Plant World

Soil, Gardening, and Farming

What is the secret of bonsai, the Japanese art of growing dwarf trees?

John Chapman (1774–1845), called Johnny Appleseed, did plant apple orchards in the Midwest. He also encouraged the development of orchards farther west by giving pioneers free seedlings. His depiction as a barefoot tramp roaming the countryside scattering seeds at random from a bag slung over his shoulder, however, is more popular legend than fact. He was a curious figure who often preached from the Bible and from religious philosophy to passersby. At the time of his death in 1845 he was a successful businessman who owned thousands of acres of orchards and nurseries.

These miniature trees with tiny leaves and twisted trunks can be centuries old. To inhibit growth of the plants, they have been carefully deprived of nutrients, pruned of their fastest-growing shoots and buds, and kept in small pots to reduce the root systems. Selective pruning, pinching out terminal buds, and wiring techniques are devices used to control the shape of the trees. Bonsai possibly started during the Chou dynasty (900–250 B.C.E.) in China, when emperors made miniature gardens that were dwarf representations of the provincial lands that they ruled.


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