The bonsai tree is a favorite among many home gardeners for a reason: it is pruned to look like a full-grown tree, in miniature.
No matter how small your house is, you could have what looks like a complete forest in ceramic pots. The intensive cultivation process of creating a bonsai tree, however, has led many to ask themselves whether bonsais can be considered natural or not.
So, what has to happen in order for a bonsai to grow without human interference? Can cultivating them in your own home really be a natural process? Read on to learn all about whether bonsai trees are natural.
Are Bonsai Trees Natural?
What does it take for something to be considered natural? Generally, the answer would be that a plant is natural if it follows the natural methods of growth, consumption, and reproduction.
For a plant, these include:
- Presence of cell walls
- Reproduction through fertilization and meiosis
Bonsai plants use photosynthesis, have cell walls, and are able to reproduce using fertilization and meiosis. Therefore, they can be considered natural.
How Can Bonsais Appear in the Wild?
How does a plant that requires so much human intervention to create occur in the natural world? The wild bonsai is a rare sight, but it is not imaginary. For a bonsai tree to grow in the wild, a number of things must occur either at the right time or in a specific way.
The most important thing to know about naturally occurring bonsai trees is that they are formed through a variety of environmental factors, which can combine to stunt the growth of a regular tree. While there is no exact science to explain what those factors are, some of them can include:
- Snow or other compressive factors
- Shallow or low nutrient soil
- Wind force
Read on to take a deeper look into how each of these things can manifest to make a wild bonsai tree.
One way that a miniature tree can grow in the wild is through compression. A seed can become trapped, either in a rock crevice, cliff edge, or similar small place, and this can prevent the seed from growing normally. Each year, as that seed begins to grow, the confined area contains and crushes it, resulting in a twisted attempt at growth.
This can also occur as a result of heavy snowfall. If a seed germinates in a snowy environment, the weighty pack of snow can crush down on it and impede its growth. Just as cramping the base of the tree can stop the seedling from growing, a heavy pile of snow from above can also result in a dwarfed tree.
In both cases of compression, the crushed stem may break, but it can then heal and grow anew each season. This continual crushing, pressing for life, crushing, and pressing for life can sometimes result in a small, knobby tree that, though it may look just like its full-size forest brethren, never reaches an impressive height.
Another way this can happen is if the roots of the tree do not have enough space to spread underground. This is compression from underground, rather than spatially or from above. If the roots cannot expand to full length, the tree may not be able to draw in enough water or nutrients, resulting in the same type of stunted growth.
Nutrient Poor Soil
Rocky ground, cliff edges, and soil that is nutritionally poor can all have a similar impact on trees. Trees pull in nutrients from the ground via their roots. If the tree does not get enough nutrients from the soil, it will not grow to full size, and could end up looking like a dwarfed version of its potential.
This can happen if a seed is germinated within a rock face or in a shallow, sandy area. Places like these do not allow the roots to take in the usual amount of water and sustenance found in more nutrient-rich soil, such as a forest floor or similar area with a thick covering of dead leaves and other detritus.
Similar to the root system being compressed, if the roots do not find enough natural nutrients or water in the soil, they cannot properly feed the tree. Without enough food, trees, like people, fail to thrive. While this often kills the tree, it can also sometimes result in a small miracle: the little bonsai tree, a survivor.
A third element that can inhibit natural tree growth is extreme wind. Working in much the same way as the heavy snowpack, wind can also hold back a tree’s growth. If strong, constant winds combine with poor soil, perhaps in a high mountain, coastline, or similar type of terrain, a tree can at times become stunted. Thus, a natural bonsai is formed.
As well as cliff edges, bonsais can be found on cold mountains, windy areas along the coast, and places where the elements combine exactly to prevent the seedling from growing tall and strong, as a full-sized tree would.
Are Home Grown Bonsai Trees Natural?
Even if bonsai trees are natural, where does that leave home grown bonsai trees? To answer this question, some historical context is needed. Tending and creating bonsai trees is a pastime first begun in China as many as 1,000 years ago, but the pursuit was developed further in Japan. In fact, the word “bonsai” is a Japanese word, meaning “tray planted.”
Today, people choose to cultivate bonsai trees for a variety of reasons:
- The pruning and growing process is meditative, and has even been compared to keeping a pet
- It is a part of Japanese culture and tradition
- Creating a realistic miniature forest can be a creative outlet
Bonsai trees are designed through a series of gardening techniques such as pruning, shaping, trimming, grafting, and defoliation.
Though some people believe that bonsai trees come from genetically mutated seeds, the plants are in fact germinated from regular tree seeds. These seeds are grown in wide ceramic pots—similar to trays—and carefully tended to design a perfectly formed tree, with one special feature: the tree is miniature.
Since the trees come from normal seeds, it could be argued that they, too, are natural. After all, one could say that just because a garden is tended, that does not mean it is not natural. The seed of a bonsai tree is the same seed that could be used to grow a full-sized tree, and, therefore, is made up of the same natural elements.
Since it is possible for these miniature trees to be found in nature, it is no stretch of the imagination to say that those occurring in a garden, though tended, are natural as well.
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While many people think that bonsais only occur through careful care and attention, they can in fact appear in the wild as well as in gardens. It takes a precise combination of elements for a bonsai tree to form, but spotting them in the wild is not impossible.
That being said, just because a bonsai tree is carefully tended does not mean that those grown in one’s home are not natural as well. The term ‘natural’ means that something exists in nature, and since bonsais do exist outside of the home and garden, it can be said that even those you may cultivate in a domestic environment are natural plants.