Everything You Need to Know About Japanese Bonsai Trees

The Bonsai tree is most likely the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a Japanese plant. It has been a Japanese symbol since forever. What a lot of people don’t know is that the term “Bonsai” refers to the actual art form and techniques used to recreate full-size trees at a smaller scale. The Bonsai technique may be Japanese, but it has found its way into Chinese tradition as well, where it is called “penzai”. The Bonsai culture is over 1,000 years old and it is now a common practice in all the corners of the world.

Bonsai 101

Bonsai in hands on green grass background

The art of Bonsai has turned into a regular hobby over the last years, showcasing the skills and patience of the grower. Bonsai trees are not in any way cultivated for other purposes, just as the food industry or the medical industry. The practice of growing Bonsai trees refers strictly to the shaping and cultivation of these small trees in proper containers.

Basically, just about any shrub can be turned into a Bonsai tree, as long as during its growth, it can be held into a small container. There are, however, some shrub species that are preferred for the art of Bonsai because they meet all the characteristic of such a tree, by having a crown, needles or small leaves. Whatever source specimen is used, it’s important for it to have similar visual to the already-popular imagine of a Bonsai tree.

A rough English translation of the term “Bonsai” would be “planted in a container”. One of the beauties of Bonsai trees is the fact that they can basically live forever if you take care of it properly. In some cultures, they are legacy that’s passed on from generation to generation. Taking care of a Bonsai tree is probably the most precise area of gardening. It is common, however, for people who have just taken an interest in this art to get over-enthusiastic and fail to apply all the necessary practices that one must undergo in order to successfully grow these trees.

A common mistake is thinking that a Bonsai tree should be treated just like every other small miniature plant. Even the smallest mistake can lead to the death of a Bonsai tree and thus destroy the aforementioned enthusiasm.

Types of Bonsai

Cypresses plants in pots bonsai garden plants on tree farm

As mentioned before, there are numerous tree and shrubs that can be grown as Bonsai and used in most Japanese gardening ideas. Amongst the most popular varieties, we must mention maples and pines, who are commonly preferred because of their leaves that change color during the fall. There’s even a way to make a Japanese maple bonsai forest! Some people prefer the flowing variety of trees, like plum or cherry. Persimmon and quince are favorite amongst people who like fruit-bearing trees. The types of Bonsai commonly found in specific areas of the world are highly dependent on the climate of a particular country.

These trees can fall into a variety of categories depending on their shape, but common Bonsai culture states that it’s best to allow the tree to express itself individually, without imposing its belonging to a certain category.

The Japanese maple is one of the most adaptable types of outdoor Bonsai trees because it presents colorful leaves that amaze through their beauty and richness. Japanese maple Bonsai trees like to grow in sunny climates, but don’t like high afternoon temperatures, so it’s best to move them to a spot with shade. This tree should be pruned carefully every year, in order to make sure that the size of the leaves stays small. The soil requires small weekly doses of nitrogen and it needs to be watered carefully.

If you’re a beginner, you might want to consider growing a rock Cotoneaster which, in the Bonsai culture, is generally planted on the rock. The leaves of this tree are stunning, as they change their colors depending on the season. While you will need to protect it from extreme heat and frost, it can stay in the sun for quite some time without suffering. The rock Cotoneaster is a fan of dry soil, but it will require the occasional watering. A Japanese cypress bonsai is also an easy one to start with.

The Beech tree is one of the most beautiful Bonsai trees ever seen. It has a spectacular autumn color and sports small leaves that are easy to style. It grows pretty slow and likes to stay in bright outdoor spots, but not under direct sunlight. The soil should be moist, but not completely wet. When temperatures outside drop to a freezing point, it’s best to move the tree indoors. It is generally subject to heavy spring pruning and it should be fertilized during spring and fall.

The Juniper tree has over 70 species that can beautifully grow as a Bonsai tree. These shrubs prefer staying outdoors, with the condition that you keep them away from torrid heat and direct sunlight. They don’t do well in freezing temperatures either.

*You might also like: Everything You Need To Know About The Sequoia Bonsai Tree.

How to Grow & Care for Your Japanese Bonsai Tree

Growing a Bonsai tree is a practice that takes a lot of patience, but there is a good reason why this is considered art. Bonsai lovers from all over the world are trying to replicate the ever-popular image of this tree, but with small differences that vouch for the authenticity of their own work. The truth of the matter is, anyone can attempt to pursue this hobby, although only the patient ones really manage to pull through.

Watering

Bonsai trees are both indoors and outdoors plants. The most popular types of indoor Bonsai trees are ficus and jade, while the ones that are mostly found outdoors are elm and pine. Because of that, positioning is a very important factor that will determine if your Bonsai will grow, thrive and prosper. As far as positioning is concerned, it is best to keep Bonsai trees away from direct sources of heat. They also need plenty of sunlight, so have that in mind before placing them in a specific spot. They should also be placed in spots that are humid because they need moist soil in order to stay healthy.

