Bonsai: The Stressful Science Behind the Little Trees

by Saheel Mehta


Bonsai is just like any other art form that seeks to evoke a sense of contemplation. Each tree is cut, manipulated. and shaped to a precise shape. This Brazilian peppertree at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum bears a unique scar in its trunk.

The ancient arts of bonsai and penjing are deeply rooted traditions in Japan and China. For over a thousand years, man has displayed its balance with nature through pruning shears. Bonsai and penjing stunt the growth of trees to miniature sized works of living art. Despite the fact that some of the world’s oldest bonsai are over thousand years old, my friend Christine is struggling to keep her miniature tree alive. The folks over at The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is located in Washington D.C seem to have maintaining bonsai down to a science. I am on a quest to learn the science at the root of Japan’s little trees to help Christine revive her moribund plant.

Christine ponders the future of Gerald’s remaining days in her apartment.

Aluminum wires are used help shape branches and the direction of each bonsai. This pasture juniper was brought into a greenhouse for the winter. The redness of the leaves simulates the changing of the seasons.


Museum specialist and curator, Michael James, of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum prepares looks out to the snow covered courtyard waiting for the day that the bonsai can be placed outside. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum in Washington D.C. is home to over 150 different bonsai.

A guide to bonsai wires is displayed in the demonstration center. The thickness of the wire applied depends on the strength of the branch and the intended movement.

Fruits and flowers produced by bonsai trees remain their original size, yet leaf size is drastically smaller, as shown on this Sasanqua camellia.

The Chinese art of penjing, the progenitor to bonsai, often displayed landscapes and scenery on a miniature scale. Here three men drink tea under the Chinese elms. Penjing is slightly more relaxed and whimsical than bonsai. Stones evoke a natural landscape.

Branches are bound together using wire. Distinct color changes in the trunk and branches could indicate sections of tree that are purposefully dead or alive as seen in this sargent juniper bonsai.

Standard toolkit for any bonsai caretaker at the museum (left to right): leaf trimmer (in pocket), butterfly shears, concave cutter, tweezer with spatula, plier/nipper, and wire cutter.

Gerald’s diminished stature and dead branches stand out next to his immaculately pampered cousins.   


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