What Does Bonsai Mean?

In Japanese, bonsai is written like this:  盆栽
“Bon” is a thin bowl or dish.
“Sai” is a growing plant or tree that is planted.
Therefore, “Bonsai” means “a tree which is planted in a shallow container”.

What Exactly is a Bonsai Tree?


A bonsai tree is a tree that is grown in a small container in order to restrict and redirect growth. Special training techniques such as wiring and pruning branches and pinching buds are also used to redirect
growth. Despite what many may think, bonsai trees are not genetically dwarfed trees. They are, however, commonly kept very small at about one meter in height. Almost any tree can be grown as a bonsai tree, so long as they have a woody trunk or stem, can grow true branches, can be grown in a container in order to restrict its food storage, and have small leaves.

What Does a Bonsai Tree Represent?

The art of growing bonsai trees has been practiced and refined over hundreds of years. The main qualities that are seen in bonsai trees are harmony, balance, simplicity, and age. Keep in mind that bonsai trees are interpreted differently by every person that observes the tree.

Harmony – Harmony is a very highly valued part of Japanese culture. Japan’s culture is very anti-conflict. This is seen in their laws and customs. People typically want to live in a harmonious place. A common theme in bonsai growing is the representation of harmony in nature. The aspect of co-existing with elements is seen in the bark’s curves and the branch’s fine lines. Jagged edges and crooked corners often symbolize hard life moments.

Balance – One very prominent feature on bonsai trees is the element of balance. The triangle is used in the bonsai design because this shape symbolized stability and strength. Specifically, the isosceles triangle is used rather than the equilateral triangle. Isosceles triangles’ sides are unequal and thus creates the look of asymmetry. This is valued in Japanese culture. Asymmetrical triangles provide a
sense of movement which symbolizes life’s continuation.
Simplicity – Simplicity is another feature that is evident in Japanese culture and the bonsai tree itself. Art, architecture, homes, offices, and more all have elements of simplicity in them. The bonsai tree’s container is very simple so that it does not draw attention away from the tree itself. The color should be earth toned and fairly plain. All bonsai trees have elements of simplicity to them. Every tree is beautiful all on its own, there is no need for extravagant designs or decorations.


Age – Bonsai aesthetics often include different portrayals of age. The tree’s characteristics, such as the trunk, branches, and roots, can manipulated in order to depict age. Exposing the tree’s roots can be used to look like the appearance of age. Youth can be seen in a smooth trunk with no blemishes. On the other hand, scarred trunks can symbolize old age. A dead piece of trunk placed within the tree’s composition can represent the evolution of the tree. Drooping branches can be seen as old, while branches growing upward can be seen as young. Youth can be depicted in full leaf growth, while sparse growth can depict old age. The elderly in Japan are treated with great amounts of respect. Three of more generations often live under one roof. This is often portrayed on bonsai trees with some aspects
of youth and other aspects of older age that complement each other.

A bonsai tree is a trained tree that grows in a small, plain container. Bonsai tree’s fertilizer is restricted in order to redirect growth. While the literal translation of bonsai is roughly, “tree in pot”, bonsai’s have many other meanings. They often portray different aspects of harmony, balance, simplicity, and age. All of these elements are highly valued in Japan. Every element of a bonsai tree means something. Nothing is added “just because” or without careful consideration. The bonsai tree often depicts the future. But most importantly, a bonsai tree is whatever you want it to be!