If an alien came to Earth and asked you to describe trees, what would you say? What kinds of things about trees stick out to you…besides their branches, of course? In addition to talking about woody trunks and leafy branches, you’d probably talk about how TALL they can be.

But not all trees are tall. In fact, some trees are specifically grown and cultivated in a way to create beautiful, artistic, miniature versions of what would otherwise be large trees.

We call this practice the Japanese art form of bonsai. Bonsai comes from the Japanese words meaning “plantings in tray.” This accurately describes bonsai, which are trees and shrubs grown in small containers.

Some people misunderstand bonsai. Some believe that bonsai are one specific type of tree that only grows in a miniature form. Others believe that bonsai is a general term for any type of miniature tree.

According to Japanese tradition, though, bonsai is a specific art form with its own goals and methods. Bonsai is not meant to produce food or medicine or gardens. Instead, it is focused on the careful growth and shaping of individual trees in a container.

Bonsai has been around hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Picture scrolls from the 1300s have been found that feature bonsai.

Just about any perennial woody tree or shrub that has branches can be used for bonsai. Even though some of these trees or shrubs might usually grow to be quite large, bonsai techniques keep the tree in a miniature form through confinement to a small container.

Trees with small leaves or needles make particularly-good specimens for bonsai. Some of the most popular tree species used for bonsai include needle junipers, firs, birches, pomegranates and Japanese red pines and maples.

Careful and artful pruning is one of the key elements of bonsai. The upper branches must be pruned with care to create a miniature tree with natural beauty. Pruning of the roots is also often necessary to encourage plant health while still restricting growth.

Engaging in the art form of bonsai is much more complicated than growing your average potted flower. Artfully crafting bonsai takes commitment, as well as significant knowledge of the trees involved and an artistic eye for the tree’s natural beauty. The end goal is a miniature tree that expresses the beauty, shape and style of the full-size version of the tree.

Although bonsai comes from Japan, it has grown as an art form all around the world. You may even be able to find bonsai enthusiasts near where you live. Botanical gardens all over the world often feature bonsai exhibits. If you ever get the chance, be sure to check them out. You’ll be amazed by these miniature, living works of art!


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