Bonsai Trees: A Guide to The Miniature Trees of Japan

Bonsai, which translates to “tray planting,” originated in Japan at least a thousand years ago. Yet, such miniature trees were seen outside of Japan for the first time only as recently as 1909 at a London exhibition because for centuries before they were luxury items confined to the homes of wealthy Japanese aristocrats. Here we will uncover this ancient Japanese art form by exploring the different tree types and styles. Also, we will answer commonly asked questions a newcomer might have.

Topics Covered

  • The meaning behind bonsai
  • Commonly asked questions
    • What is bonsai?
    • How to grow a bonsai tree
    • How to care for a bonsai
    • How long does it take to grow?
    • How much do bonsai trees cost?
    • Can any tree be a bonsai?
  • Bonsai tree types
  • Bonsai Styles
  • Pots
  • Soil
  • Moss
DescriptionBuy
Bonsai: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide on How to Cultivate and Care for BeginnersBonsai: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide on How to Cultivate and Care for Beginners
Kitaro Takagi shows all the steps on how to grow and cultivate a bonsai tree from seed. Available on Kindle and in paperback.
10 Piece Bonsai Tool Kit10 Piece Bonsai Tool Kit
Every tool a beginner to professional could ever need. The kit includes a nylon zip case, leaf trimmer, a set of aluminum wires with a wire cutter, a root hook, knob cutter, jin pliers, and scissors.
Magnetic Levitating PotMagnetic Levitating Pot
Show off your tree with this round ceramic levitating pot.

In this educational video, Nigel Saunders shows us how to start an acacia bonsai from seed. The footage is owned and created by Nigel Saunders from The Bonsai Zone.


Bonsai tree meaning

All elements of Japanese culture carry meaning, and these miniature trees are no different. In Zen Buddhism, monks view them as a symbol of peace between both man and nature. Another definition is balance and simplicity because everything about these trees has to be aesthetically balanced while maintaining simplicity. In the early days, they meant wealth because, as previously mentioned, they served as decorations in the homes of aristocrats.


Commonly asked questions

Here we have compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions a newcomer might have.

What is bonsai?

Bonsai is the art of shaping and limiting a tree’s growth by keeping it between 20 centimeters and 4 feet in height. It’s accomplished by restricting the use of fertilizer, pinching buds, wiring branches, pruning, and by growing the tree in a shallow pot.

How to grow a bonsai tree?

Growing from seed requires a lot of work, patience, and a considerable amount of skill. Don’t be discouraged if you are a beginner because doing it this way is an excellent learning experience. A better way for an impatient beginner to learn is by purchasing and working on an already established tree. To learn how to grow one from seed, watch the educational video from Nigel Saunders above.

How to care for a bonsai?

Taking care of a bonsai tree takes skill that can be learned through practice and trial and error. Also, you will most definitely need a good quality set of tools. The type of care required will, to some extent, depend on the type and species of tree. But in general, things such as correctly watering, repotting, pruning, and fertilizing all fall under basic maintenance and care.

How long does it take to grow a bonsai tree?

If growing from seed, it will generally take at least three years before you have a tree you can begin working on. It will also take approximately 10 to 15 years for it to reach sufficient maturity to enter exhibitions and competitions. In other words, – a lot of patience is required. There are, however, ways to make a tree grow faster by using grow lights and nutrient-rich soil.

How much do bonsai trees cost?

Species, height, and the amount of skill and effort that went into the tree are things to consider when it comes to pricing a bonsai. They are for sale at many garden centers in Western countries for $20 or less. Older and rarer trees, however, can cost up to hundreds to many thousands of dollars. The most expensive one ever sold was a centuries-old pine that fetched for $1,300,000! Some trees are near a thousand years old and are considered to be priceless.

Can any tree be a bonsai?

Generally, any tree that can blossom has the potential to become a bonsai. There are hundreds of compatible types, with new ones discovered regularly. Check out our list of the most popular types in the section below.


Bonsai tree types

Choosing a suitable tree type is essential for the beginner hobbyist because different types of bonsai have different needs, and no two varieties are the same. And although there are many varieties with new ones introduced regularly, we will only list some of the most popular ones.

Juniper bonsai tree

Juniper tree
Cliff from Arlington, Virginia, USA, Prostrate Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) Prostrata (3506400864), CC BY 2.0

The juniper is part of the cypress family and consists of around 50 to 70 different sub-species. It’s also one of the most popular entry-level trees, thanks to it being easy to shape and train. It’s important to remember that the juniper is an actual tree and not a houseplant; therefore, it needs to be treated for diseases and insects if the need arises. Additionally, it will prosper in just about any environment as long as it has sufficient humidity and light – whether you keep it indoors or outdoors.

