Bonsai FAQs

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What is a bonsai tree?

The Japanese word bonsai translates as “tree in a pot.” Bonsai are living plants, typically a tree, shrub or woody herb grown in a pot and trained to develop characteristics found in a very old tree.


How old are bonsai trees?

There are two ways to measure bonsai age: real age (the time the tree has been growing), and the age of training (the time the tree has been worked on). Some trees in The Huntington's collection were hundreds of years old when they were collected for training into bonsai. Others were under 20 years old. Both might have the same age of training. There are a few trees in the collection that have been in training since the 1950’s, which is fairly old for an American bonsai.


Where do bonsai trees come from?

Some trees, such as the California junipers and oaks, are collected from nature. Some, like pomegranates, are collected from urban landscapes. Many come from plant nurseries. The bonsai displayed at The Huntington have been donated or acquired from private bonsai hobbyists, primarily but not exclusively from Southern California. The trees in the Huntington collection, which includes the Golden State Bonsai Federation collection, represent some of the finest and oldest examples of bonsai in the United States.


How do bonsai trees stay alive is such small containers?

The trees are grown in a mix of crushed, cleaned lava, pumice and naturally compressed clay aggregate, including imported Japanese clay products. This mix provides a stable structure with a balance of aeration, water and nutrient storage and a sharpness that promotes strong root development. Pots dry out as trees use up moisture, which is why trees must be watered daily.


Do they stay in their pots forever?

As a bonsai continues to grow, the pot will eventually fill with roots and compress, which can weaken a tree. Every once in a while and only at the right time of year, a tree has to be repotted, some of the old soil and roots removed, and put in new bonsai mix so the tree has room for new roots to grow. Younger and deciduous trees need more frequent repotting; older conifers can sometimes stay in their pots 15-20 years.


What is wrapped around the branches?

Some branches are wrapped in wire, either anodized (colored) aluminum or annealed (heated/softened) copper. Wire is used to move and hold a trunk or branches in a certain position until new tissues grow and harden. Branches are wired in a spiral fashion so even if the wrap cuts into the tree, it won’t girdle the branch, or cut off the sap flow all the way around, which can kill a branch.


Why are bonsai trees outdoors?

Trees need lots of light and air, and even benefit from the moisture in the air. Interiors are too dark and dry for them to thrive. Different trees have different needs for light. In many cases, this means full morning sun, and then shade or partial shade in the afternoon when temperatures rise.


Why are there different trees and different shapes?

Bonsai are not one species, nor are they one shape. Today, bonsai is practiced around the world and new indigenous tree species, forms and styles are being developed all the time. Trees are also shaped by their environment. Trees at high latitudes develop tall, columnar forms that allow them to capture sunlight at low angles. Trees in the tropics are more broad and flat, which is the most efficient way to capture light coming from directly above.


Trimming BonsaiWhat challenges do bonsai face?

There are many challenges to growing a bonsai, the most important being the health of the tree. They won't survive  indoors and can die for many reasons, from improper watering to untreated pests and/or disease, from overworking the tree to neglect. Bonsai with rocks glued to the surface of the soil are dying the day they’re purchased, although they may not look like it. Most new bonsai die because they’re kept indoors where it is too dry and dark for them to survive.


How do I get started in bonsai?

A local bonsai club is the best way to learn about the art, as well as the the local horticulture and available resources, including teachers. There are several bonsai clubs in Southern California and throughout the country. The Golden State Bonsai Federation lists member clubs throughout California.

The Huntington also offers bonsai classes at various times throughout the year, including at the annual GSBF Bonsai-A-Thon held on the last weekend of February, and also via the Bonsai Academy, an instructional program held twice a year at The Huntington on the fundamentals of growing and appreciating bonsai. Visit The Huntington's online calendar



About The Huntington

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. and Arabella Huntington. Henry Huntington, a key figure in the...

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