The Art of Bonsai

Photo courtesy Lew Buller

Take a picture of Helen Morimoto’s azalea bush up close, and
you’d never know it wasn’t simply an average specimen of the
flowering shrub. But stand back a moment. At just 12 inches in
height, it’s nothing of the like sort.
Take a picture of Helen Morimoto’s azalea bush up close, and you’d never know it wasn’t simply an average specimen of the flowering shrub. But stand back a moment. At just 12 inches in height, it’s nothing of the like sort.

Bonsai like Morimoto’s azalea bush are full trees in miniature. Cultivated in shallow pots, they are not special trees, but stunted trees that would otherwise reach 10 to 20 feet in height.

“The smallest, most impressive thing is just a couple of inches,” said Morimoto. “They can fit in a thimble, but they look like a tree in the wild.”

Bonsai, like the trees and bushes Morimoto cultivates, have been popular for hundreds of years, but the origins of the art of bonsai are debated. Some scholars assert that the style of growth came from Ayurvedic healers in India who collected medicinal plants and potted them for easy transit, said Lew Buller, curator of the bonsai collection at the Minge International Museum in San Diego. This way, the healers would never be without fresh supplies, but it’s a story Buller finds doubtful.

“Bonsai are generally attributed to something developed by the Chinese,” said Buller. “It’s something that the educated people – the literati – would have around to remind them of the greater world outside.”

These miniature naturescapes spread in popularity, appearing in Japan around 1200 A.D., Buller said. There, the design concepts articulated by bonsai’s early adopters were translated into a set of principles so absolute they bordered on religion, he said.

Today, enthusiasts raise bonsai not only to imitate nature, but as part of a diversifying art. Since the 1950s, plant fashions have evolved from the slightly wild look known as “classic” bonsai to a more modern aesthetic. Growers may spend hours perfectly pruning miniature pines and maples with tweezers, said Buller, or incessantly misting a three-inch cypress tree, said Morimoto, in search of the thing they have named perfection – a real tree rendered so exactingly shaped and pruned that it looks unreal, like plastic.

There are other things, too, that can effect the value of a bonsai, said Atsuko Kinoshita of Kinoshita Bonsai Shop in Pacific Grove.

“It depends on they type of tree, on the age and the shape and condition,” said Kinoshita. “You can’t tell what price it will be from the name like an automobile. It’s like an antique. It’s living art.”

One of the most famous bonsai artists in recent history, John Naka, articulated the elements a collector should look for in a good bonsai, said Buller. First, the roots should look as if they’re gripping the ground, spreading out in many directions to grasp at the soil. The trunk should be interesting, usually shaped to give the plant a sense of movement, and the bark should have some texture.

“It should feel like a tree,” said Buller. “A lot of people at bonsai shows cannot resist reaching out and touching, and it should feel real.”

The branches of the tree should have some movement to them, and be open enough that viewers can look into the tree, not just at it, said Buller. Finally, he said, the leaves should be small, but appropriately colored.

Such perfection requires ample patience and a special set of tools. Growers use chopsticks to perfectly pack dirt to the tender roots of their plants, special clippers to remove extra branches without scarring the tiny trees and tweezers to thin their plants with precision.

The ultimate result can be any number of popular silhouettes, from a curvy “s” shape to geometric patterns, but it may also take years to grow. Today’s most recent trend is a penchant for very small trees with thick trunks, but Morimoto, a member of the San Jose Betsuin Bonsai Club, said potential bonsai growers should buy a plant they like, and which likes them.

“If you don’t want to water more than once a week, you don’t want to buy one that requires daily care,” said Morimoto. “I’ve seen one woman at a bonsai show who has these beautiful plants. They’re maybe two or three inches high, and they’re so perfect, but she has to do so much with them. If you forget to mist something like that for one or two days, it’s gone, and no matter how pretty they are, I don’t want that.”

Juniper trees in the 12-inch range are the easiest bonsai to start with for a gardening novice, said Kinoshita.

If you are interested in growing your own bonsai or are simply curious about the process, Morimoto suggested contacting a local bonsai enthusiasts group. The Web site for the Golden State Bonsai Federation, a consortium of California clubs, links to more than two dozen bonsai enthusiast clubs in the state. It can be found online at