Why are Bonsai Trees Small?

My fiance bought me a mini bonsai kit that includes everything you need to grow your own bonsai tree, which is essentially just seeds, a pot, and an instruction manual. In a few weeks I hope to have a mini tree in my kitchen. This got me wondering, “why is it that bonsai trees are so small”? I mean, you see bonsai trees in nurseries that are just mini trees. Is that because they are genetically altered? Spoiler alert, no.

Bonsai is a Japanese word that means ‘tray planting’, and is actually considered to be an art form. Nearly any tree or shrub can be grown as a bonsai tree, as long as it is properly maintained. To cultivate a bonsai tree, all you need to do is plant it in a small pot. Of course, close attention needs to be paid to it so that it survives (adequate watering etc). Bonsai trees require constant shaping in order to limit growth, maintain health, and to meet the artists design.

What Bonsai is Not

The practice of bonsai is not the same as dwarfing. Dwarfing involves genetic manipulation through selective breeding or genetic engineering. The result of dwarfing is a permanent miniature specimen.

Bonsai is not genetically dwarfed trees, but a carefully cultivated tree that is manipulated by pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation and grafting in order to create a miniature version of a full sized tree.


The history of bonsai is long, with the earliest illustration of a potted tree dating back to 706 AD. It did not take long for this practice to be closely associated with zen Buddhism. After WW2 the western world gained access to this practice, causing it to eventually lead to what we have today. I know that there is a couple of years unaccounted for here, but to be honest it is all pretty boring stuff.


Practices of bonsai utilize a number of different techniques to reach the final product. Some of these techniques are as follows:

  • Leaf trimming. Removing certain leaves
  • Pruning the trunk, branches or roots.
  • Deadwood techniques to simulate age and maturity
  • Clamping to shape trunks and branches
Deadwood techniques jin (branches) and shari (trunk)
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Bonsai Styles

There are a few defined styles of bonsai that are used to describe their form. The images for each style are in their sections, and all are from wikipedia.

Formal Upright:

Formal upright is characterized by a straight, upright, tapering trunk. This is pretty much how we picture the perfect tree, with branches gradually narrowing as you get higher.

Informal Upright:

Informal upright incorporates natural curves in the trunk and branches, but a straight line could be drawn from the apex to the bottom of the trunk.


Slant possesses straight trunks that grows at an angle from the base of the trunk.


Cascade is modeled after trees that grow over water or on mountainsides. The apex of the plant is at or beneath the top of the pot.

Indoor Bonsai

Traditionally, bonsai does not include indoor plants. According to this article, trees that are sold as bonsai trees are often from temperate regions, and require the same things that they would require in nature (full sunlight, good soil, and variations in temperature). Because the environment inside a home may be significantly different from the natural environment, the plant may suffer and die.

The Takeaway

Bonsai trees are cool, and I would like to get into the hobby on a more involved level. If anyone reading this thinks they may also like to get involved, be sure that whatever species you get a hold of is going to thrive in the environment you will be growing it. If you want an indoor plant, you will need to be sure to get an indoor plant.

I found a pretty informative website and community called bonsai empire. I would recommend heading over there for any questions you have on cultivating your own bonsai plant.

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