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Publication Information

Information in this file was originally published under the title Growing Bonsai by the United States Department of Agriculture, Home and Garden Bulletin No. 206, issued August 1973 by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. 20402, Stock No. 0100-02772.

The publication was originally prepared by Henry M. Cathey of the Plant Genetics and Germplasm Institute at Northeastern Region agricultural Research Service.

This pdf version was edited and compiled by C. Scott Clark, technical writer, and web page designer. Other than minor stylistic changes in the text, no other changes were made in content, except for the substitution of color photographs, which replace the original black and white illustrations. Captions were changed as needed. Most photographs (Figures 1-13) were taken by Peter Voynovich and were originally shown in Outstanding American Bonsai by Randy Clark, published in 1989 by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Figure 14 was photographed by Saxon Holt, published in 1994 in Bonsai: an Illustrated Guide to an Ancient Art by Sunset Publishing Corporation, Menlo Park, CA.

This document was last updated on April 6, 1999. This information is also located at Please send comments or questions to


Bonsai are miniature trees grown in pots. The aim of bonsai culture is to develop a tiny tree that has all the elements of a large tree growing in a natural setting. This look is achieved, principally, by branch and root pruning and shaping, but other factors are also important. The texture of the trunk, its look of age, the moss, and the under plantings in the container — all contribute to the illusion of a miniature tree as it is seen in nature.

A presentable bonsai can be created in a few seasons. Cultivating these miniature potted trees is both an intriguing hobby, and a means of adapting a wide range of plants to specialized and decorative uses. Bonsai require daily watering during their growing season, and because the plants are rooted in shallow pots, careful pruning.

Bonsai are kept outdoors most of the year, but — from time to time — these miniaturized versions of nature are brought indoors for display. Only certain tropical trees, shrubs, and vines can be continually kept indoors full time as bonsai.

Bonsai, as an art form, stems from ancient oriental culture. It originated in China and was developed by the Japanese. In the 13th century, the Japanese collected and potted wild trees that had been dwarfed by nature. These naturally formed miniatures were the first bonsai.

When demand for the small trees outstripped the supply, Japanese gardeners began to train bonsai from native trees. They shaped the trees to give them the illusion of age and naturalness. Over the years, the Japanese devised standards of shape and form, which gradually began the classic bonsai styles.

American bonsai are much freer in concept and style than Japanese bonsai. American bonsai growers have recognized that the horticultural and aesthetic rules are important, but are specifically aimed at Japanese culture. Because of this, Americans have taken oriental styles and applied them to plants never grown by the Japanese. Therefore, the rigid procedures and names used by the Japanese are not used in this bulletin.

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