What Is A Bonsai Tree? (3 Key Things To Know)

Wondering what a bonsai tree is – or hoping to get started with this art form yourself? There are a few important things to know about bonsai trees, how they are grown, and how to care for them.

So, what is a bonsai tree? A bonsai tree is a small tree grown in a shallow pot to keep the roots small. The art of bonsai involves training a tree into a specific, desired shape by pruning, wiring, and pinching branches. Five common bonsai styles are formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascading, and semi-cascading.

Some species make for better bonsai trees than others, so that is one consideration. Bonsai trees also need frequent care, including watering and fertilizing.  

In this article, we’ll talk about bonsai trees and some of the best species to choose in this endeavor. We’ll also take a look at some of the potential pitfalls when caring for and training bonsai trees.

Let’s get started.

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What Is A Bonsai Tree?

A bonsai tree is a miniature tree, planted in a shallow container. A bonsai tree is kept in a small pot to restrict the growth of roots.

bonsai 6
A bonsai tree is a miniature tree in a small pot with shallow soil.

This root restriction keeps the rest of the tree small. Bonsai trees range in height from less than 5 inches to more than 30 inches – but all are smaller than normal trees.

Bonsai is the art of growing bonsai trees. It involves the care, growth, and training of these miniature trees.

Training involves shaping the tree into the structure you desire over many years.

bonsai 8
Bonsai need to be trained by pruning, wiring, and pinching over many years.

Shaping methods for bonsai include:

  • Pruning – this means removing part of a branch to change the tree’s structure. For example, you might prune off an unwanted branch entirely, or shorten a branch on one side of the tree so its length matches the corresponding branch on the other side. Usually, pruning means the use of special tools that will not leave undesirable marks on the branches.
  • Wiring – this means using a thin wire to hold a branch in position to encourage its growth in a specific direction. Wire is often included in a bonsai kit that also has shears for pruning and tools for digging and manicuring the soil around the base of the tree.
  • Pinching – this means pinching back the ends of branches to encourage side buds to develop (for example, to get a bushier branch).

Bonsai trees are started from a seed, seedling, or cutting from a tree. According to Virginia Cooperative Extension, the best trees for bonsai:

  • have small leaves (or needles), or
  • grow small when trained as bonsai
bonsai 7
Species with needles (like pine trees) tend to make for good bonsai trees.

For example, avocado and sycamore tree leaves are too big for bonsai. On the other hand, some maple and elm species develop smaller leaves when cultivated as bonsai trees.

Here are some trees that make good candidates for bonsai:

  • Azalea
  • Beech
  • Boxwood
  • Gingko
  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Pine
  • Pomegranate
  • Spruce
  • Wisteria
  • Zelkova
White Spruce
Spruce is another good option for a bonsai tree – you need to start small though!

Your best bet is to try bonsai with a tree species that is a native of your area. That way, you can easily find more if you like the hobby! (Just make sure you don’t take endangered trees).

You can find a more extensive list of good candidates for bonsai trees here.

What Makes A Tree A Bonsai?

A bonsai tree is not just a young tree in a small container. A bonsai tree is grown from a seed or seedling.

bonsai 5
A bonsai tree is not just a small tree, nor is it a dwarf tree. It is cultivated carefully by limiting its growing space (root system) and size by pruning.

A bonsai tree is grown in a training pot with drainage holes and coarse soil with good drainage. The University of Arkansas Extension suggests 2 parts coarse sand, 1 part peat moss, and 1 part loamy soil.

A bonsai tree is raised to stay small and trained to take on a certain shape. There is a lot of work that goes into pruning, wiring, and pinching its branches.

Usually, the branches at the base of a bonsai tree are the widest, with the top branches (at the apex) being the most narrow. This gives a mountain or triangle appearance to the tiny tree (especially for a formal upright style, which is all about symmetry).

bonsai 3
A bonsai tree normally has the widest branches at the base, with the narrowest branches at the top (apex).