Cotoneaster bonsai tree

Cotoneaster tree
Derzsi Elekes Andor, 15. Madárbirs – bonsai, Baumann Attila, CC BY-SA 4.0

The cotoneaster is unique and a favorite among many bonsai enthusiasts. They originally hail from Europe and Asia, and depending on the species – may seasonally produce tiny non-edible toxic berries or beautiful white flowers. Just like the juniper, the cotoneaster is a famous beginner’s tree. It’s best to keep it in direct sunlight throughout the day. Keeping it outside at night is okay, but it needs to be protected if temperatures drop below 23F.

Keep in mind, the cotoneaster dies quickly and often unexpectedly if neglected for long periods but can become very tough and durable when following the correct care techniques.

Azalea bonsai tree

Azalea tree
An Azalea Bonsai tree on display.

The azalea, also known as a rhododendron, consists of about 1,000 different sub-species. Out of the hundreds of sub-species, only two stand out as being perfect bonsai candidates – Satsuki and Kurumi. They are loved for their fast growth rate and breathtakingly beautiful flowers. The only downsides to the azalea are that the bark is fragile, and branches break easily. Therefore great care needs to be taken when shaping branches with wires.

Black pine bonsai tree

Black Pine tree
Photo by David J. Stang, Pinus thunbergii 6zz, Cropped, CC BY-SA 4.0

Pines are probably the most popular type, especially in Japan, because of their abundance. The most common species used are the black, red, and white pine, and each requires more or less the same type of care. These trees are known for being durable and relatively resistant to diseases, which makes it the perfect tree for beginners. Not only that, but they also really do look spectacular. Pines prefer colder climates, but they can grow in warmer regions as long as they receive extra attention.

Bougainvillea bonsai tree

Bouganvilla tree
Aruna at ml.wikipedia, Bouganvilla, CC BY-SA 3.0

The tropical bougainvillea is from South America and produces vibrantly colorful flowers. It loves warm summer weather and lots of sunlight but needs protection during the cold winter months. It also features strong natural resistance to pests and diseases but may be susceptible to fungal infections. To avoid these infections, monitor the humidity levels and regularly use an anti-fungal spray.

Fig bonsai tree

Fig bonsai tree
Tortie tude, Ficus neriifolia bonsai, Cropped, CC0 1.0

The fig, also known as the ficus, is an easy tree for beginners. It can flourish indoors, give off figs, and is easily shaped into many different forms. What more could you possibly want? If you choose the ficus as your first tree, you will be delighted to know that there are hundreds of species to choose from. Also, they prefer warm, humid environments with lots of sunshine.

Dwarf jade bonsai tree

Dwarf Jade Bonsai
Yercaud-elango, Portulacaria afra-1-bonsai-yercaud-salem-India, CC BY-SA 4.0

The dwarf jade comes from the driest regions of Southern Africa and is often referred to as the Elephant Bush. It can soak up and store water for long periods, which helps it survive in arid climates – which also means it doesn’t need constant or even regular care. Watering your dwarf jade once every 6 to 8 weeks is perfectly fine.

It has thick green leaves and beautiful pink flowers. The bark also has a strange green tint while it is young, only to turn to a reddish-brown color as it grows older. Shaping the branches is easy, which makes it the ideal tree for beginners.

Olive bonsai tree

Olive bonsai
Kasia Wyser-Pratte from San Francisco, USA, Candied olives stuffed with anchovies (picked from an olive bonsai tree) and a glass of Cava (5376842417), Cropped, CC BY 2.0

Olive trees originate from the Mediterranean and are known for their strength and durability. The olive bonsai grows fast, and that is good news for an impatient horticulturist who is growing the tree from seed. They thrive in warm, humid conditions but not so much in colder climates. If conditions outside get too cold, it will be best to bring the tree inside even though they do not die quickly.



Bonsai styles

Styling is essential because aesthetics plays a vital part in the art of bonsai. There are many styles and shapes a miniature tree can transform into, but the five main forms are – semi-cascade, full-cascade, slanting, formal upright, and informal upright. We will also cover the super miniature shohin style.

Full cascade (Kengai style)

A full cascade bonsai tree
A full cascade bonsai tree

The full cascade style, or kengai as the Japanese call it, is when a tree grows downward instead of the conventional upwards direction. This particular style is pretty standard in the natural world, especially when growing on cliff sides. It happens because of falling rocks or from the weight of snow, which piles up. Artificially creating this shape requires some patience and skill.

The type of pot plays a crucial role in achieving the full cascade shape. For this, you will need a tall container to prevent the tree from toppling over. At first, you will have to allow it to grow upwards until it reaches sufficient height before starting to bend the trunk downward through means of wiring and bending techniques. The apex point should reach just below the base of the pot while the branches extend out in a horizontal position.

