The Basics of Bonsai

English Elm

An English Elm trained as a bonsai. This is exactly the same species that was once growing all across the English countryside.

The first thing to remember when caring for your bonsai is that it is a real live growing plant.

Many people are under the impression that bonsai trees are poorly cared for and that their miniature appearance is due to cruel practices such as not watering. Another myth is that bonsai are dwarf varieties of trees, or that they are given a special bonsai potion to stunt their growth.

None of this is true!

The tree species that are selected for use as bonsai are the same as those that grow in our countryside - oak, elm, maples and so on. If a bonsai were to be planted out in a field, it would eventually grow to the same size and proportions as any other tree of its kind. It is kept small by continual pruning, both of the branches and the roots.

It may also surprise you to know that bonsai are probably better cared for than many other garden shrubs. There is nothing more cruel about growing a bonsai than there is in creating hanging baskets or window boxes - they are all just plants in a container.

Scots Pine

A Scots Pine that has been styled as a tall tree to give the impression of a lone pine standing on a hillside.

Because bonsai are physically the same as garden shrubs and plants they require all the same things - light, air, water and nutrients. The best supply of these necessities is outdoors, which is why almost all bonsais live outside. A full-sized pine grows outdoors on a hillside, and so a bonsai pine also needs to be kept outside.

Further information about what your bonsai needs to grow can be found on the bonsai care page.

Bonsai is a living art form, as the tree is always growing and changing, and so is considered to be a 4-dimensional art. It is generally accepted that the creation of a bonsai is 20% horticultural knowledge and 80% artistic creation. The Japanese word "bonsai" can be translated as "bon", a shallow tray or container, and "sai", a plant or planting. Therefore, taken literally, "bonsai" means "tree in a pot".

However, there is much more to the art of bonsai than just potting a tree in a container. The tree is shaped through pruning and wiring to reflect nature and to give the impression of old age in a relatively young tree. The pot is selected to complement the tree (see choosing a pot) and the two elements together both contribute to the overall image.


When in flower, azaleas make a stunning display.

Many people think that bonsai originates from Japan but its roots (no pun intended) are actually found in China, many thousands of years ago. The Japanese were greatly influenced by Chinese culture; they adopted bonsai into their own culture and adapted it to suit their traditions. Bonsai has only really become popular in the western world within the 20th century, and owes most of its uptake to World War II: servicemen stationed in Japan brought home souvenir bonsai at the end of the war.

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