According to the University of Arkansas Extension, there are 5 basic styles of bonsai:

  • Formal Upright – this style adheres to the principle of symmetry, and it includes a straight trunk. It is often used for trees with a uniform growth habit (such as pine). In nature, trees with this type of symmetry have grown without much stress.
  • Informal Upright – this style is more natural than formal upright. The focus is not on symmetry, and the tree trunk may twist or turn (as trees in nature might do, in order to get access sunlight). However, the apex (top) lines up vertically with the base (bottom) of the trunk.
  • Slanting – this style is far from symmetrical. In fact, the purpose of this style is a tree that leans so far in one direction that it looks like it might tip over. Often, a slanting bonsai is at an angle of 60 to 80 degrees measured from the ground. The roots are also asymmetrical (there are fewer and smaller root on the side the tree leans towards).
  • Cascading – this style is reminiscent of trees that grow in poor soil or inhospitable environments (for example, on cliff faces or mountainsides). The growing tip goes below the base of the pot. This reminds us of tree branches weighed down by fruit or snow in mountain regions.
  • Semi-Cascading – this style is similar to the cascading style. However, the growing tip goes below the top (rim) of the pot, but not below the base (bottom). So, a semi-cascading bonsai does not reach as low as a cascading bonsai.
cascading bonsai
Here, we see a cascading bonsai tree: the growing tip is below the base of the pot the tree grows in.

You can learn more about these styles from Bonsai Outlet.

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What Is So Special About A Bonsai Tree?

A bonsai tree is special because of the care that went into training its growth into a particular shape over a long time. For example, some bonsai trees are hundreds of years old – the oldest is over 1000 years old!

bonsai no leaves
Some bonsai trees can live to be 100 or even 1000 year old! It takes a long time (and many generations of humans) to care for these trees to that age.

Most bonsai are trained to take on a structure that adheres to one of the 5 basic styles (mentioned above). However, you can inject your own personality into a bonsai tree by growing and training it the way you want.

 Is A Bonsai Tree Just A Normal Tree?

A bonsai tree is a normal tree that becomes extraordinary through the care given by a practitioner of the art of bonsai. The tree is grown and cared for in a very specific way.

For example, a bonsai tree is:

  • Grown in a small, shallow container (often with sandy soil)
  • Trained to adopt a certain shape (by pruning, wiring, and pinching)
  • Limited in size by restrictions on the root system
bonsai 4 ficus carica
A bonsai tree is a normal tree that is grown in a specific way to become an extraordinary miniature tree in a desired shape.

A bonsai tree is also often grown from trees that are native to your region. This means that it is well-adapted to surviving outdoors throughout the year (or at least part of the year, if you wish to display it outside).

What Is The Lifespan Of A Bonsai Tree?

The lifespan of a bonsai tree with proper care can be 100 years or more. Some bonsai live to be over 1000 years old – much older than many human generations!

The lifespan of a bonsai tree depends on the tree species and the care given. According to the Bonsai Resource Center, some good choices for long-lived bonsai trees are:

  • Azalea
  • Cedar
  • Cherry
  • Cypress
  • Ficus (fig trees)
  • Maple
  • Pine
bonsai 3 ficus carica
Some species (like ficus, or fig, shown here) have a better chance of becoming long-lived bonsai trees.

Can A Bonsai Tree Be Planted In Regular Soil?

A bonsai tree should be planted in coarse soil that drains well. Usually, this means that a good part of the soil mixture will be sand (which promotes drainage).

sandy soil
A good portion of a soil mix for bonsai will be sand.

The whole point of bonsai is to keep the tree small. So, you don’t want to overdo it with nutrients and fertilizer.

Instead, the goal is slow, steady growth over time. This gives you more control over how the tree grows, and makes it easier to keep up with pruning, wiring, and pinching to get the tree into the shape you want.

Why Is It So Hard To Grow A Bonsai?

One reason that bonsai are hard to grow is because they need frequent watering. This is due to the small and shallow pots they grow in.

If the soil dries out completely, the bonsai tree will suffer, since it does not have an extensive root system. This means that you might need a house sitter to water your bonsai if you go away for a long time.

spray bottle head
Bonsai trees need frequent watering, since their pots are small with shallow soil, and their root systems are not deep.

Unfortunately, the average house sitter probably has no experience with bonsai, so you might be searching for a while to find the right person!

Bonsai also need frequent fertilization. Again, this is due to the fact that there is so little soil and nutrition available in a small, shallow pot.

Training is another factor that makes it difficult to care for bonsai. Pruning, wiring, and pinching may all necessary to get the shape you want.

If you prune away too much new growth, the tree may slow down growth or die (always leave some new growth!) If you don’t prune enough, it won’t have the shape you desire after all of your time and hard work.

If a bonsai tree gets root bound, you will need to transplant it into another container. You might also consider pruning the roots.


Now you know what bonsai trees are – plus a little about the art of bonsai. You also know what trees work well for bonsai, along with some of the challenges you face in this art form.

You can see a gallery of bonsai trees from the North Carolina State University Extension here.

Here is a video on starting your own bonsai from Oklahoma State University.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

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Jon M

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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