Why Are Bonsai Trees Small?

It’s easy to just acknowledge the fact bonsai trees are small but have you ever stopped to think about why bonsai trees are small? In this article I aim to bust all the myths and show you exactly how bonsai trees stay so small.

Bonsai trees are only small in size because that’s how we want them to be. By constricting the root growth to a small container and routinely pruning the foliage, the tree stays small. A bonsai tree is grown from the same seed as a tree of the same species out in nature, they’re genetically them same. If a bonsai tree was planted in the ground, it would grow into a full sized tree! 

Green Plant on Black Pot

The Bonsai Pot Helps Keep Bonsai Trees Small

The magic behind why a bonsai tree stays small is in the pot. As you would have seen, bonsai pots are all absolutely tiny in relation to the tree, in terms of length, width and being extremely shallow. The small pot essentially traps the roots of the tree, not allowing them to expand and therefore stunting the growth of the tree.

Bonsai trees in larger pots will almost always be larger than bonsai trees in smaller pots. By repotting the bonsai into a larger pot every few years, you can gradually increase the dimensions of a bonsai, whilst still keeping it completely in proportion. If the bonsai tree was taken out of the pot and planted into nutrient rich soil, the root system would spread out and it would eventually grow into a full sized tree. You can learn more about repotting a bonsai tree here, in one of my newest articles: How To Repot A Bonsai Tree (Step By Step Guide).

Pruning The Bonsai To Keep The Tree Small

One of the biggest misconceptions people have is that bonsai trees never actually grow, which isn’t true at all. Granted, they don’t grow a lot or even very fast at all, but they definitely do grow in the summer months.

The reason it doesn’t really appear like they grow is due to the regular pruning that bonsai owners do. Light pruning essentially involves trimming foliage and branches off, to keep the bonsai looking as desired. This gives the impression that the bonsai tree never grows because it never really changes shape. For more information have a read of my article: How To Prune A Bonsai Tree.

This routine pruning is done to maintain the desired shape of the tree. Bonsai trees will typically grow very large leaves in proportion to the size of the trunk and branches. By pruning the foliage routinely or even defoliating (my full guide on defoliation), the leave size can be reduced to keep the proportions in order.

Do Genetics Make Bonsai Trees Small?

The way in which a tree is manipulated and grown, does not effect the genetics of the tree. For example, a Chinese Elm grown as a bonsai has the exact same genes as a Chinese Elm growing normally in the ground – so genetics do not make bonsai trees small, the human manipulation is the reason.

Trees grown as bonsai, or out in nature are started from the exact same seeds. Bonsai is sometimes referred to as ‘inducing dwarfism’ but the actual tree itself it not any sort of dwarf, it is genetically identical to a parent tree. For this reason bonsai trees require the same environment to grow as it would do out in nature. An example of this is the Ficus, this tree is from South Asia so it needs a hot, humid climate to survive. Growing a Ficus bonsai whilst living in Canada could be extremely hard, unless you can artificially provide the heat and humidity it needs to survive.

Is It Impossible For A Bonsai Tree To Get Bigger?

Now that we understand why a bonsai tree stays small, is there actually any way for a bonsai tree to grow bigger? The answer is, yes! A bonsai tree can keep growing a lot bigger, like a normal tree, however, it’s not going to happen if it stays in a bonsai pot.

In order to grow larger, the roots need to not be restricted, like they are in a normal bonsai pot. You’ll need to either repot the bonsai into a larger bonsai pot, to see a relatively small amount of growth, or if you’re looking for maximum growth, plant the bonsai in the ground.

In conclusion, bonsai trees are small because the owner has manipulated the growth of the tree by trapping the roots in a tiny pot, whilst pruning the leaves and branches when they grow. This gives the appearance of a tiny tree. A Chinese Elm Bonsai tree is genetically exactly the same as a normal Chinese Elm tree, only the bonsai has been essentially trapped in a small pot, whereas the normal trees roots have been allowed to expand and grow out.