While it makes sense to keep just about every plant properly hydrated, one of the primary causes for Bonsai tree deaths is the underwatering. This happens because the soil layer is shallow and dies very fast. The minute you start noticing that the top layer starts to dry out, it’s time to water the soil. The watering frequency depends on the type of soil used, as well as the type of Bonsai tree you have. Some trees require watering even once a day. Proper watering of the tree means that the root needs to be saturated with water. Having a pot with drain-holes is useful in such a case, because the minute you see watering dripping through the container’s holes, you know that the Bonsai tree has enough water. Don’t worry about spillage, as a lot of these containers already have a tray that’s used to collect excess water.

But there is a thin line between under and overwatering. If you notice the leaves starting to get yellow and smaller branches shriveling, that means that the tree has too much water. Roots that are drowned in water will not receive the required amount of oxygen, which means they don’t have the necessary conditions to thrive. Overwatering is sometimes caused by poor-draining soil. To make sure you avoid both these water-related situations, it’s important to assess the state of your Bonsai tree every day.

Pruning

Pruning is an essential part of giving Bonsai trees their shape, as well as keeping them healthy. There are two different types of pruning that serve each of these two purposes.

Maintenance pruning is what encourages the tree to grow. Think of it as cutting the split end of your hair: it’s something that you have to do for your hair to stay beautiful and healthy and ensure that it can keep growing. This particular type of pruning implies the cutting of young shoots so that the leaves that lie underneath can be exposed to sunlight and air. This helps the tree grow healthy.

Maintenance pruning implies the cutting of leaves, buds, and branches. By cutting some branches, you are allowing the growth of other ones which, in the end, contributes to that beautiful shape of your Bonsai tree. By pruning the buds, you are encouraging leaf growth. Maintenance pruning is to be done every time you notice a new growth that it deforming the shape of the tree. If you own a flower Bonsai tree, you need to prune it in the spring, so that beautiful and healthy flowers can grow the following year.

The other type of cutting is called structural pruning and it involves a more complex technique that’s generally applied when the tree is dormant. The complexity of the technique lies in the fact that one must remove the structural branches of the tree in such a way that it can recover afterward. A lot of people prefer to use wiring to push the tree into growing in the desired shape. Basically, wiring allows you to control the growth pattern of the tree by adding a simple wire around the branches. This technique is commonly practiced in the winter because the Bonsai’s leaves are fallen, making the process a lot easier. You need to pay close attention to the tree’s growth and remove the wires when they are no longer needed because branches can grow into the wire and become misshapen.

Soil & Potting

Spreading fertilized soil at the side of the potted bonsai tree

As you might have guessed from our previous statements, the proper soil for a Bonsai tree needs to offer proper drainage. You can achieve that by adding large particles into the soil’s mixture. Stones or volcanic rocks should do the trick. By doing so, you are forcing air into the soil. However, it’s also important for the soil to be able to retain the amount of water it needs, which can be achieved by adding clay into the soil mixture.

Obviously, you will need to fertilize the soil. This way, it can get all the nutrient needed to grow. Choosing the right Bonsai fertilizer means looking for a mixture that equally balances potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen. It’s very important to remember to water the tree with just the right amount of water before fertilizing, as it is dangerous to add fertilizer to dry soil. Carefully read the instruction on the fertilizer’s label, so that you know the exact amount needed.

  • Part of the Bonsai’s growth is repotting whenever needed. By repotting your tree, you can remove the excess roots that lead to the starvation of your tree, because it’s not receiving the required amount of nutrients. Repotting is also a process that aids the growth of your tree within a small container. Generally speaking, Bonsai trees are repotted every 2 to 5 years, as the period varies depending on how fast the tree grows. The process of repotting isn’t complicated, but it does require patience and careful handling of the tree:
  • The first step requires the careful removal of the tree from the initial pot.
  • Then, by using a pair of sharp shears, you have to carefully remove the roots’ outer layer.
  • Thoroughly check the root’s mass to see if there are rotten areas and trim them as you find them. Areas of rot generally indicate that your tree isn’t getting proper drainage.
  • Make sure you clean the pot of any green or brown spots.
  • Cover the drainage holes with mesh, to make sure that the soil doesn’t fall out of the pot.
  • Place soil on the bottom of the pot and place the tree above it.
  • Add soil in the remaining space inside the pot and make sure that you’ve covered all the gaps.

Bonsai tree soil mixtures are commonly made from fine gravel, organic potting compost, pumice, lava rock, and akadama. Akadama is Japanese clay in its hard-bakes form and it is commonly used in soil mixtures for Bonsai trees. There are 2 very important things to remember about akadama. First, it needs to be sifted before adding it to the mix. Second, it usually breaks down after a couple of years, which causes it to lose aeration. In order to prevent your Bonsai tree from dying, you will need to repot it every 2 years. Otherwise, it’s best to use akadama in a combination with other soil components that have high levels of drainage.

Pumice is known for being able to retain water and this helps your Bonsai tree get the nutrients and water it needs. In consequence, it helps the roots of your tree to ramify very well. Organic potting compost contains sand, perlite, and peat moss. It should always be used as part of a mixture because individually, it doesn’t retain much water or aerate very well.

