Trimmed or Tortured?

English Elm Ulmus procera (1987)

I first have to admit that I own a Bonsai. It’s a Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, and I’ve owned it since 1993. I won’t be showing a photo of it because, well, it looks a bit down-at-heel. Of course, it’s winter here, so my tree has bare branches just now. However, even when it was covered with leaves last summer, I failed to achieve that perky cloud-pruned look, despite my best (but not quite dedicated enough) efforts.

Banksia serrata Saw Banksia (1990)

People seem to have rather strong views about Bonsai, ranging from adoring them to positively hating them. There’s even a Twitter feed about hating Bonsai! Some arguments against are about cruelty to trees, mould spores, insect infestations and simply disliking the way a Bonsai looks. Positives include helping to improve the air ( if kept inside) and again, appearance. I suppose the patience and dedication required to own and maintain a Bonsai could fall into either camp.

Ficus rubiginosa Port Jackson Fig (1957)

I recently visited the National Bonsai and Penjing* Collection in Canberra. It’s part of the National Arboretum which is itself, worth a visit. The Bonsai collection has about 75 trees on view at any one time and I was entranced by them. (Obviously I belong to the group of people who like Bonsai, even though I lack patience and dedication). In the late afternoon sun, and with the Bonsai kept in an area with slatted walls and roof, it was difficult to take photos, but I have managed a few to share with you.

Olea europaea European Olive (1969)

Having once owned about 400 olive trees, I was fascinated to see this 52 year old Bonsai.

Melaleuca rhaphiophylla Freshwater Paperbark (1999)
Pinus densiflora Japanese Red Pine (2005)

If you are interested, you can click on the link below which will take you to the National Arboretum’s 3D virtual tour of the collection

*The main difference between Bonsai and Penjing is that Bonsai is a more refined, stylistic depiction of nature (often in single tree displays), whereas Penjing is more natural and wild (usually displayed in a landscape form). Penjing originated in China and has been practised for over 1400 years. The National Aboretum website has a history of Bonsai.

I wonder which group you belong to? Do you like Bonsai and admire the work that goes into maintaining them, or would you never want to have one in your house or garden? Perhaps somewhere in between?

37 Comments Add yours

  1. I like nature to take its course, but I admire the skill and dedication of those that like Bonsai.

    1. Jane says:

      Yes, I agree with you, Gerard.

  2. Vicki says:

    I love Bonsai for all it’s beauty. I see them for the shape and skill of the artist. But then I am a visual person with an art & design education when young(er).

    In trying to decide what creative endeavour I might undertake at home at the moment, Bonsai plants and ceramic pots in the local Bunnings plant nursery were an option, but then I decided that my balcony was too windy (and there was certainly no room indoors even though I have fantastic light in my tiny lounge room).

    In your photos, its the trunks and root shapes that really caught my eye.

    BTW talking of light…..I put my Peace lily and Kentia palm out on the balcony while in hospital and recovery mode at home after my hip replacement and they both vitrually died. I cut the almost-dead stalks down to 2″ high and would you believe both plants are as lush and leafy as ever – only 5 months later. I keep looking at them as I dust the tables they’re sitting on indoors and just…..can’t quite believe they were virtually dead.

    1. Jane says:

      There is certainly a great deal of skill involved in creating and maintaining Bonsai, far more than I have…. that would be obvious if you could see mine. It would be a pleasant pastime for you, Vicki, if you had the room.
      I’m glad to hear about your plants’ rejuvenation. The tenacity of plants never ceases to amaze me.
      Are you doing a blog at all? I clicked on your address to no avail. Do you have another one?

      1. Vicki says:

        Yes, I have set up a (temporary) blog with photos in my archives paired up with quotes at
        I usually only post between the dreaded medical appointments and my Koren Netflix addiction, but after my heart surgery, when I have more energy, I hope to go back to blogging a bit more often.

        1. Jane says:

          I’ve followed, and I look forward to seeing you back with better health and more energy.

          1. Vicki says:

            Hopefully after my open-heart surgery in the near future, I will not be breathless and exhausted so easily, but it will be a long recovery time for me (as I have multiple other serious health conditions of pain/fatigue etc. and I haven’t been able to resolve the ongoing hip/lumbar spine pain before the heart surgery as I wanted). The heart surgery has now become more urgent with breathlessness and chest pain just walking from my desk to the bathroom. 🙂

          2. Jane says:

            That sounds terrible, Vicki. I’m sorry you’re in such a bad way and hope you can have the heart op soon, covid permitting.

          3. Vicki says:

            Thanks Jane. Heart surgery is exempt from lockdown and restrictions (except for a mask in hospital I imagine). I knew the surgery was eventually coming…… day.

  3. lisinmayenne says:

    I have to admit I like trees to be wild, untamed and outdoors (a bit like myself at times! 😉) so no bonsai for me. That said, I’ve found your post and photos really fascinating. Thanks for sharing, Jane.

    1. Jane says:

      Yes, I think a lot of people would prefer the untamed look. Can’t help but admire the skill, though.

  4. Very interesting post. I find this fascinating, but, at my age it’s a bit of a non-starter! 🤔😁👩‍🌾

    1. Jane says:

      I understand what you mean.

  5. Pádraig says:

    I’d fall into the lack of dedication brigade!

    1. Jane says:

      Easily done, I think! Other things ( easier ones) going on in the garden.

  6. I quite like bonsai but I wouldn’t have the patience to own one and maintain it. My dad has a couple which are probably 20 years old and they are quite beautiful.

