The Biology of Bonsai Trees: The Science Behind the Traditional Japanese Art Form

The art of bon­sai orig­i­nat­ed in Chi­na. As sub­se­quent­ly refined in Japan, its tech­niques pro­duce minia­ture trees that give aes­thet­ic plea­sure to peo­ple all around Asia and the wider world beyond. This appre­ci­a­tion is reflect­ed in the cou­ple-on-the-street inter­view footage incor­po­rat­ed into “The Biol­o­gy Behind Bon­sai Trees,” the video above from Youtu­ber Jon­ny Lim, bet­ter known as The Back­pack­ing Biol­o­gist. Not only does Lim gath­er pos­i­tive views on bon­sai around Los Ange­les, he also finds in that same city a bon­sai nurs­ery run by Bob Pressler, who has spent more than half a cen­tu­ry mas­ter­ing the art.

Even Pressler admits that he does­n’t ful­ly under­stand the biol­o­gy of bon­sai. Lim’s search for sci­en­tif­ic answers sends him to “some­thing called the api­cal meris­tem.” That’s the part of the tree made of “stem cells found at the tips of the shoots and roots.” Stem cells, as you may remem­ber from their long moment in the news a few years ago, have the poten­tial to turn into any kind of cell.

The cells of bon­sai are the same size as those of reg­u­lar trees, research has revealed, but thanks to the delib­er­ate cut­ting of roots and resul­tant restric­tion of nutri­ents to the api­cal meris­tem, their leaves are made up of few­er cells in total. Lim draws an anal­o­gy with bak­ing cook­ies of dif­fer­ent sizes: “The com­po­nents are exact­ly the same. The only dif­fer­ence is that bon­sais have less start­ing mate­r­i­al.”

Hav­ing gained his own appre­ci­a­tion for bon­sai, Lim also wax­es poet­ic on how these minia­ture trees “still grow on the face of adver­si­ty, and they do so per­fect­ly.” But as one com­menter replies, “Why recre­ate adver­si­ty?” Claim­ing that the process is “crip­pling trees for just aes­thet­ics,” this indi­vid­ual presents one of the known cas­es against bon­sai. But that case, accord­ing to the experts Lim con­sults, is based on cer­tain com­mon mis­con­cep­tions about the process­es involved: that the wires used to posi­tion limbs “tor­ture” the trees, for exam­ple. But as oth­ers point out, do those who make these anti-bon­sai argu­ments feel just as pained about the many lawns that get mown down each and every week?

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Art & Phi­los­o­phy of Bon­sai

This 392-Year-Old Bon­sai Tree Sur­vived the Hiroshi­ma Atom­ic Blast & Still Flour­ish­es Today: The Pow­er of Resilience

What Makes the Art of Bon­sai So Expen­sive?: $1 Mil­lion for a Bon­sai Tree, and $32,000 for Bon­sai Scis­sors

The Art of Cre­at­ing a Bon­sai: One Year Con­densed Con­densed Into 22 Mes­mer­iz­ing Min­utes

Daisu­gi, the 600-Year-Old Japan­ese Tech­nique of Grow­ing Trees Out of Oth­er Trees, Cre­at­ing Per­fect­ly Straight Lum­ber

A Dig­i­tal Ani­ma­tion Com­pares the Size of Trees: From the 3‑Inch Bon­sai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.


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