Bonsai trees are perfect for herbal medicine

This story originally appeared in the Calm issue of popular science. Current subscribers can access the entire digital edition here, or click here to subscribe.

Walk the path to the Crespi Bonsai Museum in Milan and you’ll come across a tree that has thrived for over 1,000 years. This 10-foot millennial, flanked by manicured plants that have also lived for centuries, soaks up the Italian sun under a glass pagoda while expert groomers tend to her needs. Long-time bonsai enthusiasts like them may find the process more relaxing than difficult, and home versions of the specimens offer beginners an easy and satisfying way to unwind.

Bonsai loosely translates to “cultivated tray,” a reference to the Japanese practice of growing plants in pots that dates back to the 6th century or earlier. The method works with a wide assortment of flora, from those that live perfectly indoors, such as small tea trees (Carmona microphylla), to varieties that love the outdoors, such as eastern red cedars (Junipurus virginia).

The tree represented here is a Chinese banyan (Ficus microcarp), a common bonsai for beginners thanks to its warm nature and a suitable cousin inside the Milanese masterpiece. It grows natively in the Asian tropics and Australia, and its happy place is similar to that of humans: anywhere between 55 and 80 degrees and with some humidity in the air. It only needs water about once a week, and experienced gardeners will eventually learn to more accurately gauge whether it’s thirsty based on the weight of the pot. Like any plant, it requires fresh soil, but only every one to three years, that is when the sturdy root system – constrained by a strong stone vessel – must be pruned regularly.

While the common image of bonsai maintenance involves a lot of pruning, most trees, including ficus, only require occasional trimming. Cutting off a branch with two leaves after it has grown six or eight is all it takes. Advanced groomers can wrap wires around the rods to gently mold them into pleasing shapes.

With enough attention, the Chinese banyan tree will grow into an impressive miniature. Eventually, aerial roots will descend from the branches like organic party streamers, as if to celebrate that you’re a great plant parent. And with proper care, this happy little tree could live for centuries.

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