The new Bill Hosokawa Memorial Bonsai Pavilion and Tea Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens is now open. Here’s a little information about the ancient art of bonsai.
Despite their size, bonsai are not a species of dwarf tree, but the name of the art of growing trees in miniature. The Chinese originated bonsai over 2000 years ago, but it was the Japanese who popularized this method of cultivating a “tree in a pot.”
Although bonsai involves aspects of horticulture, this type of “gardening” is more like creating a sculpture instead of growing a tree. Each bonsai is grown in a specific style and shaped by careful pruning and wiring throughout the life of the tree. The goal is to reproduce the look of an aged tree on a miniature scale.
A bonsai that takes many years to cultivate may cost thousands of dollars, but it’s inexpensive to get started for those who enjoy growing and nurturing plants or those who want to build a stronger connection to nature and the outdoor world. A suitable plant, soil, bonsai pot and scissors are all that’s needed.
The traditional method is growing the tree outdoors and selecting one that does well in the local climate. Evergreen bonsai like pine, spruce, rhododendron, hemlock and cedar or deciduous trees like maple, elm, beech, birch and wisteria make good outdoor bonsai.
Bonsai can be grown outside in cold weather regions, if protected through the winter in a cold frame or other sheltered area, and if watered to prevent dehydration. However, in cold climates like ours, bonsai may do better when grown indoors. For indoor growing, select a tropical plant species, like ficus, schefflera, portulacaria, cherry, or serissa.
There are five classic bonsai shapes that come from nature and mimic how a tree looks in its natural growing conditions. These include formal upright, informal upright, slanting, semi-cascading, or cascading. Within these basic shapes are categories referred to as broom, windswept, driftwood, exposed root or literati.
Because bonsai includes all of the tree’s components, from its surface roots to its leaves, the container should complement the tree in its size, shape, color and texture for the most effective presentation.
Just like any living tree, bonsai require 5-6 hours of direct sunlight each day, whether grown inside or out. Proper watering is essential to the tree’s health and the soil should never be allowed to completely dry out.
Unlike houseplants that need little care, bonsai require almost daily interaction, even if it’s just a few minutes at a time. This quiet observation allows for the tree’s growth patterns to be studied to determine how the branches should be trimmed or wired into new positions.