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An Introduction to Bonsai

From the Archives: This post was originally featured in the May 2014 edition of The Garden Path magazine.

An Introduction to Bonsai: Provided by Dave DeGroot, Curator, Weyerhauser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection

The word “bonsai” is derived from two Chinese written characters (kanji), the first of which means “tray,” “basin,” or “pot,” and the second of which means “planting.” So, it is a planting in a container, or potted plant. The literal translation is utterly inadequate for understanding the word “bonsai,” which has evolved to mean an artistically shaped woody plant that is intended to suggest the image of a mature tree in nature.

Characteristics of bonsai are:

A bonsai is an artistic representation of a mature tree that suggests a scene in nature.

A bonsai asks the viewer to see beyond the physical plant to a world beyond. Any woody plant material (tree, vine, shrub or herb) can be used to produce a tree-like shape by means of selective pruning.

Bonsai of quality have an artistic plan. 

Merely planting a tree in a pot does not make it a bonsai, nor is a tree a bonsai merely because it is strange, exotic, or grotesque. A quality bonsai is shaped according to well-established artistic principles to create a beautiful  effect.

Bonsai are, by definition, grown in containers.

A tree shaped as a bonsai but left in the ground is a garden specimen, as is a tree grown in a planter that is too large to be proportionate, or unrelated to the design of the tree. A bonsai includes the container as an essential part of the artistic composition.

A bonsai is not a scale model of a tree,perfect in every detail.

It is really more of a suggestion, in which the artist selects specific features of  a large, old tree in nature (such as root spread, diameter of the base, and  proportion of the trunk diameter to height) and exaggerates them in order to create a strong impression. A bonsai will always be an incomplete, idealized, somewhat abstract representation of a natural tree.