What is pre-bonsai?

At this year’s bonsai show the Cleveland Bonsai Club is going to have a table dedicated to pre-bonsai to show the various stages of bonsai creation. So what is pre-bonsai?

In its simplest form, bonsai translates to “planted in a tray” but you wouldn’t call an herb garden in a shallow pot a bonsai! A good working definition comes from Stephen Orr in The New York Times, “the term should be reserved for plants that are grown in shallow containers following the precise tenets of bonsai pruning and training, resulting in an artful miniature replica of a full-grown tree in nature.”

Of course, bonsai don’t just spring up as mature, dwarfed trees. It can take months, years, or even decades for a tree to reach the stage of refinement where it can truly be considered a bonsai.

There are basically three ways of reaching the final bonsai stage. The first is to grow a bonsai from a seed, cutting, or other propagation method. This is the slowest method and can take many decades to have a tree that resembles and ancient, wild tree. The second method is to collect a tree from the wild that already demonstrates many of the characteristics of a finished bonsai. Such trees may have been dwarfed by harsh climates, poor soil, or physical damage. Even these trees can often require many years to reach the refinement stage.

The most common method is to take a tree that has been growing in the landscape or nursery and cut it down into a smaller tree before beginning to refine the design. Some bonsai artists shop at the same garden centers as homeowners looking for bonsai candidates. Others shop at nurseries that specialize in producing plants intended to become a bonsai.

I’ve mentioned “refinement” several times, so what does that mean? It is extremely rare that even a “wild” bonsai (known as yamadori) are ready to be dug up and put into a bonsai pot as is. Most of them require additional work to shape into their final form, which is done by selective pruning and/or bending branches using wire. As they grow and make the transition into a final bonsai form they are referred to as being “in training” or in the “pre-bonsai” stage.

After months, years, or decades the tree will finally begin to resemble the final form the bonsai artist envisions. The tree trunk will have a decent thickness and has taken on an aged appearance. Strong branches will divide into secondary and tertiary branches. At this point the tree is ready for the design to be refined. Think of it as the finishing touches. Roots, trunk, branches and foliage are all the way the artist has envisioned and the tree is in a bonsai pot, tray, or other planting.

While a bonsai tree is never done growing, and thus never truly “finished,” it is only at this end stage that it can truly be referred to as a bonsai tree.

A few of the author’s pre-bonsai trees are shown here.