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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