Semi-cascade (Han-kengai style)

A semi-cascade bonsai tree
A semi-cascade bonsai tree.

The semi-cascade style is very similar to the full-cascade, and the only real difference is that the tree doesn’t run straight down. Instead, it runs at a 45-degree angle while the tip of the apex extends to the lip of the pot.

Slanting (Shakan style)

Slanting bonsai
Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, Olea europaea kz1, CC BY-SA 4.0

The slanting style, much like the two aforementioned cascading styles, can be found naturally. A tree will slant as a result of a strong wind blowing from one particular direction over time when a tree grows in the shade and slants itself to get some sun. Recreating this effect is not as tricky as the two cascade styles.

The tree should slant at a 60 to 80-degree angle, and the roots need to be well developed on one side to prevent the tree from toppling over. Also, the base of the trunk should be the thickest while gradually narrowing the higher it goes.

Formal upright (Chokkan style)

Formal upright bonsai style
Sage Ross, Trident Maple bonsai 52, October 10, 2008, CC BY-SA 3.0

The formal upright is not only the most common style but also the easiest to create. The base is the thickest part and gradually becomes narrower; the higher it goes. The branches should only start from a quarter of the way up.

Informal upright (Moyogi style)

Informal upright bonsai style
Jeffrey O. Gustafson, Redwood bonsai, CC BY-SA 3.0

The informal upright, or Moyogi, as it’s known in Japanese, is commonly found in nature. It’s identical to the formal upright (chokkan) style, with the exception that the trunk has an S shape as opposed to the conventional straight trunk.

The shohin style

Shohin bonsai
公益社団法人 全日本小品盆栽協会, 産経新聞社賞, Cropped, CC BY-SA 4.0

The super miniature shohin style is unique, indeed. Although there is no size classification, many experts tend to agree that for a bonsai to qualify as a shohin, it should not exceed 20 centimeters in height. In other words, these trees are easily held in the palm of your hand. Such trees are aesthetically beautiful, but the smaller they get, the less detail they tend to have. Interestingly, the actual word shohin translates to tiny thing.

Creating a shohin from seed also takes more patience than a regular bonsai tree would require because it takes approximately five years to get a tree down to that size.


Pots

The type and style of containers play a significant role because of aesthetics, and it’s one of the most overlooked aspects among Western hobbyists.

The Japanese see the pot as being the equivalent of a picture frame. Everything from the color and shape of the pot used will depend on the shape and size of the bonsai. For example, trees in the slanted and cascade styles are best placed in rounded pots, while formal and informal upright trees are best suited for rectangular pots. Also, trees with thick trunks appear best in deep pots, while shallow containers are ideal for those with thin trunks.

The actual color of the pot also matters significantly. Trees featuring colorful flowers, fruits, or bright foliage look their best in glazed green pots. Those with dark green leaves are ideally placed in neutral-colored unglazed pots such as red, brown, or grey.


Soil

When collecting soil for your bonsai, one should never scoop it up from the ground surface. Instead, use soil from 3 feet down or deeper. This is to prevent using soil, which has become contaminated with harmful insects and other contaminants.

The soil collected cannot be used straight away. First, spread it out in the sun for a week before sieving and using it. Alternatively, you could purchase a specially prepared soil mix which is good to go.


Moss

Moss does not aid with growth, but it does serve multiple purposes. Firstly, it is great for aesthetics, especially with trees featured at bonsai exhibitions. Secondly, it prevents birds from scratching around in the soil in search of insects. Lastly and most importantly, it helps keep the soil hydrated.

Adding moss to your tree is simple. Just collect it from wherever you can find it, such as from roof tiles or tree bark, crush it up into fine pieces and sprinkle it around the base of your tree. Spray water in mist format directly on it, and within a few weeks, the moss should start growing naturally.


Related Content

The pot you choose for your tree plays an important part in aesthetics. Find out more about bonsai pots here.

To grow a healthy tree fast, you should always choose the correct soil for your tree.

Interested in starting bonsai as a hobby? If so, then check out all the tools you will need.

Each year numerous bonsai exhibitions are held across Japan, where people come from all over to show off their work. Find out when, where, and how to attend one of these events.

Now that you know more about the art of bonsai, why not learn the necessary skills via video from a well experienced expert? Check out the YouTube page of Nigel Saunders.

Knowing how to take care of a bonsai is the most crucial part of the craft. Learn the basics of watering, pruning and shaping at ftd.com.

There are many types and species of tree that can be converted to a bonsai. Choosing the right one is important and oftentimes dependent on your success. Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of compatible tree types here.