Bonsai - The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees

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Bonsai [盆栽] is a Japanese art form that produces miniature trees. Its name literally means "tree on a tray" or "tree in a vase". In this article, we are going to talk a little about this Japanese art of growing miniature trees.

Bonsai trees are not genetically small, they are small because of their container, restriction of root growth and because of grafting. It also receives less fertilizer and nitrogen, and is moderately wet.

A bonsai needs to have other attributes besides simply being in a shallow pot. The plant must be a replica of a miniature nature tree. This art is also cultivated by other cultures like Chinese Penzai or Viatnemita Hon Non Bo.


It should simulate the growth patterns and the effects of gravity on the branches, in addition to the time marks and general structure of the branches. Essentially it is a work of art produced by man through specialized care.

Bonsai - a arte japonesa de árvores em miniatura

What is the purpose of Bonsai?

The objectives of bonsai are mainly contemplation for the viewer and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity for the grower.

In contrast to other plant cultivation practices, bonsai is not intended for the production of food or medicine. Instead, bonsai practice focuses on long-term cultivation and the formation of one or more small trees in a pot.

Sometimes, the practice of bonsai is confused with dwarfism, but dwarfism usually refers to the research, discovery or creation of plants that are permanent genetic miniatures of existing species.


Plant dwarfism generally uses selective breeding or genetic engineering to create dwarf cultivars. Bonsai does not require genetically dwarf trees, but depends on growing small trees with regular stock and seeds.

Bonsai uses cultivation techniques such as pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation and grafting to produce small trees that mimic the shape and style of mature, life-size trees.

What is the origin of Bonsai?

This art has been practiced for over 1000 years and is associated with a wide range of rituals, techniques and terms. Despite the strong association between bonsai cultivation and Japanese culture, it was actually the Chinese who first cultivated trees and shrubs in ceramic pots.


There is evidence that, already in 200 AD, the Chinese cultivated potted plants (better known as Penjing) as a usual practice of their gardening activity. The word Bonsai came from Chinese Penzai.

Japanese bonsai art originated from Chinese practice from the 6th century, officials from the imperial embassy and Buddhist students from Japan visited and returned from mainland China. They brought back a lot of Chinese ideas and goods, including container plants.

Over time, these container plantations began to appear in Japanese writings and representative art. In the medieval period, recognizable bonsai were portrayed in hand roller paintings such as Ippen shonin eden (1299).


A close relationship between Japanese Zen Buddhism and potted trees began to shape the reputation and aesthetics of bonsai. During this period, Chinese Buddhist monks taught in the monasteries of Japan.

One of the monks' activities was to present political leaders with various miniature landscape arts, as admirable achievements for men of good taste and knowledge. The arrangements of that period included miniature figures, in the Chinese style.

Bonsai - a arte japonesa de árvores em miniatura

The history of Bonsai in Japan

Japanese artists finally adopted a simpler style for bonsai, increasing the focus on the tree by removing miniatures and other decorations and using smaller, simpler pots. A long history of Bonsai began in Japan.

Around the 14th century, the term for dwarf pot trees was Hachi no Ki [鉢の木] which literally means tree in the bowl. By the end of the 18th century, bonsai cultivation in Japan was spreading and began to interest the general public.

One of the oldest known bonsai trees, considered one of Japan's national treasures, can be seen in the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection. It is a five-needle pine with more than 500 years old called Sandai-Shogun-no-Matsu.

In Japan, after 1800, bonsai began to move away from the esoteric practice of some experts to become an art form and a widely popular hobby. Scholars came together in the early 19th century to discuss recent styles in Bonsai art.

The Japanese version of potted trees, which used to be called hachiue or other terms, was renamed to bonsai in the 19th century. It took almost a century for that name to spread in Japan and spread to the West.

After the Second World War, several trends made the Japanese bonsai tradition more and more accessible to Western and world audiences. An important trend was the increase in the number, scope and prominence of bonsai exhibitions.


Several world events and conventions began to emerge, gaining space and appreciation from the Western public. A third trend was the increasing availability of specialized bonsai training, followed by specialized stock of plants and components.

Bonsai - a arte japonesa de árvores em miniatura

How is a Bonsai grown?

