Bonsai is the ancient Japanese craft of dwarfing trees. Forest giants, such as pines, maples, beeches, and spruces have been successfully maintained in shallow containers for a hundred years or more while restricted to a height of mere inches (Figures 12-10 and 12-11).
In the hands of a skilled bonsaist, the containerized tree acquires a mature appearance but in miniature. The same shaping, molding, and damage by wind and storms that determine the noble, often craggy character of a tree in nature are interpreted in the bonsai. So much of
the Japanese concept of landscape gardening is related to the symbolism of nature in miniature (see Chapter 9) that their fondness for bonsai is understandable.
Even more than espalier or topiary, bonsai requires time and patience (Figure 12-12). All bonsais require several years even to begin developing a shape suggestive of a full-sized tree. Many successful bonsais outlive the gardeners who work with them. Therefore, the ancient bonsai trees have been developed and cared for by a series of horticulturists, each one appreciative and respectful of the work done on the plant in the past.
Obviously, bonsai development is not easy. Although it has great popular appeal, it has proved too time-consuming for most hobbyists to pursue. Also, many people, believing the bonsai to be a houseplant, have been disappointed when it responded to its place of honor on the coffee table by dying. Most modern homes are too warm, too dry, and too dimly lit for the traditional woody species of the temperate zone to survive as bonsais. More recently, species from the subtropics and tropics have been tested as bonsai plants and many have proved highly
figure 12-12. A bonsaied camellia started in 1964. The extensive wiring indicates that it is still in its training stage. (Delmar/Cengage Learning. Photo by Jack Ingels.)
satisfactory, at least for the Western market. Bonsai purists would probably not approve.
Use of traditional, temperate-zone, woody species for bonsais necessitates that they be treated in some ways like other woody plants. They must be kept outdoors most of the time, perhaps on the patio or porch, and only brought in occasionally for indoor display. They may need a period of dormancy during the winter but will not tolerate severely cold weather for extended periods. During their indoor visits, bonsais need plenty of light, cool daytime temperatures (about 68° F), and even cooler temperatures at night (from 62° to 65° F).
Whether temperate-zone trees or houseplants are selected, the bonsai usually begins its development as a seedling or sapling, although it is possible to use a commercially produced containerized nursery shrub or to collect from the wild. A few nurseries specialize in the production of young plants suitable for bonsai development.