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Bonsai Trees

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When most people think of bonsai trees, it's those Japanese inspired trees of short stature with the semi-stiff conifer needles, nearly flat tops, and gnarled branches and curved trunks that comes to mind. While these picturesque miniature trees certainly epitomize the concept, bonsai is actually a form of landscape art – the art of miniature tree cultivation. Most trees grow according to the natural characteristics of their species: some tall, some short; some leafy, some with sparse foliage; and some with smooth bark, others rough, and still others that fall somewhere in between. Yet, almost any perennial woody-stemmed tree or branched shrub (both conifers and deciduous trees) can become a bonsai tree simply by growing them in a pot and using proper bonsai techniques. From common shrubs to elm trees, the art of bonsai can put a lovely spin on these gorgeous plants, adding grandeur and pleasure to your home and life.

Bonsai Origins

Bonsai is an art form with origins dating back thousands of years – somewhere around the 6th century - and across many cultures. Each culture has its own specific terminology, methods, and aesthetics; however, the modern Japanese tradition originated with the integration of the Chinese tradition of Penjing and the Vietnamese tradition of hon non bo. The word “bonsai” is simply the Japanese translation of the Chinese word, “penzai.” Originally, bonsai was a landscape art where miniature trees were cultivated in a pot or tray (a “bon”).

Bonsai Purpose

Unlike other plant cultivation endeavors, bonsai's purpose is not for growing food, growing herbs for medicine, or for other types of common production. It is a matter of contemplation (art, aesthetics, and wonder) for viewers and pure pleasure and ingenuity for the growers.

Bonsai Methodology

Bonsai begins with planting. You can use a cutting, a seedling, or even an infant tree or shrub. More mature bonsai specimens are also available. The specimen you chose should be ideal for pot planting for crown and root pruning. Traditional bonsai trees survive better outside; however, there are some trees capable of indoor cultivation. Compact trees and shrubs with small leaves or needles are ideal specimens for a bonsai project.

Bonsai has nothing to do with dwarfing, a cultivation method where plants are genetically modified to achieve short stature. Rather, bonsai uses cultivation methods such as pruning, wiring, root reduction, defoliation, and grafting to achieve the desired results.

Typically, the plant specimen is placed into a pot that limits its growth while maintaining the short and wide shape of the tree or shrub. It is carefully shaped through pruning and other methods to achieve the aesthetic expectations of bonsai. Once it reaches the desired final results, it is placed into a pot of proper size for display so further growth is restricted by the pot itself. Bonsai trees need careful attention, as they cannot be allowed to grow haphazardly. They will fail to maintain bonsai quality.

Bonsai Containers

Bonsai containers are designed to limit the plant's growth while also allowing them to grow according to bonsai requirements, offering a nice display as well. Bonsai trees must be transplanted periodically to allow some room for growth because even though bonsai is the art of miniaturizing trees and shrubs, they will still outgrow their containers over time. While informal containers and growing boxes can be used during early stages of development and even during some later stages (depending on the plant used), mature bonsai plants are housed in formal bonsai containers. These containers can and do vary in shape, size, and color. Typically, they are ceramic, either glazed or unglazed, and contain drainage holes in the base. Most growers cover these holes with screens to allow water drainage without losing soil and other important components.

Some pots have removable vertical sides to allow for pruning, but there are some that do not, and in some cases, alternative containers are acceptable. Additionally, ceramic containers are not the only option. Some bonsai trees can be grown on rock slabs and simulated rock slabs. Still, the traditional ceramic container is the most formal and most commonly used. The shape of the formal container should be chosen based on the plant's shape, and the color and size should also be chosen as a complement to the plant as well.

Bonsai Techniques

Bonsai success is exclusively dependent on the utilization of specific cultivation techniques. Which techniques you use and how often you use them will depend much on your tree or shrub species.

Select leaves or needles are trimmed from the trunk and branches.The trunk and branches are trimmed to maintain miniature growth.Roots are pruned or reduced.Branches and trunks are wired to create and maintain the form and characteristics of bonsai.Clamping is used for shaping trunks and branches.Grafting is a method used to add new material into a prepared area of an existing bonsai tree.Defoliation is used to reduce foliage growth in certain tree species.There are also specific methods which can be utilized to simulate age and maturity as well.

Bonsai Care

Bonsai trees require specialized care. You cannot neglect them, and must ensure that you are using an appropriate container and the proper techniques to achieve the desired results. Because bonsai trees are miniaturized versions of other various trees grown in nature, proper care is vital to their long-term health.

Like any plant, bonsai trees require regular watering. The frequency required, however, depends on your particular plant's soil requirements: dry, moist, or wet. As your tree grow and ages, you will want to transplant it accordingly, probably several times, into larger containers. In addition to following specific bonsai techniques, it is vital that you obtain specialized tools designed for bonsai cultivation and care. Additionally, your soil and fertilizer should meet the needs of your particular tree species. However, most bonsai soils are a mix of loose and quick-draining elements. Few traditional bonsai trees are capable of surviving indoors, however, there are some species that can. Location is important when determining the amount of light your specific tree needs, as well as the amount of watering.

