Bonsai is a form of art and gardening that is believed to pave a path toward spiritual enlightenment. The practice of bonsai is also a form of wabi-sabi, an artistic expression that celebrates impermanence, the beauty of imperfection, and acceptance of growth, decay, and death in nature.
Since bonsai is underpinned by a philosophy steeped in Zen concepts, it's little wonder that cannabis and bonsai are a natural combination. Many cannabis users will attest to the plant's ability to offer glimpses into an enlightened state of being and a heightened sense of peace and acceptance. On an esoteric level, adherents of canna-bonsai believe the practice fosters a sense of connection and understanding with the plant.
But, there are also more pragmatic reasons that marijuana bonsai trees — also known as canna-bonsai or “budsai” — are increasing in popularity. Cannabis bonsai plants allow the cultivation of cannabis virtually anywhere. Even an apartment dweller living in the most compact of studios in New York can nurture a miniature cannabis plant and reap the benefits of their miniature harvest.
What is bonsai?
Bonsai is the practice of growing ornamental, artificially dwarfed plants and trees in containers. Bonsai plants are believed to have originated in Japan, but the practice has its roots in China, where it is popular as an art form and horticultural method. The Chinese began practicing pen-jing, creating miniature landscapes, more than 2000 years ago. Tiny reproductions of landscapes were believed to be imbued with magical properties, which could then be transferred to students that focused on them.
During the Kamakura period of Japanese history from 1192 to 1333, many cultural traditions from China were adopted and adapted by the Japanese. The art of bonsai began to emerge and diverge from Chinese pen-jing. Japanese bonsai focuses on growing individual trees of short stature rather than creating entire tiny landscapes. In the same vein, canna-bonsai focuses on growing individual miniature cannabis plants.
“The word 'bonsai' is a Japanese term that means 'planted in a container',” said Harry Williams, founder and CEO of cannabis cultivation magazine Grow Reporter. “This type of plant is prevented from growing into its normal size through a number of different techniques. Today, bonsai is widely popular across Asia and in several parts of the world.”
When planted in restrictive containers or pots, the tree's ability to absorb nutrients and develop an extensive root system is constrained, dwarfing its growth. Bonsai cultivation also adheres to certain aesthetic ideals. Bonsai practitioners engage in careful and deliberate pruning so that the grower slowly manipulates the bonsai plant to take on the appearance of an older, more mature tree.
What cultural traditions underpin bonsai?
There's a traditional Japanese saying 花鳥風月 or kachu fugetsu, which literally translates as “flower, bird, wind, moon.” These simple words convey a more profound meaning — by experiencing the beauties of nature, people can learn about themselves. Bonsai cultivation in Japan became aligned with the belief that planting miniature trees was a meditative, reflective, and harmonious art form that enhanced communion with nature.
It's little wonder that bonsai became interwoven with Zen Buddhism, which emerged in the Kamakura period of Japanese history simultaneously with bonsai. According to historians, Buddhist monks were the main teachers of bonsai in Japan for many years. Zen forms part of the religious practice of Buddhism, but many individuals embrace Zen concepts without practicing the religion.
There are several Zen virtues required for successful bonsai horticulture. First, the growth of the tree should be guided by human hands but human manipulation of the plant should not be obvious. Bonsai should also always be planted slightly off-center and not blocking the center point of the container, which Buddhists believe represents the place where heaven and earth meet. The bonsai tree should also have a significant impact on the artist's state of mind. Daily care should become a meditative and reflective time for the practitioner.
An ancient scroll dating from the Kamakura period speaks to the intention underlying the cultivation of bonsai: To appreciate and find beauty in curiously potted trees is to find love in deformity.
How did cannabis bonsai become a trend?
Marijuana bonsai trees initially gathered momentum as a method of producing clones while saving space. However, many growers found other reasons for cultivating cannabis bonsai, increasing the popularity of the trend in the cannabis community.
“Compared with other bonsai-suitable plant varieties, growing a cannabis bonsai tree is quite a bit easier,” said Williams. “Canna-bonsai has become a trend because the marijuana market is increasing as it becomes more legal across many parts of the US and Canada. It requires less space for growers. Any interested gardener can plant regular cannabis seeds and cultivate it into a bonsai.”
Tips for growing your own canna-bonsai
It's important to point out that debate exists as to whether cannabis constitutes a bonsai-suitable plant. Bonsai trees typically have woody, gnarled-looking trunks and take years to grow. In contrast, cannabis is quick-growing and has a more flexible stalk.
Another distinguishing feature of bonsai is that the plants are not cultivated for any reason other than to provide a means of contemplation and connection to nature. In other words, bonsai plants are not grown to yield fruit or medicine. Since some cannabis bonsai tree growers enjoy the fruits of their labor with the harvest of enough weed at the flowering stage to make a teeny-tiny joint, it's not strictly bonsai according to purists.
If growing your own canna-bonsai appeals, Williams has some expert tips to help you hone a cannabis plant into a classic bonsai shape.
Choose a suitable pot
Choosing a small container that will restrict growth, and preparing it prior to planting, is key. “Remember that you are growing a bonsai, so smaller pots are preferred,” said Williams. “Drilling small holes for twine and strings to fit are highly recommended so you can control and train your bonsai in the desired shape and direction.”
Plant your cutting
Just as with regular cannabis plant cultivation, genetics matter. “Pick a healthy and sturdy mother plant capable of producing quality buds,” advised Williams. Choosing seeds or a clone from a healthy specimen will offer better odds of growing a robust cannabis plant, albeit in miniature. As the vertical growth of canna-bonsai plants is both restricted and manipulated, sturdier plants from reliable genetic lines have higher odds of doing better given the constraints of bonsai growing. Many marijuana bonsai plants are trained to wind around a miniature wooden stake as they grow so they take on a more exotic appearance.
Train your bonsai branches
Growing a cannabis bonsai tree is an exercise in aesthetics and refinement. “Bonsai is also an art form; thus, as a grower you can dictate how you want your plant to look,” said Williams. “If you want your branches to grow horizontally, it's best to tie them down with more force. If you prefer them to be more vertical, tie them down more loosely.” Williams also offers this pro tip: Make sure you leave space for other branches to grow in between the branches that have been tied down.
Don't forget to prune
Pruning is one of the fundamental elements that define the practice of bonsai. ”Only prune offshoot branches because cutting main branches can damage your plant,'' advised Williams. Careful (sometimes daily) clipping and trimming allows the plant to assume the intricate shape or design held in the mind of the cultivator. Pruning is also key because cannabis plants require optimal airflow to prevent mold on their leaves or buds.
Ultimately, the practice of bonsai is about nurturing a relationship with a cannabis plant. The grower has a unique opportunity to devote special attention to the cultivation of the plant and witness it as it responds to this deep level of care and connection.