What Is A Bonsai?

Information about high quality Bonsai?
A Bonsai is a living work of art.

It is not simply any old tree or plant growing in a pot. Its shape is achieved by the skillful manipulation and training of the trunk and branches so that it is a perfect miniature of a fully grown tree in nature. Unlike other works of art a bonsai is a living thing. It lives, breathes, grows and changes. That is the fascination of bonsai.

Buying a Bonsai is only the beginning and ongoing maintenance and pruning is important of the plant is to stay at its best.


At Herons we have many more trees to work with. We have a bewildering range of stock from young starters to massive field grown material; semi-trained imported bonsai to show specimens of the very highest quality.

If you wish to learn from the master - Peter holds regular workshops and 1-2-1's at the nursery. You don't have to spend a fortune on bonsai. With our home grown stock you can create some very beautiful bonsai in just one lesson or if you have the expertise, you can transform our semi-trained material into stunning masterpieces with minimul of effort.

Some Bonsai are relatively inexpensive, while others can be very costly. As with any commodity, the different styles and grades of bonsai are reflected in the price. You can buy a young, newly trained bonsai with very limited funds, or you can spend thousands on an exquisite masterpiece that has been shown at major exhibitions in Japan. Serious Bonsai enthusiasts regard good-quality bonsai as works of art, and these are highly collectable plants.

Although the art of Bonsai is essentially about growing trees, for many people it is much more than that. Bonsai plants convey something about the owners lifestyle, aesthetic sense and attitude towards nature and the environment. Growing bonsai has come to be associated with Zen aesthetics, and some practitioners derive a special therapeutic benefit, which comes from the innate peace and tranquility that working with bonsai imparts. Like yoga and t’ai chi, bonsai are said to have a calming influence on the mind and spirit, and they can help to relieve the stresses of todays busy world.

Bonsai are certainly beautiful to look at, but there is much more to the pastime than simply achieving beauty. The image of an ancient tree clinging to a rock and struggling to survive against all the odds has been a source of inspiration for Chinese sages and scholars for at least two millennia.

Keeping bonsai is not just about gardening - it is art and spirituality combined with horticultural techniques. Creating bonsai is a challenge, and enthusiasts are forever striving for horticultural and aesthetic excellence. Unlike other artistic projects, however, a bonsai is never finished. It continues to grow and change, which means that perfection is always transitory and beauty is only momentary. Growing bonsai is a never-ending quest for perfection.

Those who are dedicated to the hobby regard it as a way of life. It requires commitment and can dictate the way you spend your time and resources. Your weekends and holidays can soon become geared around your bonsai activities. Nevertheless, the rewards that come from striving for a perfect work of art more than compensate for the time and effort involved.

Most people are familiar with a bonsai's appearance, but what exactly is a bonsai? Not every tree grown in a pot will qualify as a bonsai. For a tree to be regarded as a bonsai, it must have certain defining characteristics: it must be grown in a container; it must have a distinctive artistic shape; and it must he miniature in size. A bonsai should be a small-scale replica in a pot of a fully grown tree that you might see in nature, its size and aesthetic appearance controlled by regular pruning, pinching and shaping, watering and feeding.

The 21 styles The Chinese, who invented bonsai, still refer to them as artistic pot plants, which implies that bonsai are not simply plants in pots but also works of art. To qualify as a bonsai, a tree should conform to one of the distinctive bonsai styles. There are 21 principal shapes, which may be single-trunk, multi-trunk or multi-tree styles. The different formations range from the absolutely straight formal upright style and the S-Shaped informal upright style (the most common of bonsai shapes, to the stripped-bark driftwood style, reminiscent of weathered mountain trees, and the broom style, which resembles a domed mop bead and is the most natural looking of the bonsai styles.

Chinese beginnings

The art of bonsai has a rich and colourful history. It was the ancient Chinese who first practised the art more than two millennia ago. The word bonsai derives from two Chinese words meaning a potted tree: bon (or poon) means pot and sai (or sue) means tree. The Chinese have been growing ornamental plants for thousands of years - they were one of the earliest civilisations to do so. They also have a tradition for making fine ceramics, which dates back many thousands of years. It is not surprising that when these two arts were brought together the result was bonsai - plants grown in ceramic pots. The Chinese loved the art of bonsai, but during the 1950s and until the 1980s it was nearly extinguished by the communist regime, Which regarded growing bonsai as a revision and bourgeois pastime. It is only in the last few decades that the Chinese authorities have started to encourage the practice of bonsai again, and now it is once more a thriving and vibrant art form. For some people it is a pleasant and enthralling way to pass the time, but for others bonsai is a big business, and almost all the indoor bonsai sold around the world today come from China.

