The word bonsai is pronounced bone sigh, bon means tray or pot and sai means plant. Bonsai refers to the plant being miniaturized as well as to the technique used. Bonsai originated in China about 1200 years ago as a way of putting woody plants in containers in courtyards. As the plants became dwarfed in the containers, they became more highly prized. The Japanese perfected the art as we know it today beginning about 700 years ago. Today the art of bonsai is a popular hobby in the U.S. Bonsai can be the source of immense pleasure and inspiration.

Bonsai traditionally refers to a tree or shrub, but today it may refer to any miniaturized plant, including herbaceous plants. Succulents are often used for bonsai today.

The first bonsai were collected in nature and intended to evoke the spirit of nature. Often they were found in out of the way places, steep hillsides, rocky soil and other areas that naturally restricted their growth. Old landscapes often have plants that make excellent bonsai.

Viewing a bonsai should be a form of rest in the hectic pace of daily life. A single bonsai may suggest an entire scene in nature.

Bonsai may be formal, following specific rules, or they may be informal, not adhering to any specific set of rules. There are many types of bonsai and several schools of thought as to how they should be trained.

Bonsai usually appear to be old though they may not be very old. Today it is common to take a genetically small cultivar of a shrub such as juniper, grown to a larger size in the nursery and then training it almost overnight into a plant that resembles bonsai. These are then offered for sale from pickup trucks on many street corners in large cities. Although these plants are relatively cheap, a better way to start the hobby is to acquire plants from bonsai nurseries and bring them in training based on the structure that the plant suggests.

To get ideas for your bonsai, study plants in nature, especially old, weathered specimens.

The objectives of this exercise are to learn about bonsai and to start training a plant as a bonsai. A secondary objective is to learn the art of pruning and reinforce it by pruning the plant as a bonsai.

CHARACTERISTICS OS PLANTS THAT MAKE GOOD BONSAI: Plants that make good bonsai have the following characteristics:

  small leaves good twig form
  short internodes survive container culture
  attractive bark or roots survive intense pruning

Some examples of plants with these characteristics are azalea, quince, wisteria, elms, cedars, arbor vitae, pomegranate, maples, oaks, cypress, boxwood, pyracantha, pines and junipers.

Plants with major tap roots that can not survive when the tap root has been shortened do not work well as bonsai. Plants with large leaves do not look appropriate since the leaf size is not reduced significantly in the bonsai process. Plants with long internodes would not have adequate branch development since the internodes do not shorten significantly. Providing the climatic requirements of a plant that does not occur in your area can be very difficult and make the bonsai expensive to maintain. Therefore, it is important to choose plants that are adapted to your region. There are many local bonsai chapters in Texas. All of these bonsai fanciers have ideas and technique to share and are very willing to do so. This could include lists of native plants that are excellent specimens for bonsai and special techniques that help the bonsai gain the appearance or age much faster than happens naturally.

SOME BASIC STYLES: There are many styles of bonsai. Some of the more common styles are sketched below. A good way to choose a style is to look at the pictures in a book about bonsai or to look at pictures on bonsai on the web.


The steps in making a bonsai are relatively simple. In the end remember that training bonsai is an art. Something that is learned by doing as much as by reading about doing it.

  1. choose a desirable plant or style
  2. choose a style appropriate for the plant or a plant that can be trained in the desired style
  3. examine the plant carefully and for the style chosen , establish front and back
  4. remember that the appearance of maturity is important
  5. the rule of three is a common principle to employ, the triangle of heaven, man and earth.
  6. begin pruning growth that is undesirable to see better the plant and its potential for the style
  7. observe the trimmed plant from several angles and from across the room as well as close up
  8. continue to shape the plant to the style, remembering that the plant will work with you, making new growth to continue the development of the style

Some specific guidelines for training the parts of the plant follow. These are generalizations and will vary from one type of plant to another and from on e style to another.

Trunk: The trunk is central to the development of the style chosen. Establish a front for the bonsai and, therefore, a front of the trunk. As a general rule the height of the trunk will be siz times the thickness of the trunk at the base. This will not apply to very young plants that have increased in height without increasing in girth. Thickness to the trunk is desirable as it is the most obvious feature to reflect age. Curves in the trunk are attractive, but the trunk should only have one or two curves or their effect is diminished and the bonsai looks complicated rather than simple. The trunk should taper to the top. It should recede away from the viewer when viewed from the front as this will give the plant depth. If the trunk slants forward as the trunk increases in height it will look unbalanced. Remember that if the desired front of the plant does not lean slightly backward, this can be achieved by repositioning the plant in the container. Stripping some bark from the trunk, a technique common with some junipers, can give the plant a weathered, aged look.

