I always find these little trees somewhat pleasing and almost serene, they have an air of delicacy and a zen-like feel. The name ‘Bonsai’ is a Japanese word meaning ‘tree in a pot’ but the term originally comes from the Chinese word ‘pun-sai’ or ‘penjing.’ In Chinese, ‘pen’ means pot and ‘jing’ means scenery or landscape. Bonsai trees are intended to be a miniature representation of nature, planted within decorative containers. When it comes to the Japanese art and science of Bonsai, it uses masterful and careful pruning, training, and care techniques, creating a miniature version of a wild tree, naturally realistic and beautiful.
Enthusiasts are sometimes skilled enough to care for a collection of different ones, with many different styles they can be shaped into, each having its own name.
Almost any tree or shrub can be turned into a bonsai, they are not a special type of dwarf tree. Specifically, bonsai is created from perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrub species that produce true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement with crown and root pruning. In Japan, the Sandai-Shogun-no-matsu in the famous Tokyo Palace refers to a white pine type of bonsai tree, which is believed to be more than 500 years old. It is considered the oldest known and existing specimen of bonsai worldwide.
My husband used to have a bonsai tree years ago, he would spend a lot of time with a pair of nail scissors snipping and critically examining it from all angles, and then I am afraid I managed to kill it off, shamefully because I hadn’t bothered to take the time to find out about its care.
I have now found out (too late!) that the main cause of ‘Bonsai deaths’ is under watering – they are shallow rooted and are prone to drying out. They are pernickety plants and can just decide to die quickly if they aren’t cared for properly, so you would be wise to get a book or learn as much as you can before purchasing, or if you are gifted one, make sure you check out how to care for it.
The tricky parts
Watering is the tricky part and should be watered when the top layer of soil appears dry. Depending on the type and size of the tree, together with the type of soil used, they might need watering as much as once a day, so rather than sticking to a routine, it’s best to check frequently. You need to fully saturate the root system, to keep watering until water escapes through the drain holes underneath, and I think most bonsai trees come complete with a little tray underneath to collect excess water.
Conversely, overwatering is just as bad, and will cause yellowing leaves and the shriveling of smaller branches. The roots drown in water and are deprived of oxygen which prevents further growth, with the cause possibly just due to poor-draining soil. So the best solution would be to check it daily.
Another tricky bit is the shaping, sometimes branches are wired to make them grow into a desired shape, and there are clubs and online courses for serious bonsai gardeners.
Where to put your bonsai? Some can be placed outside, depending on the type of tree – common species for bonsai are juniper, pine and spruce, and should be exposed to the seasons, the same as their ‘grown up’ counterparts. Included are deciduous trees that lose their leaves, and include maple, elms and ginko. Wherever you decide to display one, they don’t like direct sun, so that’s something to bear in mind. Indoor bonsai trees are typically subtropical species that thrive in stable temperatures throughout the year. These include jade plants, Hawaiian umbrella trees, and ficus trees.
So, tools are next. You can buy the cutest of miniature sets of tools, including special pairs of scissors, miniature rakes and shovels, tweezers – even mini watering cans – it just depends how much of a perfectionist you are, but mostly you can use things you probably already have – an old teaspoon maybe - and as I said before, nail scissors worked for my husband!