Gradual Japanese differences in Bonsai

The Japanese are also involved in bonsai, but, contrary to popular belief, the practice did not originate in Japan. The Japanese started creating bonsai around the 12th Century CE, almost a millennium after the Chinese first practiced the fine art. Chinese influences on Japan have been all-pervasive. The Japanese language itself, the Buddhist religion and art in general all have their origins in China. Zen Buddhism in particular, which has been such a key influence on Japanese culture, was introduced from China. Similarly, the arts of garden making, designing and bonsai were imported from China. Although Japanese bonsai are today quite different from Chinese examples, it was not until the early 20th Century that a distinctive Japanese Style of bonsai began to emerge. Up to that time, Chinese and Japanese bonsai were indistinguishable.

Bonsai Today

During the period following the Second World War when China was in turmoil, the Japanese began to develop bonsai in their inimitable style. The US occupying forces in Japan and the Japanese immigrant community in the USA then made bonsai more widely known in the West, and during the second half of the 20th Century the interest in bonsai ‘mushroomed’.

Today there is no corner of the world where bonsai could not be found. There have become established in most Asian countries, including India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. They have also recently become popular throughout Europe and North America, and they are grown in Australia, Africa and South America. There is hardly a country today where the fine art of bonsai is not practiced.

There is undoubtedly a unique Japanese style of bonsai and a unique Chinese style also, but there are now some very distinct European and North American styles, because each nation has interpreted the art of bonsai in their own way and stamped its imprint on the tradition. Each culture has learned to express its identity through the beauty of these miniature trees. This is why keeping bonsai is such a fascinating art and such a widespread hobby today.

Getting Started With Bonsai

There are many ways of starting to keep bonsai, but the easiest is to buy a plant from a reputable nursery or specialist bonsai centre. However before you do so, it is well worth finding our more about bonsai.

What is involved? bonsai keeping is quite a time-consuming pastime, and you should be prepared to water them on a regular basis if you want to keep your trees alive. Watering is by far the most important task because bonsai are always grown in containers (often shallow ones) and so depending entirely on their owner for their water supply. In summer, your bonsai will need to be watered once or even sometimes, twice a day. Even in winter, when there is normally an ample supply of natural rain, bonsai that are kept outside require watering during dry spell, while indoor bonsai will need watering all year round.

Before you go away on holiday you must make arrangements for the care of your bonsai. Some people arrange for bonsai 'sitters or 'minders' to look after their tree while they are away, others take them to a local nursery. Fortunately, the development of the automatic irrigation systems has made both holiday and general watering care much easier, however hand watering is always better.

Other important chores involved in bonsai care include pruning and pinching new shoots during the growing season. If your plants are vigorous, this can be a time-consuming task.  

Space at home is another factor to think about before you make your first purchase. Although bonsai may be small in size, a collection of just a few trees can soon occupy all the available space in your garden. Many enthusiasts like to display their trees in authentic oriental garden settings, this involves constructing suitable display areas to show off the trees. Once these displays are put in place, the bonsai look stunning. However you would have to dedicate a large area of your garden to this type of arrangement - and that might not accord with the way the rest of your family would like to use the area.

By joining a bonsai or gardening club, you can collect some really valuable research into bonsai from your local neighbourhood which can bring invaluable advice about where and what to buy. Buying on impulse is generally a bad idea, especially if your purchase is from a non-specialist centre such as a shopping centre, market or superstore.

Visiting exhibitions is an excellent way to see top-quality bonsai (such as RHS Wisley in Surrey), while many nurseries and bonsai clubs put on incredible displays too. You can derive inspiration from the plants on display, and as you get drawn into the hobby you may get the feeling of wanting to exhibit your own bonsai in the future. National bonsai organisations and local bonsai clubs will be able to give you more information into such events.

Where To Buy A Bonsai Tree

Most people buy their first bonsai tree because they think it is attractive or will suit their decor. But this is not a good basis on which to make a choice. If you are a beginner, you should select a species that is easy to keep and that is appropriate for the conditions you are able to offer.

