bon – a thin bowl or dish.

Sai – a tree that is planted.

Bonsai – “a tree which is planted in a shallow container.”

Classifications of Bonsai Sizes

The main goal of growing a bonsai tree is to create a miniaturized version of that tree as it grows in nature. The smaller the bonsai tree is, the more abstract the tree is, as opposed to reflecting nature in a more accurate way. The size classifications of bonsai trees differ depending on who you ask. The original classifications were based on how many men were needed to lift the tree.

Size classifications in increasing order:

  • Keshitsubo – 1-3″ (3-8 cm)
  • Shito – 2-4″ (5-10 cm)
  • Mame – 2-6″ (5-15 cm)
  • Shohin – 5-8″ (13-20 cm)
  • Komono – 6-10″ (15-25 cm)
  • Katade-mochi – 10-18″ (25-46 cm)
  • Chumono / Chiu – 16-36″ (41-91 cm)
  • Omono / Dai – 30-48″ (76-122 cm)
  • Hachi-uye – 40-60″ (102-152 cm)
  • Imperial – 60-80″ (152-203 cm)

A Bonsai’s Meaning

While the translation of bonsai is essentially “tree in pot,” there are other, less literal, meanings of bonsai trees. Bonsai trees are miniaturized versions of trees that replicate those trees as they are found in nature without a clear display of human intervention.

Other bonsai meanings or connotations include but are not limited to:

  • A tree style or shape (not necessarily like the tree as it is seen growing in nature)
  • Smaller than those that grow naturally outdoors so that they can be carried easily and kept close by
  • Natural looking without overwhelming evidence of human intervention
  • Representation of something outside of and greater than itself, allowing for each viewer to interpret the display in their own way from their own experiences
  • Valued highly and cared for every day of its life
  • Respected and thought of so highly that it is allowed indoors for honored guests despite having soil from the garden 
  • A miniaturized garden that represents a landscape or the seasons 
  • Anything you want it to be!

An Art Form or a Horticultural Practice?

Bonsai trees that are still in training should be pointing towards the future that the artist has in mind. These trees are, of course, growing, living things and are therefore never finished or complete. They typically live longer than trees that grow in nature because of how much attention and care they receive.

Many features can be seen on bonsai trees, including thickened or thinned trunks, barks with texture, live and dead wood intertwined, roots at the surfaces, twig and branch ramification, small needles, leaves, fruits or flowers, and shallow containers. Not all of these features can be or should be added to the tree at once. Features should not be added to the tree “just because” – each feature serves a purpose. True bonsai masterpieces make us stop and smile. Originally, bonsai trees reflected the challenges of the tree’s life.

So…is bonsai an art or a horticultural practice? The answer is both! The art of bonsai can be enjoyed individually or with others. Some practice bonsai growing for their own enjoyment, while others profit by selling bonsai trees. You can grow bonsai whether you have lots of experience or are new to this tradition.

Bonsai Containers

A bonsai tree’s container should always be plain and neutral in color to not distract from the tree itself. The tree should always be the focal point of the bonsai setup. The pots typically are made in China or Japan. They should be earth toned as to not be distracting or overbearing.

Bonsai trees are more than just trees grown in shallow containers. A bonsai tree can represent the bonsai’s life, the bonsai grower’s life, or anything the bonsai grower wants it to represent. Bonsai trees are miniaturized versions of trees that grow in nature with as little human intervention visible as possible. But most importantly, a bonsai tree is whatever you want it to be.