Lava rock can be really useful when part of a Bonsai substrate, even though the roots of the tree can’t exactly grow into it. By adding fine gravel to the mix, you will enhance the draining properties of the soil. It is commonly added on the bottom side of the top, for better drainage.

Choosing the Right Pot

The right pot for your Bonsai is not just an aesthetically pleasing accessory, it’s the tree’s home. It’s where the roots will take shape and get the nutrients they need to help your tree grow beautiful and healthy.

Some of you may be surprised to know that choosing the right pot for your Bonsai tree requires that you identify the tree’s gender first. While Bonsai trees don’t actually have a sex, they are considered to be masculine and feminine depending on how they look. If a Bonsai tree has curves or thin branches, it is considered to be feminine. Alternatively, a tree with thick foliage and branches, and one that stands straight and tall is considered to be masculine. It’s fair to say that each Bonsai owner can determine the own gender of his tree based on what the tree inspires when looking at it.

As far as the pot is concerned, it’s important for it to be a proper fit for your tree. If the container is too small, the three will not grow properly and it could even be subject to infections. By measuring the circumference of the trunk, you can also determine the depth of the pot. If you choose a square or a round pot, the widest point of the branches should be a little longer than the pot’s width.

Display Styles

Little bonsai tree with twisted trunk and branches pointing to the left blooming with pink flowersBonsai roots going up serves as foundation and blooms in cute little pink flowersTwisted trunk of purple flowering bonsai tree planted in a rounded white pot

Since we insisted on the fact that Bonsai is an art and not a denomination for an actual species of tree, there are several shaping styles suitable for them. We are going to talk about the top ones:

  • Formal upright (Chokkan) is one of the most common Bonsai growth styles, with the trunk growing upwards. Even if it’s pretty straightforward, it’s also pretty hard to achieve this style, as it requires utmost perfection between balance and symmetry.
  • Informal upright (Moyohgi) has similar characteristics to the formal upright style. The trunks grow mostly upwards, but there are several curves present in this style. These curves are what give this style its charm, with a rather romantic aura.
  • Slanting (Shakan) features a straight trunk, but at different angles that vary when it exits the soil. It is considered to be the imbalances image of stability, making this growing style a particularly interesting one.
  • The cascade (Kengai) and semi-cascade (Han-Kengai) styles are considered to be 2 of the most beautiful ones there are. Both of them recreate a stunning cascade visual effect, aiming to replicate the trees that are commonly found over cascades.
  • Straight line raft (Ikadabuki) is a style that replicates a tree fallen over onto the side. Should a tree fall on its side on not die, it will grow beautiful new branches.
  • Literati (Bunjingi) is a minimalistic style that focuses on the tree having the least number of branches possible.
  • The Driftwood (Sharimiki) style is meant to recreate the impression of an aged and withering Bonsai tree. It’s meant to symbolize the symbiosis between life and death and it is not a natural occurrence. The style itself is difficult to achieve, as the Bonsai grower will have to remove trunk bark, exposing the tree to elements that will in turn cause it to look weathered.

Interesting Bonsai Facts

Back in ancient times, Bonsai trees were the delight of highly-ranked people and it wasn’t until the 17th century that commoners starting enjoying them as well. If you are a true fan of the art of Bonsai, how many of the following facts were you already familiar with?

  • In the 14th century, there was a peak registered as far as cultivating Bonsai knowledge is concerned.
  • Contrary to popular belief, bonsai trees are not dwarves. They are a miniature representation of a tree in its natural form.
  • Kunio Kobayashi is the current owner of an 800-year-old Bonsai tree.
  • A Bonsai tree is sold for as much as $1.3 million in Japan
  • “The Art of Bonsai: was a book published back in 1957 and it is considered to be the Japanese Bonsais Bible.

Are Bonsai Fruits Edible?

A small apple bonsai on a pot on the top of a wooden table with another bonsai on the right side.

Interestingly enough, yes! There are a couple of species of Bonsai trees that, when cared for properly, can actually produce edible fruits.

For instance, pomegranate Bonsai trees are one of the most common Bonsai that produces fruit. It is best grown outdoors and only brought inside when temperatures outside are as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit. But when you do bring it inside, place it next to the sunniest window.

Another Bonsai tree with edible fruits is the Cherry Laurel. The white blossom turns to black fruit which is edible. It’s fairly easy to grow too, as it should be kept outside, either in partial shade or full sun.

Also great for beginners that want an edible fruit Bonsai tree is the fig. They will sometimes give fruit both in spring and late summer. They are suited for growing in warmer climates because they need the sun’s rays almost the entire year. If the climate in the area where you live doesn’t favor the fig’s growth, you should consider growing lights.

The Bottom Line

There are many ways in which we can define the term “Bonsai”. While it generally means the art of cultivating trees at a smaller scale, it can also be defined as a hobby, as a form of relaxation, a mean for you to grow something as majestic as a tree even if you happen to live in a small apartment. You need to be sure that you carefully choose a species that is suitable for indoor growth, as a lot of Bonsai trees need fresh air and direct sunlight to thrive. Even if they are compact in size, Bonsai trees are tough, meaning they can survive in a lot of weather conditions, as long as they aren’t exposed to temperatures that are too high or too low.

Categories Bonsai

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