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Bonsai 101

from David Terry

Step by Step Bonsai Creation - Part 1


We will start by exploring some of the fundamentals of bonsai so we can begin on common ground before passing on to more esoteric principles.

Bonsai is a Japanese word made up of two characters or word phrases, "bon" and "sai". Bon is pronounced as the English word "bone", as in dog bone. Sometimes it is seen spelled as bon with a long dash over the "o" to signify that it should be pronounced as a long "o", just as it is pronounced as part of the alphabet. The word bon means pot, container or tray in Japanese. Inherent in the definition of bonsai, therefore, is that bonsai are always in pots.

Sai is pronounced as the English word "sigh". It can mean many things in Japanese. Some translations are: planting, planted, tree, plant, plants and trees. Thus, one can translate bonsai in many ways, although tray tree seems to be most popular. The word bonsai is both singular and plural. You may have one bonsai, or two bonsai, but you never have two bonsais.

In most languages, we try to stress one syllable over John Jarrett. In bonsai, neither syllable is favored. BON - sigh is just as incorrect as bon - SIGH. It does not require a capital letter; it is not Traytree, just traytree, like dog, chair, or lamp. "Banzai" is an unfortunate word that comes from the overactive imaginations of screen writers during World War II. Banzai is a profane expletive that was supposed to have been shouted by kamakazi pilots on their suicide missions. There seems to be no survivors to interview, but I suspect they did not shout "traytree" the moment before their personal sacrifice. I feel the question coming already over the net; "kamakazi" means "divine wind", not banzai.

Most bonsai are between 10 and 30 inches (25 - 80cm) in height. Actually, the sizes and their classifications are quite complex due to the Japanese method of sizing bonsai. For example, a "mame" or palm sized bonsai might be 4 inches (10cm) high for a rather stout plant and 10 inches (25cm) high for a fairly ethereal literati or bunjinji form. Both plants still fit comfortably in the palm, hence they are both called mame or palm sized bonsai. The Western world wants to catagorize these sizes according to height and gets all disturbed to find that the sizes overlap. I offer the following generalized size distinctions for bonsai.

The largest common size, called imperial bonsai, measures from 60 inches (156cm) to around a maximum of 120 inches (305cm) high. They are considered an 8-handed size, implying that the services of 4 or more people are required to move one about. The name comes from the appearance of fine, stately old bonsai around the interior of the Imperial Palace, residence of Japan's emperor.

Large bonsai - less than 60 inches (156cm)s tall but more than 40 inches (101cm) - are classified as "hachi-uye". These big garden bonsai are sometimes temporarily displayed in halls, courtyards and entryways large enough to handle their imposing visual impact. They are considered 4- to 8-handed bonsai in terms of their weight.

Most large bonsai are considered "dai" bonsai, or "omono" bonsai. They range between 30 (76cm) and 48 inches (121cm)in height. Two or three people can carry one and they're displayed in rooms larger than 16 x 18 feet (4.87 x 5.48 meters).

Photo from Bonsai Sanctum

Two-handed bonsai is the size most commonly seen in bonsai shows. They range from 16 to 36 inches (91cm) high and are called "chiu" bonsai, or "chumono" bonsai. They require only an average-size room for best display, say a large entrance hall, a modest living room or a large bedroom.

Medium-size bonsai are known as "katade-mochi" bonsai, sometimes spelled as "kotate" or "kotade". These trees can be carried in one hand. They are the most popular size and account for the greatest number of bonsai in any classification. They are between 10 (25cm) and 18 inches (45cm) high.

The small, or "komono", bonsai can be easily picked up and carried by one hand. It is between 6 (15cm) and 10 inches (25cm) in height. It fits easily in the hand and constitutes the largest of the miniature bonsai.

Photo Pinterest

"Mame" bonsai are known as pocket bonsai, or palm bonsai because several can fit in the palm of a hand. They are usually less than 6 inches (16 cm) high but more than 2 inches (5cm) high. The size classification "shohin" bonsai is somewhat smaller.

"Shito" bonsai, or "keshitsubo" bonsai, are the smallest of all. Their maximum size is around 2 inches (5cm) high and includes anything smaller that's horticulturally possible. English translations include the names "poppy seed bonsai", "fingertip bonsai", and "pea-size bonsai". These plants, pot and all, will fit on a fingertip and certainly test the growing skills of the enthusiasist.

Other Related Art forms


are nonliving landscapes. Land contours are often fabricated out of papier-mache or fiberglass resins and painted. Gravel is typically glued down to make the planting more durable. Trees and shrubs may be plastic, foam, sponge, cloth, or silk. Lakes can be made out of glass mirrors on which rest a miniature boat floating in transparent glue. The use of clay figurines, mud huts, and wooden bridges is common. The imagination, attention to detail and optical illusion are essentially the same as required for saikei.


are nonliving landscapes as well, but they specifically avoid such trappings as human figures, thatched houses and boats. The landscapes are constructed entirely out of stones, gravel, sand and soil. Special attention is given to land contours to help achieve an effective statement.

"P'en Jing"

is a Chinese landscape. It may contain living trees, or not. It may contain houses, mud figures, and bridges, or not. The important distinguishing characteristic that separates this art form from its Japanese counterparts is found in its spirit or intent. P'en Jing exists in the minds of its creators. It is not a reproduction or

photographic image. Each portrays a mystical, wonderful land where one might want to go. Some plantings are made out of respect for the stone itself. The cliffs might be formed out of a particularly well formed coral. Islands might be made out of large hunks of charcoal or petrified wood. Prehistoric fossils embedded in sedimentary sandstone might suggest the perfect form of a mountaintop. Nevertheless, it is the spirit of the planting that is of the utmost importance. More impressionistic than still life, the P'en Jing moves one's emotions somehow. The cliffs are somehow more precarious, the rock ledges narrrower, and the gorge walls more precipitous than in actual life. P'en Jing are larger than life, even in their miniature size; actual container size ranges between 3 and 5 feet in length. The narrow trays might be just a thin slab of marble or granite placed on a carved rosewood stand. The shiny surface of the pot is usually all that is needed to represent water. The stones rest on their own natural or cut bases. In saikei, capturing a moonlit, starry sky on distant mountain peaks might be comparable to a photograph by Ansel Adams or Ray Atkeson. A P'en Jing of the same scene might capture a spirit more like Van Gogh's "Starry Night".

"P'en Tsai"

is the Chinese equivalent of bonsai. Their literal translations are identical. I suspect that bonsai is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of P'en Tsai hundreds of years ago. The Chinese tend to utilize bolder colors in their containers, however.

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