Written by Hector Osegueda.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss
Little trees, for whatever reason, tend to make people happy. Plants, in general, are known to have mentally therapeutic properties — green spaces in homes and offices can increase happiness, decrease stress, and boost productivity. Plants have also been extensively used to help veterans and hospital patients who suffer from PTSD. However, even without considering the emotional and scientific properties of plants, there is something about little trees in pots that always seems to bring the biggest smiles. Enter bonsai.
Bonsai is an art form. It is a practice, one that requires skill, discipline, and respect for the plant that is being worked on. The earliest record of bonsai cultivation can be traced back to the 4th century A.D in China, but it was the Japanese who adopted the artform and refined it. The goal of Japanese bonsai is to give the tree the appearance of growing as it would in the wild; to mimic nature. The chosen tree is typically gathered via a cutting from the original, regular sized tree — very rarely is a bonsai grown from a seed. The selected bonsai is then placed in a ceramic pot, and regularly pruned and trimmed in order to achieve a small stature. This practice revolves around the idea that nature itself contains ultimate beauty and has its roots in Zen Buddhism. As the tree is growing in the pot, it is sculpted in an attempt to create something that is natural, simple, and asymmetrical. The central tenet of bonsai is that one should aim to leave as little of a trace as possible when trimming; highly-valued bonsai are those that grow, age, and take the appearance of their natural counterparts in every aspect except size.
Bonsai have gained popularity in contemporary culture because people desire green spaces. Those who are confined to metallic cities or stuck in a concrete suburbia benefit the most from bonsai. Having a real tree in a home makes the space more attractive and alive, and gives the owner something to marvel and admire. With the rising popularity of bonsai trees in the United States, a myriad of misconceptions has arisen around the art form. So much so, that you probably hadn’t caught my first error earlier in the paragraph, the one that people tend to make when referring to bonsai — calling them “bonsai trees.” People often believe that there exists a certain species of the bonsai tree. There is no such thing. In Japanese, bonsai is translated as “pot tree,” so when one calls a bonsai a bonsai tree, they are essentially saying pot tree.
The term bonsai tree is misleading because it implies that in the wild there grows a certain type of tree: small, delicate, and perfect for potting. Again, this is not the case. The trees used for bonsai are not a dwarf species nor do they differ genetically from regular sized trees; rather they attain their small size through deliberate and careful cultivation. Traditionally tropical or subtropical trees are turned into bonsai, but conifers and temperate evergreens such as redwoods and junipers have become increasingly popular. Any tree can be used for bonsai.
The focus on crafting something simple through trimming and pruning can be therapeutic. One must maintain a sense of balance within the tree; branches and leaves should not be haphazardly chopped off. This emphasis on balance can be beneficial to someone who feels as if life is spiraling out of control, is under a tremendous amount of stress and pressure, or both.
College students are those who have much to gain from raising bonsai; great pleasure and satisfaction can be derived if successful in raising a bonsai. Fantastic additions to tiny dorms or cramped apartments, bonsai have the capability of giving struggling college students a sense of ownership and responsibility. Bonsai are also useful in grounding their owners and providing a sense of perspective — many first and second-year students have difficult times adjusting to the demands of college and being away from home. Maintaining a bonsai can serve as a way to channel difficulties and frustration, while also providing a degree of companionship in the unique way only a plant can.
The practice itself is relatively inexpensive, all one needs is a tree of their choosing, obtained at your local nursery/gardening center (sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a tree, various succulents and cacti can also be subsituted), a nice ceramic pot, a pair of bonsai shears, a watering can, and above all else, enormous dedication. The art is not an easy one, there is a steep learning curve, but the delight and happiness the tree can bring to one’s life is worth it.