To the untrained eye, the tiny trees in a bonsai arrangement look fairly simple. Take a nice, full branch off a tree, stick it into a shallow pot, snip a little here, snip a little there, and presto Bonsai
But actually creating a bonsai tree isn't that easy.
It can take months and even years to prune and shape a tree that normally would be 85 feet tall to be just 15 inches tall.
A key element of good bonsai is the shape of the trunk and limbs. A good bonsai plant has trunks and limbs that are thick at the base and thinner toward the ends, just as a tree in nature does.
The bonsai trainer can force this appearance by leaving a large clump of greenery at the end of the branch. The base of the branch will grow thicker as nutrients and water course through it on their way to nourish the foliage at the end. Once the trunk has the desired shape, the foliage can be trimmed away. A heavy root system showing above the dirt - another prized look in bonsai - can be achieved by the same method.
A look of age can be achieved by "jinning" - the careful peeling and splintering of a branch stub to make it look as though lightning has struck it.
Some hobbyists like to work with old plants; others like to start with saplings. In both cases, the plant is trimmed to have an odd number of main branches - usually three or five, but many more if one is creating a "forest".
Then most leaves and smaller branches are removed "to let the birds through" and to encourage the growth of tiny, new leaves that will look like miniature foliage.
In Japan, some of the trees are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those trees are cherished family heirlooms passed from generation to generation. Many are five or six centuries old. Often, they're not kept in the home, but placed in the hands of a bonsai master. The owners bring them home for parties and other special occasions, and then put them back into the hands of the master for more training.
The Chinese started bonsai centuries ago. The first trees were artificial, made from sponges with paper flowers. Later, the Chinese trained tiny trees in dishes.
The Japanese picked up on the hobby and created their own styles. The Chinese used the 'clip and grow' method, while the Japanese tend to wire the plants. The wires are wound around the limbs, then bent to make the small tree look windswept, twisted with age, asymmetrical or triangular.
The Chinese method is slower; the Japanese method can create more intricate bonsai designs.