The best place to buy a bonsai and bonsai accessories is a specialist bonsai nursery. Finding sources should not be difficult if you have access to the internet, for example (herons.co.uk), but take care before you purchase, as many so-called ‘specialists’ are not experts at all. They are middle men who have little or no experience or knowledge of bonsai. If you are serious about making your first purchase, then seek a second opinion about potential sources from a local bonsai club or horticultural society for example (rhsplants.co.uk). Some large garden centres stock bonsai and may even have a resident expert to give you advice.

If you want to buy on the internet, make sure the firm is a reputable one. Download details of the address and telephone number, so that you can get in touch with the supplier if there are any problems. A specialist nursery, which gives personal advice, is always best, especially if you need an aftercare service such as; repotting, care and advice. Department stores, shopping malls and hardware stores do not offer bonsai an ideal living environment, and trees sold from such outlets are rarely in good condition. The staff are also unlikely to know anything about growing and caring for bonsai or will not be able to offer any bonsai accessories; pots, tools, and will not be able to give you any aftercare regarding re-potting etc. If you are a beginner, avoid attempting to grow a tree from seeds or cuttings. 

Selecting Your First Bonsai Tree

The ideal ways to select your first bonsai is to look at the following.

‘Match it to it’s destination’: If you have a sunny garden or living room that is bathed by sunlight every afternoon then you should look for a species that appreciates that kind of environment; avoid shade-loving plants, which will not thrive in direct sunlight. If your garden is near the sea, consider salt-laden winds, which can damage delicate foliage.

'Good Quality Plants’: The health and vigour of a tree should be prime considerations. A healthy tree will look fresh, and the leaves will be turgid and well coloured. Avoid plants with a limp or shrivelled foliage, and never, never buy a bonsai that looks sick, even if it is being offered at a reduced price. If there is something wrong with it, the chances are that the change of environment will almost certainly not recover and will die.

‘Optimum Characteristics’: As well as the health and vigour of the tree, you should evaluate the physical qualities. Look for a good trunk which tapers gradually from a broad base to a narrow apex, and has clearly visible surface roots, which radiate evenly from the trunk base. You should also select a plant with an elegant placement ands arrangement of branches with a fine structure. Depending on such qualities, two trees of a similar size can vary enormously in price, If possible, try to take someone who has experience of growing bonsai when looking to buy an expensive bonsai.

‘Season Of Purchase’: If you are buying bonsai in spring or summer, the leaves on the possible plant should be a good green and the branches well covered. In autumn and winter, bonsai will look less fresh, and deciduous trees will be changing colour before the leaves fall in autumn, Judging the health of deciduous plants in winter can be difficult as it will have no leaves and essentially be dormant.

Pricing a Bonsai Part I

As well as its overall quality, how much you pay for a bonsai will depend on several factors, including where you live; Whether the bonsai is an indoors or outdoors type; The bonsais country of origin; the species or variety; the size of the bonsai; and also the age of the bonsai.

Where You Live:

If you reside in China or Japan, where bonsai are grown commercially in vast quantities, a bonsai will be less expensive than in other countries that have had to import these plants.

Type Of Tree:

Indoor bonsai tend to be less expensive than outdoor (hardy) bonsai, because most come from China, where production costs are low. Imported outdoor trees are often sourced from Japan, where production costs are higher and the trees are of a higher quality. In addition, indoor trees are intended for the mass market and tend to be of a lower quality, therefore less expensive than the outdoor examples from Japan.

Country Of Origin:

Only two countries, Japan and China, have a sizeable export trade in bonsai. They are also grown commercially in Korea and Taiwan, but on a much lower scale.

Pricing a Bonsai Part II


As with all goods, there are fashions, and this includes bonsai. There was a time when Picea Jezoensis (Yezo Spruce) and Juniors Rigida (Needle Juniper) were a very popular species. Now you are more likely to find J. Chinensis (Chinese Juniper). Similarly, Rhododendron Indicum (Satsuki Azalea) enjoyed a huge vogue 20 years ago, but now they are less fashionable. Prices reflect what is in demand.


