Are Bonsai Trees Illegal?

It is not illegal to buy, sell, or grow species of Bonsai trees. However, there are specific regulations in place when transporting Bonsai that are important to be aware of, and some believe that Bonsai growing is abusive and cruel.

Bonsai trees are not actually trees at all, but a method of pruning and growing trees or shrubs. Bonsai trees are a wonderful addition to many horticulturist and arborist collections, but are you allowed to own one? 

Read on to discover more about the rules, regulations, and beliefs regarding Bonsai trees.

Regulations for Importing Bonsai Trees

Many species commonly used for Bonsai trees are not originally from the United States; many are imported from further east, where there are many different Bonsai options.

Some of these countries include:

  • China
  • Korea
  • Taiwan
  • Japan

As with importing many things into the US from other countries, some regulations and rules must be followed.

US Customs and Border Patrol requires several things upon importation of plants and trees. These guidelines include the following:

  • The roots must be shipped “bare-rooted.” This means that the roots are clear of dirt and debris when shipped. Generally, they are wrapped in sphagnum moss to keep them moist and alive during transport. This is allowed because it is not growing from the plant itself.
  • The tree should pass a basic visual inspection, looking for any sickly, soft, or wilted areas that could mean infection or contagious disease.
  • If the plants do not pass inspection, they will be destroyed at the CBP station or returned to the country of origin.

Some restrictions also apply specifically to “artificially dwarfed” plants or trees of a certain size, like those on display in museums or zoos. This varies widely by region and species.

It’s best to get an immature Bonsai and grow and maintain it yourself if you are worried about federal regulations. 

There are a few more complex and fast rules to follow when bringing in Bonsai trees, but they are not illegal to have or grow, as long as the guidelines are followed.

There Is No One “Right” Way to Get a Bonsai Tree

bonsai tree

Bonsai trees are not necessarily one “species” of tree, but rather a type of growing pattern used for small trees or shrubs to create what is commonly known as a “Bonsai tree.” 

Many different types of trees and shrubs can be turned into a Bonsai, which means there are many options for Bonsai trees.

Some of the most popular species of trees for Bonsai include:

  • Chinese Elm
  • Japanese Maple
  • Ficus Bonsai
  • Juniper

Any woody, branching tree or shrub with stems and leaves can be manipulated into a Bonsai tree. The above-listed species are just more suited to growing and being altered into the Bonsai shape and are suitable for beginners. 

The primary goal of a Bonsai is to replicate a natural, full-sized tree shape at a fraction of the scale. This means recreating a naturally occurring, several-meter tree into a miniature version, 3-80 inches high.

These trees are widely available across the world from many different suppliers. A quick internet search will provide information and price points on many different Bonsai options. Expect to spend around $30-$100 on a Bonsai tree, depending on which stage you buy at.

Note: Some older, well-established Bonsai trees can sell for thousands of dollars. An estimated 800-year-old mature Bonsai, cultivated for generations, sold for over a million dollars in Japan at a Bonsai convention.

For those of us not interested in dropping thousands of dollars on an older tree, some of the most popular options include:

  • Individual sellers on Etsy
  • Bonsai starter kits on Amazon
  • Brussel’s Bonsai
  • 1800Flowers and other floral delivery companies

Although they are not illegal species, shipping these trees and shrubs for Bonsai use can come with a few hitches. 

Many Bonsai supply sites work closely with the USDA and have acquired the correct permits and meet shipping requirements for importing species commonly used for Bonsai trees.

Bonsai Trees Can Be Dangerous

Cycasin

The vast array of species of trees used for Bonsai are not inherently “bad” or “dangerous;” all are naturally occurring, and many have been around and used as Bonsai for centuries. One Ficus Bonsai tree in Italy is reported to be over 1,000 years old. It is currently displayed and protected in a museum.

The species are usually just from a different area with different bacteria, fungi, and contagions that could damage native populations when imported and grown.

The CBP regulations are in effect to help avoid dangerous situations for native tree and insect species. Examples of things that may come in on a tree that wasn’t shipped “bare-rooted” include:

  • Non-native fungus
  • Invasive insects
  • Eggs of non-native or damaging insects

These things can all spread from one plant to another and risk damaging and spreading out into larger regions.

Following the CBP protocols will reduce the risk of damage and destruction to local plant populations and ensure that the Bonsai trees arrive in a healthy, timely manner so you can get to Bonsaiing more quickly.

Make sure to buy from reputable sources when ordering trees for your Bonsai collection.

Bonsai is Frowned Upon by Some

Types of Bonsai and Maintenance

Some people believe that the Bonsai method is cruel and should be outlawed. The whole idea behind Bonsai is to mold and model nature to grow in a specific way. 

Some see this as innovative and a great creative outlet, resulting in a pleasing art piece. Others see it as just another method that humans are using to bend Earth and nature to our will.

Bonsai Cultivation and Why It’s Controversial

Some believe that the stunted growth, constant manipulation, and root-bound lifespan of a Bonsai tree are cruel and unnatural. Strictly speaking, the Bonsai trees don’t have pain receptors or conscious thoughts that alert humans to their pain and suffering. With no centralized nervous system or brain, they don’t experience things as humans do.

The majority of the backlash around Bonsai is concerning the early stages, when the branches are being pruned and forced to grow a certain way.

Growing Bonsai typically includes a few specific steps:

  1. Acquire your Bonsai. Either a pre-bought, pre-modified Bonsai or a young tree are the best options. Growing from seed can take 3-5 years to get going.
  2. Choose your preferred shaping and styling technique.
    • Prune odd/misshapen/unwanted branches.
    • Wrap wire around the branches to shape and manipulate them to your liking.
  3. Maintain proper watering, fertilization, and pruning to maintain the desired shape.

None of these methods are particularly damaging to the plant, but it is basically bending nature to your will. The wires are often removed once the branch can hold its shape on its own, usually after a few months, before the branch grows around the wire and creates scarring.

Spiritual and naturalistic persons are more inclined to classify Bonsai methods as cruel. Some religions also believe that having Bonsai trees in your home can permeate the home’s energy with stunted growth and can cause health concerns or back luck for the inhabitants.

Recommended Article: How Big Can a Bonsai Tree Get?

Conclusion

While it is not illegal to own, grow, ship, or receive Bonsai trees, there are several factors to consider when looking into starting this hobby.

Certain rules, if not followed, could result in fines or trouble with Customs and Border Patrol, and some strongly believe that owning and creating a Bonsai tree can be dangerous for your physical, emotional, and mental health.

Whatever your beliefs, rest assured that you are not doing anything illegal by having a Bonsai tree. 

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