Master gardener: bonding with bonsai

Bonsai, literally translated, means “tree in a pot”.

However, bonsai are more than just a potted plant. They are naturally dwarf trees that are trained to look like mature trees in the wild. Trees are living sculptures residing in a container carefully selected to fit in harmony with the tree.

The art originated in ancient China where trees and shrubs were first grown in pots to make their leaves, bark and roots easily accessible for medicinal purposes. Soon these plants were grown in pots to enjoy for their beauty.

The art made its way to Japan, where the Japanese honed it to a high standard. They introduced strict rules, defined styles and shapes, and also developed specialized tools for use in tree design. Today in Japan there are trees that are hundreds of years old, passed down from generation to generation. It has become an important industry as well as an important art.

Bonsai has become synonymous with Japan and many people new to bonsai believe the plants should look like those pictured in books or featured in movies like “The Karate Kid”. The belief exists that bonsai trees are specialized plants and only these can be grown as bonsai trees.

In reality, bonsai trees are not mysterious, exotic or from any particular tree species. Bonsai can be grown from any woody tree or shrub that naturally has small leaves or needles so that they appear to be in proportion when the tree is dwarfed. The art is to design the tree to reflect all the natural beauty and appearance of a tree found in nature, even if it is only a fraction of the size of the specimen.

The Japanese cultivated many of their native plants for bonsai. Most of them are pine styles, like the classic Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora). Many American bonsai trees create and style bonsai trees from Japanese and Asian plants, but here in the United States we have some wonderful species that can be grown into exceptional bonsai trees.

Some favorites that immediately come to mind are American Bald Cypress, Pitch Pine, American Hornbeam, American Larch, and Eastern Red Cedar.

These are just a short list of the many amazing plants we have on hand!

Getting native hardware can also be interesting. There are three main sources of suitable trees. One can buy from a local nursery, grow a plant from a seedling, or harvest from the wild when permitted. The latter can bring great satisfaction and exciting discoveries. Additionally, many desirable native species such as Eastern Red Cedar are not available as bonsai material at local nurseries.

Another benefit of using natives is that our native trees and shrubs are already acclimated to our climate. They thrive in our environment, which makes it much easier to maintain the health of the plant in question. When importing species from Japan, special attention should be paid to maintaining the health of the plant.

It is important to know our own native species as well as the Japanese know theirs. By developing an intimate knowledge of the different growth habits and physiological responses of our natives through careful observation of trees and shrubs, we will be able to get the most out of our native plants suitable for bonsai.

New and current bonsai artists can develop a quintessentially American style using native materials and they can enjoy the best of nature from season to season without venturing farther than their own home or garden!

Here is a short list of native trees suitable for bonsai:

  • American bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)
  • Pine Pine (rigid pinus)
  • Atlas blue cedar (Cedrus Atlantica var. Glauca)
  • American charm (Carpinus caroliniana)
  • American snow bell (American Styrax)
  • American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens)
  • common beech (Fagus sylvatica)
  • wild apple (Sylvester malus)

Jane Black is a master gardener from York County. Penn State Master Gardeners are volunteers for Penn State Cooperative Extension. For more information, contact the Master Gardener office at 717-840-7408 or [email protected]

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