Bonsai is an ancient art that originated with the Chinese, not the Japanese as often believed. The Japanese term "bonsai" is descended from a similar Chinese term. A literal translation might be "potted plant", with the single word "bonsai" symbolizing a joining of the "bon" or pot, with the "sai" or plant. Those who see bonsai as an art put as much emphasis on the importance of selecting the container the plant goes into as they do selecting the plant itself!
You've probably noticed I refer to bonsai "plants", not "trees". Bonsai are not just the dwarf Juniper pines in ceramic pots that one usually finds at the mall or a small nursery. In fact, bonsai are not necessarily trees at all... they can be nearly any plant one can think of. They don't even have to be dwarfed examples of a plant, either, although the overwhelming majority of bonsai are in fact stunted or dwarfed by design, as a result of living in a small pot. Bonsai is, to put it in the most basic definition, simply a highly artistic (and for some, spiritual) combination of plant and pot.
Bonsai can be obtained from a number of sources. Various dwarfed tree species that have been suitably potted and usually "finished" to an extent are most often sold as bonsai, and they are an excellent starting point. But there are many (and cheaper!) alternatives to buying plants that have been grown and sold specifically as bonsai. Look around, and you'll find potential bonsai everywhere you turn. Even if you live in the desert, you are in luck - yes, cactus can be bonsai too!
Very few of the bonsai I have today were grown and purchased as such. One of my favorite places to look for bonsai candidates isn't even a florist or a nursery. It's my local "big box" chain store! Big chain stores like Home Depot and Wal-Mart often have garden centers, where they sell shrubs and other small plants that are intended to be unpotted and planted in a garden or lawn back at home. These plants often make great bonsai! Bring 'em home, take 'em out of the throwaway plastic pot they come in, spend an hour or so carefully trimming the root ball of the plant to fit an appropriate bonsai pot of your choice, and viola! You have the beginnings of an inexpensive bonsai. A few weeks later, once the plant has recovered from the root surgery and has acclimated to the new pot, you can begin working on shaping and pruning the branches. It's a good method to make relatively "instant" bonsai, and you will probably have spent more for the bonsai pot than the plant itself!
Another alternative to "store bought" bonsai is to grow bonsai from seed, or just go out and collect your own candidates from nature. I've elected to do the latter (I'll admit that I failed miserably at the former). Several of my bonsai started out life as maple saplings on a forest floor in downeast Maine. I carefully dug them up and brought them home and placed them in bonsai pots. Now in their second year, thanks to careful pruning, they are beginning to branch out thickly and their leaf size is smaller than similar sized maple saplings growing naturally in the back yard. If all goes well, years from now these bonsai will have the appearance of great age despite their small size.
And of course I do have some bonsai bought from a local nursery that specializes in bonsai. This is predictably the most expensive option, but the benefit is that you have a vast choice of exotic species to choose from. Often, the bonsai you can buy are already many years old and have been worked with extensively, giving you a superb looking plant for little personal effort. Such plants do still need regular pruning and maintenance, but since they are already "finished" there is little that needs to be done with them on a frequent basis other than watering, fertilizing, and other basic necessities. Another benefit of buying from bonsai nurseries is, of course, the advice you get from the staff. Many nurseries are also affiliated with bonsai clubs or societies.
The photos here show only a couple of the bonsai I own. Stay tuned for more pictures!
Copyright © 2001 Jonathan N. White. All rights reserved.