A bonsai is a plant or a tree which is grown in a miniature form to resemble the fully-grown or more mature version of the exact same plant or tree. A bonsai is grown in a container, however, just growing the plant in a container does not automatically make it a bonsai. The plant or tree must look good and must closely resemble a mature version found growing naturally.
All too often one sees little conifers and seedling trees planted in plastic trays or ceramic pots which are passed off as bonsai. Unfortunately these cannot really be called bonsai as they have no artistic character whatsoever. This is not to say that they have no long-term potential to become nice bonsai. However they would need to be worked on and refined before they could begin to be called artistic pot plants, which is what bonsai are.
A bonsai must have an aesthetic quality about it, otherwise it will be no different from an ordinary nursery or garden center plant. The scale must also be right. Thus it pays to find plants which have interesting trunks and small leaves since these will be more in keeping with the scale of the bonsai. They will also need some initial shaping and training in order to make them resemble more closely their full-grown counterparts in nature. Only in this way can the potential beauty of ordinary plants and shrubs be brought out to the full as bonsai. Most ordinary plants have potential for bonsai — some more so than others; the bonsai artist’s job is to draw this out using all the various skills at his or her disposal.
What makes Bonsai dwarf?
A bonsai is not a naturally occurring dwarf species. Almost any tree or plant can be miniaturized. What makes a tree small is a combination of branch pruning and confinement in a container to restrict its growth. Just as a hedge would soon become unkempt and out of control unless pruned regularly once or twice a year, so a bonsai will become a mass and tangle of branches if its shoots are left to grow completely unchecked. Confining the roots in a container will restrict its vigor to a large extent and consequently the leaves and the spaces between leaves (the internodes) will become progressively smaller and tighter.
Does a bonsai have to be old to be nice? Not all bonsai have to be old to be nice. A relatively young tree can be made to look very authentic and attractive by rudimentary shaping and pruning. It is a fallacy that all bonsai have to be old to be nice, and, increasingly, more and more people are beginning to recognize that a bonsai must first and foremost be beautiful in order to be appealing. Age, though important, is of less significance. There are some very ancient and beautiful bonsai in China and Japan which have been cared for over many generations and which as a result have incredible refinement. Not only are they very beautiful to look at, but the mere fact that they are so old commands a reverence all of its own.
Indoor or outdoor?
The natural environment of any Bonsai is the open air and this makes them naturally an outdoor plant or tree. However, because of the increasing interest in indoor plants, certain Mediterranean and tropical varieties of tree are being grown for use as ‘indoor bonsai’. These are very similar to the plants sold by florists’ shops and garden centers. Varieties include the small-leaved ficus, olive, pistachio, pomegranate and so on. You should however recognize that all indoor trees and plants benefit from being in the open during the warmer summer months because all plants love sunshine, fresh air and rain.
Houseplants, and by the same token, indoor bonsai, benefit from being kept outside in the summer where their leaves are encouraged to become greener and their growth is ‘tightened’ by shortening of the internodal spaces, I.e. the spaces between each pair of leaves. A spell outdoors in the summer will do your indoor bonsai a world of good.
It is important to recognize the difference between indoor and outdoor bonsai as their growing conditions are quite different. Given the right care and attention indoor bonsai can be as interesting to grow as the traditional hardy outdoor varieties.