Branches: The branches display the leaves and enhance the appearance of the trunk. A few well-trained branches are better than many. Branches should not come out to the front of the bonsai except in the upper portion of the tree. Branches are usually horizontal or angled downward to indicate age. In upright and slanting forms the first branch is usually about one third the way up the trunk. In a cascade form the first branch should come out the back and go upward. Branches should be balanced and not arranged symmetrically. Branches should be narrower that the trunk and should appear narrow from the front and taper to their tips. Branches should not cross the trunk in front. Parallel branches, twisted and tangled branched should be removed and branches that are thicker in the middle or end portions that at the trunk should be removed.

Foliage: Plants with small leaves are usually the easiest to train. Small, compact leaves in a few dense clusters are desirable. Too many clusters of leaves will complicate the bonsai. Simplicity is desirable so that the overall style is apparent. Sparse foliage indicates and unhealthy tree, but thick foliage that obscures the trunk is undesirable. The leaves should reveal and complement the trunk and branches. Pruning foliage is should be done carefully. Snipping leaves will work for plants with larger leaves, but smaller leaves, such as the needles of junipers, should be plucked from the plant with forceps.

Roots: Plant that are desirable for bonsai usually have good surface roots. The crown should be visible and the tops of major roots should be visible in part. Avoid crossing and encircling roots. A large exposed root should be limited to the back so that it does not compete for attention with the trunk.

The container chosen should complement the style of the bonsai. Deep containers are for cascade types. Shallow round, oval or rectangular containers are for upright forms. Plants are often kept in inexpensive training containers until they have reached a size and quality to the exhibited in special bonsai containers. Training containers may be plastic or clay and should be similar in shape and size to the display container that will be used.


While bonsai may be found in the wild, most are either obtained from nurseries or from old landscapes. Bonsai nurseries usually maintain a large collection of suitable, untrained plants. Local nurseries often have odd-shaped plants that are undesirable for the landscape, that have been picked-over by customers, somewhere on the site and these, too, can make excellent plants for training. If you are buying a plant, be sure to have a style in mind before you leave the nursery with it.
Training bonsai is often done at different times of the year, based on the species. This is especially important for root pruning. Junipers are usually pruned in the fall but most other bonsai are trained in the spring.
Begin work on your bonsai by preparing the training container. Take the bonsai out of its existing container and cut the root mass in half. Then cut the plastic container in half. Set the plant on top of the inverted container and this will provide a good way to view the plant as you prune it.
Remove litter and some of the soil from the base of the crown. This will give a better view of the trunk and the top of the roots. Don’t prune the roots in this first session. Concentrate on the top of the plant, the trunk, branches and leaves. The root system would be pruned further after the plant has adjusted to the initial pruning of the root and shoot.
Start pruning by removing dead growth, weak growth and undesirable branches. An example of undesirable branches would be the branches on the lower third of the trunk of an upright bonsai. As you prune the bonsai, use a combination of pruning tools, nippers to pull out the tips of shoots, clipper for the smaller, tender branches, hand shears for large branches and concave pruners for those branches where you want to leave a concave depression. Periodically take a break from pruning. Step away from the plant and look at it from a distance. Look at the plant from several directions. If you find that you are getting frustrated, take a break and come back to it in a few minutes.
After the bonsai has been returned to its training container, you may want to use wire to alter the position of the branches. Use wire to modify the position or direction of branches or to introduce a curve into an otherwise straight branch. Wiring is done by first choosing an appropriate weight of wire. Feel the branch that is to be wired and judge the strength of wire needed to alter its shape. Then cut a length of wire somewhat longer than the distance from the bottom of the root system to the end of the branch. Force one end into the root mass near the crown and extending all the way to the bottom of the container. Spiral the wire around the trunk until you reach the branch that is to be wrapped. This procedure is essential for the wire to hold the form on the branch that is being wrapped. Wrap the branch in a loose spiral. Don’t force the wire against the branch to do this, but use both hands to mold a spiral loosely around the branch without trapping leaves. Once the spiral of wire has been made around the branch, proceed to bend it to the desired shape and position. Do this gradually so that you do not crack the branch that is being shaped. Some plants have branches that are more supple and others are more brittle.

  1. Use a good mix of sand, soil and composted bark for the medium that is put around the roots.
  2. Water the bonsai regularly, often twice a day as the medium of the roots is very porous.
  3. Protect the bonsai from adverse weather, keeping it in a location sheltered from bright, hot sun, winds, and freezing temperature. Most bonsai should be kept outdoors as they will deteriorate in an indoor environment and will not be able to enter their seasonal rest period.
  4. Fertilize frequently to stimulate new growth.
  5. Prune new growth to enhance the desired style
  6. Inspect your bonsai frequently for pests and for wires that may be marring the surface of the branches. Bonsai disfigured by wire marks are of very little value.
  7. Bonsai can be the source of immense pleasure and inspiration. Enjoy you bonsai!


Choose a plant for a bonsai, determine a style for the bonsai and then proceed to prune and train it in the style chosen.