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The Bonsai Dictionary

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

The art of Bonsai carries a lot of terms that are used both in English and Westernised Japanese. Find below a list of Common words used along with a brief description to help you understand Bonsai a little better.

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Here is a list of common Bonsai terms and phrases you may come across on your Journey. I hope to be able to keep adding to this list overtime so it is an extensive library of Bonsai Phrases. You can also see our previous blog on common Japanese Terms for some of the Japanese equivalents and terms.

Adult Foliage : This can be seen on some types of tree where the tree has 2 distinct types of foliage that is either Juvenile or Adult. A tree that has adult foliage can revert back to juvenile if the tree is stressed. This is commonly seen on some juniper species.

Air Layer : Removing a section of a tree by removing bark in a ring type fashion and wrapping it in sphagnum moss so that new roots grow from the site where the bark was removed. At this point you can cut that section of the tree off leaving you with 2 separate trees.

Apex : Apex refers to the very top of the tree, This is usually formed by shaping the top most branches in a fashion that completes the style of the tree and is usually the hardest section of the tree to style properly.

Broom Style : This is a style of Bonsai that resembles a broom that is standing up with the handle on the ground and the fibres up in the air. This is a very basic style and suits trees with a very fine branch structure.

Bud Break : This refers to when the buds on a tree begin to open after swelling. this is most commonly seen just before the spring season on deciduous material.

Bunjin Style : Bunjin is a style of Bonsai that is very hard to explain or place guidlines on, it is very similar to a literati tree but in most cases has a single branch that falls down low on the tree. It is said for a tree to be Bunjin it must follow a Wabi Sabi design meaning it is somewhat free flowing in nature and carries imperfections that are admired.

Callus : Callus is formed when a wound is made on a tree. Callus forms as the cambium layer begins to roll over the wound to close it up to protect the wood from rotting.

Cambium : A thin layer of tissue found underneath the bark of a tree that is usually green in colour. The cambium is found between the Xylem and Phloem and helps with secondary growth including new tissues and roots.

Cutting : A cutting is a piece of growth that has been pruned from a tree and is mixed with hormone powder or gel to promote new root growth on that shoot to be able to grow it as a new plant. There are 2 types of main cuttings which are softwood cuttings taken from un lignified branch's and Hardwood cuttings taken from lignified branch's.

Deciduous : A type of plant that drops its leaves for a dormancy period during the winter season. These trees are usually displayed during this period to show of their highly ramified branch structure.

Defoliation : A technique in which the artist removes the leaves from the tree to start a second smaller flush of foliage on the tree. There is also partial defoliation which is used to thin the outer layer of leaves out on a tree to allow better light and air penetration to the inside of the tree.

Drip Line : This describes the area where water naturally drips off the edge of a tree, This can be outside of the pot or inside of the pot. If your tree has a dripline outside of the pot you may still need to water on days that it rains.

Elongation : Elongation is a word used to describe shoots that are extending in growth out beyond the silhouette of the tree. If we want to thicken a branch we would say that we are allowing the branch to Elongate.

Formal Upright Style : This is 1 of the 5 basic style of Bonsai, Formal upright consists of a straight trunk line all the way up to the apex which is sitting directly vertical to the base of the tree.

Harden Off : You will always here Bonsai practitioners talk about growth that has hardened off, This is a term used to describe the act of new softer foliage becoming mature and Photosynthetic. When a new growth emerges it is soft and not photosynthetic, once the foliage hardens and usually darkens in colour the foliage has " Hardened Off " and is now photosynthetic and less likely to burn. Some foliage gets a waxy coating once it has hardened off.

Informal Upright Style : This is another of the 5 basic styles of Bonsai, Informal Upright is an upright tree but the trunk line moves away from the base as it moves towards the apex. The apex should end up back Vertically over the base though.

Internode : Internode is the space or gap between each set of leaves or needles on a branch. In Bonsai the shorter the internodes the more desirable the growth is due to its highly compact and ramified nature.

Jin : Jin is simply a branch that has died or been stripped of bark to create dead wood on a tree to represent the harsh environment the tree has endured. This gives the appearance of an aged tree.

Kabudachi : This is more commonly referred to as a raft style. A raft style is a tree that has fallen over but has still continued to grow through the odds. This style usually shows a trunk that runs horizontal along the soil surface and each branch looks to be a separate trunk.