Bonsai Cost

Growing bonsai trees does not have to be an expensive hobby. Basic costs include your plant source, soil, fertilizer, wire, and specialized tools. Containers will cost the most, as you will need to transplant from time to time, but basic containers are not expensive. You could get a good one for about $15. Your formal container will cost more, ranging from about $30 and up. The heavier and more decorative the container, the more you will spend, and of course, if you are looking for a collectible container for your bonsai plant, that could run you quite a bit of money. Enthusiasts interested in societies and competitions can expect to pay membership and contest entry fees as well.

Bonsai Aesthetics and Style

Bonsai adheres to specific aesthetic rules or goals that help to achieve the desired look and style. The first goal is miniaturization, which allows the tree or shrub to remain small enough to grow in a container while also giving it the same look of age and maturity as normal-sized trees and shrubs. The second goal is proportion among elements. This means keeping the leaves, needles, and branches small so that they do not look out of place on the miniature tree. Goal three is asymmetry in branches and roots. The fourth goals is to avoid showing any obvious trace of the artist by concealing wiring and scars so that when the bonsai is displayed, no obvious marks are seen on the trunk or branches. Finally, the grower seeks to achieve poignancy wherein the grower utilizes the rules and methodology of bonsai to create Wabi-sabi or mono no aware.

The Japanese art of bonsai ascribes to a series of commonly accepted and named styles. Some bonsai trees show overlapping characteristics of multiple styles, and in such cases, they are described with the name of the most dominant style characteristics present.

Some styles are used to describe the orientation of the main trunk at the point where it enters the soil. Formal upright is characterized by a straight and upright, tapering trunk with regular branch progression (thick and broad at the bottom, short and fine at the top). Informal upright displays visible curves are present but the apex appears directly above where the trunk enters into the soil. Slant style possesses a fairly straight trunk, which emerges from the soil at a slight angle with the apex located to the left side of the root base. Cascade style is modeled after plants and trees that grow in water and on mountainsides. In the semi-cascade style, the apex is located at or beneath the edge of the pot and in the full cascade style, the apex is below the base of the bonsai container.

There are other styles that describe the trunk shape and bark texture of the bonsai tree.

Root-Over-Stock

In this style, the roots are wrapped around rock and actually enter the soil at the base of the rock.

Growing-in-a-rock

In this style, soil is contained within the roots and cracks of the rock, and this is where the roots enter the soil.

Forest/Group

Growers plant several trees or shrubs, often more than one species, in a single pot.

Multi-Trunk

All trunks grow in a single pot with a single root system, thus creating a single tree.

Raft-Style

This is the natural occurrence, often caused by erosion, when a tree topples over onto its side. In this case, the roots continue growing, developing new trunks. This occurrence is often deliberately replicated to achieve this specific style.

Other Bonsai Style Classifications

There are a few independent styles that do not fit the aforementioned characteristics. The Literati style is characterized by a bare or almost bare trunk, minimal branches, and foliage primarily concentrated at the top of the tree. The Broom style characterizes fine-branched trees. Elms are a good example. Characteristics include straight trunks, multi-directional branches, and a thick crown of foliage.The Windswept style looks as if it has been affected by a strong wind from a particular direction, causing it to lean more to one side or another.

Size Classifications

While bonsai trees are technically miniature trees, they do vary in size, classified as miniature, medium, and large. The classifications depend on the height and weight of the individual tree. Common names for miniature bonsai include Komono, Maime, Shohin, Shito, and Keshitsubo. Miniature bonsai trees are classified as one-handed, palm-sized, fingertip-sized, and poppy seed-sized. Medium bonsai are either one-handed or two-handed, and common names include Chiu, Chumono, and Katade-mochi. On the larger end of the spectrum, you will find trees ranging from four-handed to eight-handed in size. The most common names for these trees include Imperial Bonsai, Hachi-uye, Dai, and Omono.

Bonsai Competitions

Bonsai competitions are common and highly competitive. Many of these competitions take place all over the world each year, with major competitions occurring in Japan, Malaysia, and the United States. Smaller competitions and galleries, both online and off, are appearing all the time. The American Bonsai Society, founded in 1967, welcomes both hobbyists and professionals with experience in and a talent for the art of bonsai. Their website offers news and tips, as well as membership with many benefits for the bonsai enthusiast. Those interested in US competitions can enter the Joshua Roth Competition and/or the John Naka Award Program.

There is so much more to bonsai trees, and it truly is a lovely landscape art you can truly enjoy if you take the time to learn much about it and put forth the effort to cultivate these enticing and beautiful trees. A bonsai tree is truly a conversation piece, sure to bring awe and praise from all those who see it. Whether you want to cultivate a bonsai tree for competition or to add grandeur to your own lawn or garden, it does not take a lot to get started, and the fruits of your effort will be obvious over time as you enjoy both the techniques and the end results of your bonsai project.

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