Why Are Bonsai Trees Small?

Bonsai trees are forced to stay small with relentless pruning and shaping by their gardener. They are planted in restrictive containers and their growth is determined by how large the gardener allows it to grow, and so their size can range from 3 inches to 60 inches.

When studying human characteristics, it is common to question which aspects are caused by genetics and which are environmentally influenced. In the case of bonsai trees, there is no need to wonder.

While many people think that bonsai trees are a special breed of tree that are naturally small, that is actually not the case. 

Raising a bonsai tree is one of the largest commitments a gardener can make, as it is one of the most delicate and labor-intensive plants, often compared to having a pet or raising a child.

Read on to learn how and why these gardeners choose to invest countless hours into their bonsai plants.

Keeping It Small

bonsai tree care

Like all trees, bonsai trees all have a central stem that grows out from the trunk and is dominant over the other stems.

This is a phenomenon called apical dominance, the natural tendency of all greenery to grow taller to have greater access to sunlight. Left alone, the tree will grow out of proportion and outside the typical Bonsai patterns

To thwart a bonsai tree’s apical dominance, the gardener must observe and identify the central stems of the tree and prune the top and outer areas so that the tree’s growth will be stimulated in the inner and lower parts instead of growing outwards. 

As trees will naturally want to promote growth on the top and outer areas, it is important to regularly prune your tree during growing season for outdoor bonsai and year round for indoor bonsai.

This maintenance will be the most significant factor in the shape and overall demeanor of your tree.

The Tools

The most common tools used by beginners are normal cutters or twig shears, but using the right tool will make all the difference in helping refine your bonsai into the shape that you want.For example, concave cutters are used to remove branches without leaving unsightly swollen scars on the trunk. 

Japanese pruning saws are often used to cut branches that are too thick for a plier. These tools are useful not only for shaping but for repotting as well.

Sickle knives and saws are used to cut the soil to separate it cleanly from the pot and root hooks and root rakes are used to carefully comb out tangled roots and revitalize old soil.

Other trimming tools used for bonsai include:

  • Leaf cutter
  • Knob cutter
  • Thin pruning saw
  • Sickle saw

Nature vs. Nurture

Bonsai trees are genetically identical to their standard-sized counterparts. Many traditional bonsai trees are Juniper trees, which grow to be anywhere from 66 to 133 feet in nature.

Common types of trees used for bonsai or Juniper, pine, the Japanese Maple, cedar, and the Dwarf jade, to name a few. 

One of the most famous bonsai trees, sold for $1.3 million at the International Bonsai Convention in Takamatsu, Japan. is genetically a large white pine, which can grow up to 210 feet in the wild. 

Without the constant size training, the bonsai becomes no different than their larger counterparts.

If a bonsai tree were to ever be extracted from its pot and planted into the ground with no incumbents, it would eventually grow to become a full-sized specimen of its species. 

Is Size Training Ethical?

Why Are Bonsai Scissors So Expensive

Because bonsai trees are forced to remain small by being subjected to pruning and restricted pots, there is some controversy as to how ethical the art of bonsai is. It has been accused to be a kind of torture to a plants by forcing it into a desired form and cutting away at its limbs day by day.

It can be likened to the ancient Chinese tradition of foot binding, where the feet of high-born ladies were bound so that they would not grow any larger than that of a child’s.

During its time, this practice was seen as a privilege and whatever pain the subject endured was a symbol of their status and prosperity.


However, accusations of the supposed cruelty of bonsai are hotly debated by bonsai enthusiasts. Bonsai trees are essentially just another type of potted plant, and all potted plants are trimmed and shaped to some extent.

Wiring is also a nonpermanent technique and leaves no lasting scars on the plants. This is a technique similar to  the support sticks used with orchids or fruit trees.

They actually support the limbs of the bonsai as it is being trained to retain a shape and is not painful to the tree in any way. 

Each bonsai gardener is also aware that because the bonsai tree has to live in a small container, it will be much more susceptible to becoming dehydrated.

Because bonsai roots dry up quickly, bonsai gardeners often pay much more attention to the plant to make sure they are hydrated.

Furthermore, all plants, whether they be flowering, fruit-bearing, greenery, are pruned systematically to promote long term health and growth, not to cause pain.

Bonsai gardeners also assert that the purpose of this art is to raise and nurture a healthy bonsai tree for the rest of its life.   

Feng Shui

Although the rules of feng shui are often universally applicable to various settings, the rules concerning bonsai trees are a bit more variable and often depend on the individual’s personal feelings towards their bonsai and where they intend to place it.

Individuals are often advised to trust their own intuition over standard feng shui rules regarding their bonsai plants.

While one person may feel at peace and feel that a sense of balance is restored by placing a bonsai plant in their living room, it can have adverse effects for another individual who is sharing the space. 

Some Feng Shui experts even advise against placing a bonsai tree inside your home for this reason, as it can signify stunted growth and cause regression on the lives of the inhabitants.

These experts recommend erring on the side of safety, and keeping bonsai plants outdoors to prevent negative psychological and physical influences.

Some other places you can place your bonsai other than your home are:

  • The Garden
  • Outdoor Pathway
  • Office Space
  • Patio

How To Trim a Juniper Bonsai Tree might be an interesting article for you.

Cultural Take

The most valued specimens of bonsai trees are centuries old and are passed down through generations as treasured heirlooms. In this practice, these bonsai signify the prosperity and importance of tradition in their family.

The practice of bonsai originated in China as a form of art, where the purpose of sculpting these trees was to mimic large natural landscapes in miniature. Chinese bonsai often uses ceramic sculptures and rocks to simulate natural settings and to evoke emotions of chaos and power in a controlled, miniature environment. 


Because the art of bonsai is such an invasive process, it is understandable how this practice can be misconstrued as unethical. But you would be hard-pressed to find another house plant that demands more of its gardener than the bonsai tree. Keeping a bonsai tree small requires a delicate hand and never-ending patience. 

The act of pruning does not alter the essence of the bonsai tree, it only changes its outer appearance, as it does to all domesticated plants.

The petite beauty of a bonsai tree is a result of countless hours and delicate handiwork of often not only a single gardener but a continued effort spanning lifetimes.

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