The ‘History’ Of Bonsai Trees Being Small

Green Bonsai Tree in White Pot

Bonsai trees have been ‘small’ ever since roughly 700 AD, when the Chinese started ‘pun-tsai’. This was an art, practiced by the highest in society, to grow landscapes, then eventually trees, in containers, making them miniature.

About 1200 years ago, miniature landscapes were brought from China across to Japan, where the art was further developed into the bonsai we know and love today, using huge influence from China. Bonsai was then known to develop in the western world in the end of the 19th century.

Throughout all of bonsais’ evolution, the art has forever been about growing a miniature representation of nature. It’s not as simple as just stunting the growth of a tree, you are looking to develop the features and shape of a tree, putting huge stress on it and pushing it to the edge, then nurturing it.

Different Sizes Of Bonsai Tree

There are a few different size classifications in bonsai that are really worth knowing if you’re a keen hobbyist. The way classification is done is by looking at the amount of hands needed to move the bonsai, as odd as that sounds.

Shito – This is what’s known as a fingertip bonsai, it’s extremely small, sitting at around 3 inches in size. I’m honestly yet to see a shito classified bonsai, in person.

Mame, Komono & Katade-Mochi – These three classifications are for bonsai trees that can be moved with one hand. The mame typically describes a bonsai of 4-8 inches, whilst the komono covers the 6-10 inch bonsai trees. The Katade-mochi is the classification given to a bonsai that is 10-18 inches, which encompasses a lot of beginner starter kit trees.

Click here to check out this Baby Jade bonsai. Standing at 6 inches tall, it’s a small tree and ideally should be kept indoors. It would make a great gift or even an addition to your office space.

Chumono – This classification is given to a bonsai that takes two hands to move, measuring 16 up to 35 inches.

Click here to check out this Braided Money bonsai. Historically, money trees have been said to be lucky and a token of good fortune. The tree trunk has been braided which makes for a lovely, unique design, so this may be the bonsai tree for you if you’re in the market for something different! It’s also on sale currently at Bonsai Boy of New York!

Omono – A bonsai that takes four hands to move and between 30 to 48 inches tall. This is where we start moving into bonsai trees that are definitely less small. It’s quite rare to see hobbyists having trees of this size, I would say that most hobbyists I have met grow smaller trees.

Hachi-uye – This is the classification for a bonsai that takes 6 hands to move! A bonsai that needs that many hands definitely isn’t small at all!

Are Big Bonsai Trees, Still Bonsai?

Photo From Flickr

Whether the tree is 5 inches or 80 inches tall, if a tree is grown in the way that a bonsai is grown, in a small container, then it is a bonsai. There is a misconception that all small trees are bonsai trees and all large trees cannot be bonsai. There are bonsai trees as big as people, that are definitely still classified as bonsai due to being grown in a shallow pot. There are also small trees that grow in the ground, which cannot be classified as bonsai, just because they are small trees.

Are Small Bonsai Trees Worth More Money?

There are a huge amount of factors that go into deciding the price of a bonsai tree, however, as a general rule, smaller bonsai trees are worth less than the larger trees. Again, this isn’t directly due to the size of the tree, however it is very common to see a larger bonsai sell for a higher ticket than that of a smaller tree.

Will My Bonsai Stay Small If I Take It Out Of The Pot?

If you increase the room that the root system has to spread out in, by removing the bonsai from the pot or planting it in the ground, it will not stay small. If the tree is in good health and all of the correct growing conditions are met, a bonsai absolutely has the potential to grow. You have to remember that a tree grown as a bonsai is, on a genetic level, indifferent to that of the full grown species – so it will grow in size.

By repotting a bonsai tree into a larger pot or the ground, it will start growing in size at a faster rate. This technique is actually used to grow bonsai trees faster, as talked about in my article.

Relevant Articles – How To Make A Bonsai Tree Grow Faster / How To Find The Age Of A Bonsai Tree 

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