How Do Bonsai Trees Work?

Maybe you’ve gotten super into collecting houseplants after reading about why everyone is adopting a succulent now. But then instead of getting a succulent you got a bonsai tree because you thought it would really tie the room together. Now that you have a bonsai tree, you’re probably looking at the little guy wondering how it looks like a normal size tree just shrunken down to desk-size. So what’s up with that? How do bonsai trees work?

Where Did They Come from?

Linguistically, the word “bonsai” (盆栽) literally just means “tray planting,” which is accurate to what bonsai-anything looks like if you’ve ever seen a bonsai tree. While bonsai is a Japanese practice, it is derived from the Chinese penjing (盆景)–also directly translating to “tray plant.” This tradition dates pretty far back, with the earliest known art depicting miniature plants dating to the year 706. A spattering of references (more informally) to the shrinking natural landscapes dates as far back as the 3rd century. However, opposed to bonsai, penjing is more focused on capturing natural scenes, rather than the individual tree that bonsai captures. Alternatively penjing is referred to as penzai, which is how Japan got bonsai (and it’s bonsai that made its way to English as a catchall for forms of potted planting).

The root remains the same, bonsai is a meditative art about capturing nature. Bonsai ended up migrating from China to Japan and turning into an established art form by the 13th century, with heavy influence from Zen Buddhism. Bonsai made its way to western nations in the 20th century afterwards.

How Does it Work?

At first glance, bonsai doesn’t seem very complicated–it’s just a small tree. Especially today, where we can just make plants smaller. While we didn’t have a mastery of genetic modification in the 13th century you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking bonsai trees were just selectively bred over time to be small. 

If that is what you thought, you’re about to be a lot more impressed by bonsai trees–because they’re straight up normal trees. The roots of the tree have to be modified and grown differently; they are often exposed above ground with the trunk to make the potted tree seem older. As far as shape goes, this is often controlled as the tree grows with wires–kind of like how you can influence how a plant grows by wrapping it around a stick. 

Each part of the bonsai tree has to be meticulously altered as it grows, from its branches to the shape of its trunk–since if you were to plant the seed normally it would just grow into a normal-sized big tree. The tree’s size is mostly controlled through pruning, as the exposed roots and shaped trunks are more part of the art form. Pruning the branches is required to control the tree’s size (and future shape), and it can be as simple as just cutting big branches. Sometimes the process is more complicated and will require you to remove all of the foliage at once. So beyond the spiritual and meditative aspect of looking at a tiny tree, much of the spirituality is derived from the meticulous attention required for their care.

It’s so meticulous that this care is sometimes multi-generational. One of the oldest known bonsai trees is the Ficus Retusa Linn, which has been kicking around for over 1000 years. You can find it in the Italian Crespi Bonsai museum, and it also lives in the biggest bonsai pot. So… Getting into bonsai as your houseplant hobby of choice is probably going to be a lot more involved than just picking up a succulent or funny-looking cactus.

Here’s a tree-themed logic puzzle. Bonus points for miniaturizing all of them.