The Biology of Bonsai: The Science Behind the Traditional Japanese Art Form
The art of bonsai originated in China. Subsequently refined in Japan, his techniques produce miniature trees that provide aesthetic pleasure to people throughout Asia and the world beyond. This appreciation is reflected in the street couple interview footage incorporated into “The Biology Behind Bonsai Trees”, the above video from Youtuber Jonny Lim, better known as The Backpacking Biologist. Not only does Lim garner positive bonsai opinions around Los Angeles, but he also finds a bonsai nursery in that same city run by Bob Pressler, who has spent more than half a century mastering the art.
Even Pressler admits that he doesn’t fully understand bonsai biology. Lim’s search for scientific answers sends him to “something called the apical meristem.” It is the part of the tree made up of “stem cells found at the tips of shoots and roots”. Stem cells, as you may recall from their long stint in the news a few years ago, have the potential to transform into any type of cell.
The cells of bonsai trees are the same size as those of ordinary trees, according to research, but thanks to the deliberate cutting of the roots and the resulting restriction of nutrients to the apical meristem, their leaves are composed of fewer cells in total. Lim draws an analogy with baking cookies of different sizes: “The components are exactly the same. The only difference is that bonsai have less starting material.
Having gained his own appreciation for bonsai, Lim also becomes poetic about how these miniature trees “still grow in the face of adversity, and they do so perfectly.” But as one commentator responds, “Why recreate adversity?” Claiming that the process “crippled the trees for mere aesthetics,” this individual presents one of the known cases against bonsai. But this case, according to the experts Lim consults, is based on some common misconceptions about the processes involved: that the wires used to position the branches “torture” the trees, for example. But as others point out, do those making these anti-bonsai arguments feel equally pained by the many lawns that are mowed each week?
The art and philosophy of bonsai
This 392-year-old bonsai survived the Hiroshima atomic explosion and is still thriving today: the power of resilience
What makes the art of bonsai so expensive? : $1 million for a bonsai tree and $32,000 for bonsai scissors
The art of creating a bonsai: a year condensed into 22 fascinating minutes
Daisugi, the 600-year-old Japanese technique of growing trees from other trees, creating perfectly straight wood
Digital animation compares tree sizes: from 3-inch bonsai to 300-foot redwood
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter city books, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshallon Facebook or Instagram.