Bonsai — the wonderful tiny trees

Published Oct 31, 2015 06:48am
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IT is amazing to see twisted, curled fully grown trees that are only a few inches tall in small pots or containers. What adds more to our surprise is that the mini trees can bear fruits like apple, orange, pomegranate or pear! Amazing isn’t it?

These miniature trees are called ‘bonsai’. You might have seen them in various flower shows or maybe their pictures in magazines. Bonsai trees are not created simply by sowing seeds and watering them regularly. They actually need a lot more attention than any of us can imagine. This is an art of creating a miniature tree with full dedication and patience.

Historically, bonsai is the ancient art of growing and keeping miniature trees. The word ‘bonsai’ is made up of two Japanese characters: ‘bon’ meaning ‘tray’ while ‘sai’ meaning ‘plant’, which, when literally translated, means ‘tray plant’.

A bonsai is kept miniature by combining several techniques including regular pruning and wiring. However, there is a common misconception that bonsai is achieved by using genetically ‘dwarfed’ plants instead these are normal plants, propagated like any other, but trained using sophisticated techniques to keep it small.


ALTHOUGH the word bonsai is Japanese, the art originated in the Chinese Empire well over 2000 years ago. And about 1000 years ago, the Japanese copied the art and adapted it to their local circumstances. While bonsai was introduced in the West in late 19th century, it became increasingly popular with the time. While the miniature size of the bonsai makes it stand apart from others, but it wis also the various styles of the tree that make it so special.

Bonsai styles

YOU might be wondering how the bonsai get its shape from upright straight to twisted and curled to even the windswept. Well, all that it needs is time, patience and full attention. However, Japanese tradition describes bonsai tree designs using a set of commonly understood, named styles. The most common styles include formal upright, informal upright, slanting, semi-cascade, cascade, raft, literati and group/forest.

Less common forms include windswept, weeping, split-trunk and driftwood styles. These terms are not mutually exclusive and a single bonsai specimen can exhibit more than one style. When a bonsai specimen falls into multiple style categories, the common practice is to describe it by the dominant or most striking characteristic.

A frequently used set of styles describes the orientation of the bonsai tree’s main trunk. Different terms are used for a tree with its apex directly over the centre of the trunk’s entry into the soil, slightly to the side of that centre, deeply inclined to one side, and inclined below the point at which the trunk of the bonsai enters the soil.

Formal upright or chokkan style trees are characterised by a straight, upright, tapering trunk. Branches progress regularly from the thickest and broadest at the bottom to the finest and shortest at the top.

Informal upright or moyogi trees incorporate visible curves in trunk and branches, but the apex of the informal upright is located directly above the trunk’s entry into the soil line.

Slant-style or shakan bonsai possess straight trunks like those of bonsai grown in the formal upright style. However, the slant style trunk emerges from the soil at an angle, and the apex of the bonsai will be located to the left or right of the root base.

Cascade-style or kengai specimens are modelled after trees that grow over water or down the sides of mountains. The apex (tip of the tree) in the semi-cascade-style or han kengai bonsai extend just at or beneath the lip of the bonsai pot; the apex of a (full) cascade style falls below the base of the pot.

A number of styles describe the trunk shape and bark finish. For example, the deadwood bonsai styles identify trees with prominent dead branches or trunk scarring.

Shari or sharimiki style involves portraying a tree in its struggle to live while a significant part of its trunk is bare of bark.

Although most bonsai trees are planted directly into the soil, there are styles describing trees planted on rock.

Root-over-rock or sekijoju is a style in which the roots of the tree are wrapped around a rock, entering the soil at the base of the rock.

Growing-in-a-rock or ishizuke style means the roots of the tree are growing in soil contained within the cracks and holes of the rock.

While the majority of bonsai specimens feature a single tree, there are well-established style categories for specimens with multiple trunks.

Forest (or group) or yose ue style comprises a planting of several or many trees of one species, typically an odd number, in a bonsai pot.

Multi-trunk or ikadabuki style has all the trunks growing out of one spot with one root system, and is actually a single tree.

Raft-style or netsuranari bonsai mimic a natural phenomenon that occurs when a tree topples onto its side, for example, from erosion or another natural force. Branches along the top side of the trunk continue to grow as a group of new trunks.

Other styles

A FEW styles do not fit into the preceding categories. These include:

Literati or bunjin-gi style is characterised by a generally bare trunk line, with branches reduced to a minimum, and foliage placed toward the top of a long, often contorted trunk.

Broom or hokidachi style is employed for trees with fine branching, like elms. The trunk is straight and branches out in all directions about one-third of the way up the entire height of the tree. The branches and leaves form a ball-shaped crown.

Windswept or fukinagashi style describes a tree that appears to be affected by strong winds blowing continuously from one direction, as might shape a tree atop a mountain ridge or on an exposed shoreline.

The steps involved in growing a bonsai:

Patience: Yes, if you really decide to grow a bonsai tree, patience is the key, as it takes a very long time to grow to a shape that you like. Moreover, regular care and attention is a must. Without that the desired result is not attainable.

Pruning: Regular pruning is done to keep the tree in the determined shape. Cutting roots (even the tap root) will not kill a tree if it is done judiciously and at the appropriate time of year because trimming roots keeps any plant healthy in a container.

Wiring: Branches of the tree are wrapped in order to bend or twist them, to achieve the determined shape. The purpose of the wire is to bend and shape a branch or trunk. It is not permanent. Once the desired shape is achieved the wire can be removed.

Tools: Several specialised tools are developed for this art. Such as a concave cutter and twig shears.

Re-potting: Bonsai trees are held in small pots, regular re-potting is required to replenish nutrients in the soil.