A bonsai is created by starting with a sample of source material. It can be a cut, seedling or small tree of a species suitable for the development of bonsai. To grow a Bonsai, there are 3 known practices: 

  • Misho - Grown from seed;
  • Yamadori - Grown from seedling;
  • Alporque - Asexual reproduction method of plants that causes adventitious roots to appear;

Bonsai can be created from almost all perennial tree or woody tree species that produce true branches and can be grown to remain small through confinement in pots with crown and root pruning.

Some species are popular as bonsai because they have characteristics, such as small leaves or needles, that make them suitable for the compact visual scope of the bonsai.

The source sample is modeled to be relatively small and to meet the aesthetic standards of bonsai. When the candidate bonsai approaches the planned final size, it is planted in a display pot.


From that moment on, its growth is restricted by the environment of the vessel. Throughout the year, bonsai is shaped to limit growth, redistribute leaf vigor to areas that require further development and meet the artist's detailed design.

Bonsai Care

A bonsai should always be pruned for branch renewal and rejuvenation. Troubled branches, badly positioned or dead, are removed, less healthy leaf areas are removed. 

Pruning is fundamental for bonsai, a basic structure is established, problems are avoided, the energies (force) of growth are balanced or diverted.

Bonsai - a arte japonesa de árvores em miniatura

Bonsai Types, Sizes and Styles

Bonsai can be separated by styles, types of trees and sizes. Below we show the most common styles and sizes.

Bonsai Sizes

Japanese bonsai exhibitions and catalogs often refer to the size of individual bonsai specimens. There are several specific techniques and styles associated with certain sizes.

Broad Bonsai——-——-
Common nameClassificationTree Height 
Imperial bonsaiEight hands152–203 cm (60–80 in)
Hachi-uyeSix hands102–152 cm (40–60 in)
SoFour hands76–122 cm (30–48 in)
OmonoFour hands76–122 cm (30–48 in)
Medium bonsai ——-——-
Common nameClassificationTree Height 
ChiuTwo hands41–91 cm (16–36 in)
ChumonoTwo hands41–91 cm (16–36 in)
Katade-mochiWith one hand25–46 cm (10–18 in)
Miniature Bonsai——-——-
Common nameClassificationTree Height 
KomonoWith one hand15–25 cm (6–10 in)
ShohinWith one hand13–20 cm (5–8 in)
MamePalm size5–15 cm (2–6 in)
ShitoFingertip size5–10 cm (2–4 in)
KeshitsuboPoppy seed size3–8 cm (1–3 in)

Bonsai Styles

See below the Bonsai styles and what they have in common:

  • Chokan: Formal upright style;
  • Moyogi: Informal upright style;
  • Shakan: Inclined style;
  • Kengai: Cascading style;
  • Han-kengai: Semi-cascade style;
  • Fukinagashii: Swept by the wind;
  • Hokidashi: Broom style;
  • Bunjingi: Literati style;
  • Takosukuri: Tentacle style;
  • Nejikan: Dragon style;
  • Bankan: Spiral style;
  • Sharimiki: Dead wood style;
  • Sabamiki: Dead wood style;
  • Sekijoju: Root style on stone;
  • Ishisuki: Tree on rock style;
  • Neagari: Exposed roots style;
  • Soju: Mother and son style;
  • Sokan: Double trunk style;
  • Tosho: Triple trunk style;
  • Kabudashi: Interconnected tree style;
  • Netsunagari: Winding raft style;
  • Ikadabuki: Straight raft style;
  • Yose Ue: Forest style;
  • Penjing: Miniature landscape style;

Types of Bonsai - Trees

The types of trees used in Bonsai are endless, but here we separate the best known to make a short list:

  • Acer
  • Acerola
  • Blackberry
  • Arrack
  • Aroeira
  • Azalea
  • Bertholletia excelsa
  • Bougainvillea
  • Buxinho
  • Calistemo
  • Carmona (genus)
  • Cherry tree
  • night's-lady
  • Eugenics
  • False-erica
  • Ficus
  • Gabiroba
  • Ilex
  • Ipe
  • Jabuticaba
  • Lantana
  • Privet
  • Apple tree
  • Malpighia
  • Nandina
  • Paineira
  • Mulatto
  • Pistachio
  • Pitangueira
  • Reseda
  • Pomegranate
  • Schefflera
  • Serissa
  • Taxodium
  • Ulmus

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