    1. Jane says:

      Yes, it’s the maintenance that is the problem for me. I’ve a tendency to forget about it for periods of time, and I think Bonsai need to be checked and trimmed regularly.

  7. Wow! There are some beauties on display! I like and admire them, but I’m too nervous to own one! I’d be scared I’d kill it! My brother has a bonsai redwood forest which he has owned for a couple of years now. He enjoys caring for it. I think I’ll just stick to my ordinary garden plants!

  8. John Hric says:

    I must belong to the most primative group. Does a tree in a small pot trimmed by nature count ? Thanks

    1. Jane says:

      I’ve read that a tree in a pot trimmed by nature is considered a great way to start a Bonsai!

  9. We inherited a gingko in a pot when we bought our house 7 years ago. It grows a bit each year and is potbound – so I guess it is being tortured. But it is too big to plant out.

    1. Jane says:

      That would be a way to start a Bonsai, if you desired. We have a ficus in a large pot. It isn’t a Bonsai, but it has been in the pot for at least 20 years. I can’t plant it in the garden because the frost would kill it. Every now and then I get it out and cut the roots back and it seems to be happy with its living conditions.

  10. Thanks for this fascinating post. I didn’t know that Bonsai originated in China. The virtual 3D tour through the link was entrancing and very informative. The age of some of the exhibited trees is incredible. I have a reverence for trees and was given a Cape wild olive bonsai as a gift. I failed terribly at looking after it; it was prone to pests and dropped its leaves. I felt obliged to return it to the nursery for emergency treatment and each time the horticulturist would lecture me for being so neglectful! I have three wild olive trees growing in the garden which thrive! So I guess i fall into the latter group by default.

    1. Jane says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you for your comment. I would like to be able to take my elm somewhere for rejuvenation as I have failed also.
      Olive trees are just about my favourite. I love to see the silvery undersides of their leaves as they toss in the breeze.

  11. Tina says:

    Great post. They are remarkably beautiful, but I’d never have the patience to care for one. I was studying pottery for a while at a community college and my teacher had some lovely bonsai plants. Not for me though!

    1. Jane says:

      Understandable. They certainly require a lot of commitment.

  12. Cathy says:

    I find them fascinating but would not want one myself. 😉 In the right surroundings and with the right care they can be very thought-provoking. I lived in Japan for a while and my neighbour was out tending his garden bonsai almost daily. The snip snip of his special pruners did rather get on my nerves but they were immaculate and clearly gave him great pleasure.

    1. Jane says:

      That’s a fascinating little vignette, the neighbour clipping his Bonsai! Living in Japan must have been an interesting experience.

      1. Cathy says:

        Very interesting, but I do prefer Germany for many reasons, one of which is the climate!

  13. Kris P says:

    The first Bonsai specimens I saw were created from rather ordinary junipers and I wasn’t impressed but I’ve seen some fantastic specimens since, including a few documenting forests of sorts. However, I know I don’t have the patience (or possibly even the acute attention to detail) necessary to refine and maintain their beauty.

    1. Jane says:

      I was interested in the variety of trees used for the bonsai. I didn’t expect to see Australian natives, for instance, although I suppose there’s no reason why they couldn’t be used.
      I do admire the amount of technique and patience bonsai enthusiasts have.

  14. Gerrie Mackey says:

    I never liked bonsai until I saw, as part of a documentary, a Japanese man pruning Bonsai tree, and it was so beautifully done, and so much attention to detail, I changed my mind about the whole process. I do love looking at the Bonsai collection at the National Arboretum too, it is inspiring. That said, I am so busy in our garden, I don’t think I could contemplate the sheer dedication needed to grow and develop a Bonsai plant.

    1. Jane says:

      I would love to see that documentary. I might help me do the right thing by my bonsai!

  15. shoreacres says:

    I enjoy bonsai, and it was quite a revelation when I learned that trees other than junipers, pines, and such could be trained in such a manner. It’s always brings a smile when I hear gardeners say they don’t have the patience and dedication for bonsai. In truth, the patience and dedication they devote to their gardens is equally substantial — I suspect there just isn’t time for both!

    1. Jane says:

      You have made a very good point there. Perhaps devoted bonsai growers don’t have a garden per se, but more of a display area, whereas, speaking for myself, I have quite a large garden, and it does take up quite a lot of my time.
      At the National Arboretum, I was especially impressed by the native banksias and paperbarks. The banksias particularly, had gnarled trunks that reminded me of the Star Wars character Jabba the Hutt!

  16. hb says:

    I admire and enjoy them very much, but don’t have any. To grow anything in a pot, keeping it healthy, is beyond my skill.

    There are bonsai classes and clubs in my region. Seems as if it’s not something one can learn by trial and error, as in-the-ground gardening can be. Seems that formal classes and other types of training and collaboration must be the best way to get satisfactory results. By “satisfactory results” I mean not killing the poor plants.

    In this local area, sadly there is so little interest in plants or nature, anyone who does anything with plants–houseplants, bonsai, tomatoes in a pot on the balcony–anything at all, gives me joy and hope.

    1. Jane says:

      Thanks for your reply, hb. I understand completely what you mean about feeling joy when you see a small gardening effort. We are the only people in our street ( it’s a small street) who have a garden, and when the people across the road planted two mature olive trees on their front lawn, I almost somersaulted for joy…. and I’m definitely not in the somersaulting age group.😉

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