Updated: Jan 7
We always hear about people who do things to bonsai trees with the justification being " Look at how they live in nature " but is this really a good thing to do? Lets Take A Look.
I've heard many things get pointed back to this phrase, One of my favourites is when we talk about refining bonsai in in-organic soils rather then organic with the reply being " Trees in nature grow in organic soil and they do just fine". While this is true the goal of the tree in nature and our goals for the tree in the pot are 2 completely different things ( kind of like comparing a regular road car to a drag racing car, essentially both cars but worlds apart when it comes to their goals and how they are treated ). This is where i see people starting to make some simple mistakes simply by relying on information they have gotten from studying trees in nature. If we look at the example of the tree growing in organic soil in nature vs the tree in the bonsai pot growing in in-organic soil we can easily see that the tree in nature has a goal of being the tallest tree in the forest to get the most sunlight, it creates large leaves to increase its photosynthetic capabilities, it puts down a massive tap root to both anchor and supply it self with water, most of the root ball is big thick roots to help support the mass of the tree. All of that mentioned above is great for the tree in nature but horrible for the tree in the bonsai pot. once in refinement we are changing our goals to slower growth, smaller leaves and branching, very fine roots. The tree in the bonsai pot doesn't need to rely on a tap root as we provide it with water as it needs it.
Another common mistake i see in bonsai is people relying on hardiness ratings, we don't do it so much here in Australia but overseas it is very common to hear people talking about their trees being hardy to certain zones. Once again these ratings are all good and well for the plant that is taken home and planted in the ground and allowed to be a natural tree, its root system is insulated by the warm ground, it has a very large root system and most of the time the trees are very very healthy because for the most part they grow wild and put on a lot of top growth. In the bonsai pot though we cant rely on this hardiness information, you see the smaller the pot and root ball the more susceptible to frost the tree will become, if you have done some major pruning within 3 months of the cold season your tree could be in a weakened state which will also bring down its tolerance for frost, you also need to be aware of any pest or fungal disease. It is good practise to keep these things in mind and create a safety buffer for what your tree can handle. Lets just say you purchase a plant that says it can handle temperature's of down to -5c, straight away you should know that's for the plant in its natural environment, not a tree that a pot, also consider the size of the pot, if it has gone into a shallow pot and has a small root system i would be protecting that tree at 0c giving my self a 5c buffer.
Something that isn't as big of a problem but still gets me thinking is looking to trees in nature for bonsai inspiration, i guess this comes down to personal preference and what you like but i have not seen many trees if any at all in nature that inspire any kind of bonsai design in me. trees in nature are usually very straight with branching all over the place and a very un inspiring canopy. Even trees that are collected from nature don't become bonsai until we put the touch of man on them for a few years and manipulate them into the bonsai form. I mean in nature you can go and see some trees with fantastic bark or some great dead wood but this wont really help too much with traditional bonsai design. After all bonsai is an expressive art and if you want natural tree design it would be as easy as planting a tree in a pot and allowing it to grow, this would result in a natural looking tree. There is some sense in going and seeing trees that are growing down the sides of cliffs off the coast to see twisted contorted designs but even then there not much actual bonsai design going on, But you will see a really awesome trunk and a tree that has held onto life for 100s of years. You could take some inspiration about pushing through even the toughest of time through that.
This is just a few examples of comparing trees in nature to bonsai and seeing what you can and cant get away with, I'm hoping this article has helped plant a seed in your brain to help you think a little further beyond what you are just seeing in front of you and thinking about all the differences between the shallow pot environment and the environment of a tree in the ground in nature, always think about the goals of each tree, look at each trees environment and see what it might need from us and what it could provide for it self. Put it this way, only water your bonsai when the tree in the ground out that back gets watered by nature and see which one dies first, that would be a clear indicator that we cant rely on how tree survive in the wild compared to what we can do in a bonsai pot.
Until Next time, Enjoy Your Bonsai Journey.