Bonsai is the art of cultivating miniature trees by growing them in containers and carefully pruning their roots and branches, thus controlling their growth (for these trees do not stay so small in nature), and training the trunks and crowns to grow into desired shapes.
When most people think of miniature trees they think of Japanese bonsai, however this art form actually originated in China, where it is called penjing. From China it passed to Japan, and to Korea, where it is known as bunjae. There are philosophical as well as aesthetic differences between the three forms.
Calling the tree a "bonsai tree" is a misnomer, because there are over 250 trees species used to grow bonsai, such as the Japanese maple, the Amur maple, the Chinese elm, the Japanese black, red and white pines.
Bonsai cultivators acquire these trees in different ways - either by using methods such as cuttings, air layering, and grafting which utilize already existing trees, or by purchasing seeds for planting. Now, any long-time reader of my newsletter will tell you that Iím not a big fan of beginners (or even more advanced hobbyists) starting their trees from seed. These days, there are simply too many other inexpensive options out there for starting a new specimen, to include starting a tree from a cutting. Having said that, it is a frequently asked question; so letís cover the basics.
Where to Find Bonsai Seeds
There are plenty of sources for bonsai seeds, from both local neighborhood gardening stores and online businesses (see bottom of page for Bonsai Seeds Available now)
In order for bonsai seeds to germinate, they have to be properly taken care of to ensure that they remain fresh. All seeds should be stored in a refrigerator until they are ready to be planted. This is how they should be stored by seed sellers, and if you're not ready to plant them once you get them, store them in your refrigerator - properly labeled of course!
There are two methods used to germinate seeds: to let them germinate the natural way, or to force them to generate.
Plant (or sow, as the technical term would have it) the seeds outside, in appropriate soil in the autumn. With 250 different species, each of them will grow best in different soils. The seeds will overwinter, and by the next spring, they will have sprouted.
In order to force germinate your seeds, there are three steps that typically must be followed. (Some seeds require different methods than others - so always verify the proper strategy for the species you have purchased.)
Every seed has a shell - and some shells are harder than others. The scarification process softens the shells and allows water to reach the interior. Therefore, place the seeds in a bowl of water for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Depending on species, some may need to be boiled, others only need water at room temperature.
Seeds that are not viable will float to the top of the water and may be discarded, viable seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl.
For those species that need cool weather to prepare them for the germination process in summer, place the seeds in moistened paper towels, put them in a ziplock plastic bag, and store these in your refrigerator for from thirty days to one hundred and twenty. You'll want to check them periodically to see if any have germinated, but normally this won't occur until the proper time.
For some species, the cold stratification process should be interrupted by a period of time called "heat stratification" - simply place the seeds in a bowl in your room, exposed to room temperature, for a period of time, before returning them to the fridge to continue cold stratification. Again, this depends on the species of tree you're trying to grow.
During spring, plant the seeds in soil appropriate for the species. You can plant them either outside, or in a small pot to keep inside. Bury the seeds not more than a half-inch down in the soil, and keep the soil moist.
Once the seedlings have sprouted, you're ready for the next step!
Bonsai Seeds I Recommend (all for $2.95):