Bonsai may be miniature trees, but they come in huge rages of sizes. The most common are bonsai that can be carried easily in one hand. Next in popularity are the bonsai that can be carried in two hands. Then there are the trees that reach a height of 1m, and can be difficult to carry with two hands. Then there are the trees that need two people to lift. There are some examples that need a team of men just to lift, and at the other end of the spectrum there are bonsai grown in thimble-size pots. The Japanese have names for all the various sizes, and bonsai exhibitions and competitions have strict criteria for judging the various categories. However the amateur grower is less likely to be concerned with the different size categories over the overall beauty of the tree. As a rule, the larger the bonsai, the more expensive it tends to be. This is due to the fact that the larger the bonsai, the longer it has taken to grow, therefore require larger, and more expensive pots, have taken more human hours to train and to care for the tree, and cost more to transport. However, size is not everything, of course, and a top-quality, small bonsai can cost more than a much larger, poor example bonsai of the same species.


As with size, Age is also very important in determining the price of a bonsai, and the older the bonsai, the more expensive it will be, Simple as that, however ultimately the beauty of the tree is the overriding factor.

The Difference between Outdoor Bonsai and Indoor Bonsai

A common misconception about bonsai is that they have to her grown indoors. Many people regard them as delicate, fragile plants, which need to be protected from the elements. They tend to forget that bonsai are trees and that their natural environment is in the open. However, it is important to distinguish between outdoor and indoor bonsai as they require different growing conditions and care regimes.

Most indoor bonsai are broad-leaved tropical and subtropical trees. Like Ficus (fig), many are also grown as house plants, so are fairly easy to recognise. A few indoor species, such as Podocarps and Juniperus Procumbens, are coniferous and could be confused with hardy outdoor bonsai, On the other hand, are hardy species that grow naturally outdoors. Broad-leaved species, such as Acer (maple) and Crataegus (Hawthorn), and (Juniper) are not difficult to identify as outdoor bonsai. Outdoor bonsai are sold at specialist bonsai nurseries

What is Outdoor Bonsai?

Bonsai growers often regard truer outdoor plants as ‘real’ bonsai. These are the trees and shrubs that will grow outside without special protection. Many bonsai enthusiasts grow only outdoor bonsai because they are much easier to care for and there is more scope for creativity. As outdoor bonsai grow faster than indoor bonsai, you will see the results of reshaping, wiring and pruning much sooner. Outdoor bonsai also offer more scope for practicing the hobby. Some enthusiasts make their own bonsai from garden or nursery plants from places such as herons.co.uk, and some collect raw materials from the wild. You can also propagate your own plant from seeds or cuttings or by layering (coming soon).

Outdoor bonsai can be taken indoors from time to time. In fact, in countries such as China ands Japan, it is traditional to use bonsai to decorate the home, but the trees are kept indoors for only short periods at a time. After a day or two they are returned to their outdoor positions.

The choice of outdoor bonsai is much wider than the indoor species. They tend to be more attractive in terms of shape and foliage than indoor bonsai, especially the deciduous and flowering varieties. Because they are easier to look after, outdoor bonsai live longer than indoor specimens. Indeed, some outdoor bonsai can live for more than 200 years!

What is Indoor Bonsai

One advantage of growing indoor bonsai is that many beginners like to keep their bonsai where is can be seen and protected at all times. Bonsai are also useful for decorating a room, reflecting your taste and making a statement about your lifestyle. In recent years, bonsai have become more popular because of the association with Zen and minimalist styles of decor.

The main drawback of indoor bonsai is that they are relatively difficult to look after and may be short -lived if you do not provide the appropriate conditions. They need to be watered and fed regularly, and misted from time to time to provide the humid environment. They are also extremely demanding when it comes to ambient temperature, which must be constant. If you go away for a holiday or even a long weekend you will need to arrange someone to look after your trees in your absence, indoor bonsai are, in fact, like having demanding pets,Indoor bonsai are best sourced from specialist centres, as shopping malls and garden centres, will not provide good living conditions for indoor trees, and are much more likely do die within the first few weeks that from a specialist bonsai centre.

How Where You Live Affects Bonsai

An understanding to how plants are affected by climate and geography is essential of growing bonsai successfully. These pages are intended to help you understand the relationship between climate, geography, and its influence on the cultivation of bonsai. Choosing the right type of plant for the climate zone in which you live is one of the key factors to successful bonsai culture.

Climate and environment determine the type and species of plants that grow in different parts of the world. Temperature, rainfall, humidity, sunlight and diurnal variations of sunlight (that is, day length) are other key factors. Soil type, altitude and protection from prevailing winds are also important. Local conditions sometimes create a unique climate variation, that are referred to as micro-climates, and these also determine what will grow in each area.