Kusamono : Kusamono are accent plants made up of small grasses or flowering plants that are used to display next to your tree in a formal display setting. a common 3 point display will have your Bonsai, A kusamono and a hanging scroll.

Latent Buds : This refers to Buds that the tree has set but have not yet been activated, These buds can usually be found at the base of existing leaves or by themselves on deciduous trees during the winter time after the leaves have dropped. These buds usually become active when the weather begins to warm after winter or if they are buds found at the base of leaves they will become active if the active growing tip of a branch is removed.

Lateral Buds : This describes buds that are growing on the sides of branch's. Lateral Buds are favoured on Black pine for example as they make for nicer branch structure and ramification.

Leader : You will often hear artist's talk about selecting a new leader, This refers to when a tree is cut back heavily and what was a branch is now wired to grow on as the new trunk line. This is referred to as a leader.

Literati Style : Literati style is most often seen on material that has a long slender trunk line, This paired with having the foliage all in the top 1/3 of the tree makes a literati design. This is usually coupled with a round pot with the apex landing outside of the pots rim.

MochiKomi : The age of a tree usually judged by the time it has been in a pot rather then the actual age of the tree. A tree with MochiKomi has been trained as a Bonsai for a long time.

Neagari : This is a style of Bonsai in which the trees root system is grown over a rock or some other hard object, Once the roots have grown over the object and thickened and hardened off the object is then removed leaving the tree standing up on its roots system like stilts. This style is more common with Ficus, Trident Maple and Chinese Elm.

NPK : This refers to the main fertiliser ingredients that you will find in most fertilisers. This is ( n ) Nitrogen *for above ground growth ( p ) Phosphorus *for root growth ( k ) Potassium *for fruiting and flowering. The levels of each of these will be different in each fertiliser depending on what the fertiliser is for. if you are trying to get lots of new growth on top of the tree the fertiliser will have a high N value. If the fertiliser is aimed at root growth it will have a higher P Value.

Opposite Leaf Pattern : This describes a growth pattern in which pairs of leaves grow exactly opposite of each other on each side of the branch. These are often trimmed on a staggering pattern to replicated an Alternate Leaf Pattern. But some styles keep the opposite leaf pattern in tact.

Petiole : This refers to the stem of a leaf.

Pinching : This is a technique used to pinch out new growth on a branch tip to suppress the growth of that particular branch. This is commonly seen on Japanese maple. The central bud is pinched to suppress growth and keep shorter internodes.

Root Over Rock : This style is similar to the Neagari style except the rock is not removed from the planting and it gives the effect that the tree is growing on top of or from the rock.

Semi cascade Style : Another of the 5 basic styles of Bonsai is the semi-cascade, This style shows a tree that leans to one side and has a tail that goes beyond the top lip of the pot but doesn't exceed the bottom lip of the pot. A Semi-Cascade is most often planted in a deeper square or hexagonal pot but is not restricted to this type of pot.

Shari : This is the effect of creating deadwood feature on the main trunk of the tree by pulling back the bark all the way to the cambium layer. The wood is then often stained white by applying lime sulphur. One needs to take caution when doing this not to kill any live veins the tree may have as this can cause the death of branch's or in some cases the whole tree. Shari is more common on Juniper Species.

Slanting Style : This is a style of tree that has a trunk that leans heavily in one direction with the apex landing away from the vertical line of the base of the tree.

Stomata : These are microscopic pores on the surface of a leaf where gas exchange happens.

Stratification : A cold period a seed needs to under go before it can be planted and germinate.

Systemic : This describes chemicals that can be applied to a tree soil system and taken up by the tree to fight pests or infections through its sap, When a pest feeds on the tree it is poisoned by the chemical being present.

Whorl Growth : This describes growth on a tree that grows in a circular pattern around the the trunk or branch resulting in a Whorl. This type of growth can cause swelling and knuckles so it needs extra attention.

Windswept Style: This is a style of Bonsai in which all the foliage is styled or " Swept " to one side of the tree simulating an environment that is exposed to heavy winds.

Yamadori : Yamadori refers to " Trees Collected From The Mountains". This is a common phrase in Bonsai now that just refers to any material that was collected from nature.

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