Glossary of Bonsai Terms

Bonsai enthusiasts need to have common understanding of bonsai terms to communicate efficiently. That is especially true for a non-English speaking practitioner like me.

That’s why I’m trying to collect and set up a glossary of bonsai terms, from which I can look up and use relating terms as correctly as possible. I hope that will also be of some help to you visitors.

Listed below are the most commonly used terms that I find out during the time of reading and writing about the bonsai theme. I will add more to the list gradually. If you think some important terms should be added, please inform me. I'll update as soon as possible.


Accent Plant – a small plant that is put on view in conjunction with a bonsai; usually when a bonsai is being formally displayed at a show or exhibition; also called a companion plant.

Air Layer – a method for propagating trees through the removal of a large branch or section of trunk from an existing tree, or bonsai, to create a new tree.

Akadama – a traditional Japanese bonsai soil that is comprised of the red volcanic matter of Japan; used for thousands of years by bonsai artists on most types of deciduous bonsai trees. See more in bonsai soil.

Adventitious bud - A bud that occurs in an unusual place on a tree.

Apex - The highest point of the tree, this can be a single branch or can consist of a series of small branches.

Apical - Growth produced by a plant which is most vigorous, in the majority of species this at the furthest points of the plant from the root system (upper and outermost branches).

Branches - The Primary branches are those that grow directly from the trunk; the Secondary branches are those that grow directly from the primary branches, the Tertiary branches grow from the secondary branches.

Broad-Leaved/Coniferous - Conifers belong to the group of naked-seeded plants known as gymnosperms, their seeds are not enclosed in an ovary. Conifers have leaves which are needle-shaped or scale-like. With a few notable exceptions they are evergreen. Broad-leaved trees are a much larger group belonging to the angiosperms or flowering plants which have seeds enclosed in an ovary. The majority is deciduous and goes dormant in autumn through spring.

Bud - Organ or shoot that contains an embryonic branch, leaf or flower.

Buttressing - This is also known as root-flare, where the base of the tree flares outwards giving the feeling of great age and solidity.

Canopy – all of the upper-most branches that form the top of a tree.

Chlorosis - Loss of chlorophyll and leaf color as a result of mineral deficiency.

Chokkan - a traditional Japanese bonsai style; also called a formal upright. This is a tree that has a very straight trunk with symmetrical branching; illustrating strength and order.

Chop - Commonly used word that describes the heavy pruning and reduction in height of the trunk of a tree.

Collected tree - finding and taking a tree from its natural habitat; a tree that has been shaped by the forces of nature alone.

Common name - Simply the name a plant is commonly known by, however, common names can be very non-specific and can vary from region to region. It is always better to try to remember a trees' specific Latin name as this nomenclature is specific to each and every plant, the world over.

Crown – the upper section of a bonsai where the branches spread out from the trunk.

Dessication - Lack of water; desiccated leaves usually occur when the roots are unable to supply water to them.

Deciduous - A plant that sheds its leaves each year in Autumn- this can be a broad-leaved or a coniferous tree.

Defoliation - The process of partly or completely removing the leaves of a tree during its summer dormant period to induce a crop of finer, smaller leaves which can greatly increase ramification.

Dormant - a period of time in which plants "rest" during the winter months.

Dieback - Death of growth beginning at tip from disease or injury.

Evergreen - A plant that remains in leaf all year. It should be noted that evergreen trees slowly shed their oldest leaves at certain times of the year (depending on species) as they are replaced by new growth.

Form - Used to categorize a bonsai using its most conspicuous aspect; this can be according to its trunk direction (formal or informal upright, slanting, cascade etc) or its number of crowns (single trunk, multi-trunk or group) for instance.

Genus - The name given to a group of plants that have a common feature.

Germination – the moment a seed starts into growth, developing roots and shoots.

Girth - the circumference of the trunk of a tree, measured at just above the root base.

Grafting – is a commonly used method for propagating trees, when propagation by seeds or cuttings is impractical or impossible.

Indoor bonsai - More difficult to maintain than outdoor bonsai, indoor bonsai are normally tropical or subtropical species that need to be kept inside for part of the year, usually during periods of cold temperatures outside.

Internode - Section of growth between two nodes (leaves or leaf-joints).

Jin - A deadwood effect on a bonsai- can be either an old branch or a protruding part of the trunk. Jins can be found naturally occurring on old collected trees though are more often than not, artificially created from unwanted branches.

Layering - Ground and air-layering are methods of producing new roots from the trunk or branches of a tree; often used as a propagation method but also useful for correcting poor surface rots (nebari).

Literati - A bonsai form where the tree has a tall, slender trunk with no lower branches and only sparse foliage confined to the upper reaches of the tree.

Mame - Name given to bonsai less than 15cm/6 inches in height.

Nebari - Commonly-used Japanese bonsai term to describe the surface roots of a bonsai (those that can been seen on or above the surface of the soil).

Node - Growth point on a branch or trunk from which leaves, leaf buds and shoots can arise.

Overwatering - Where a tree growing in poor-draining soil is given water too frequently (the soil does not begin to dry out before more water is applied). This decrease even further the amount of air available to the roots caused by the poorly drained soil. Eventually leads to dead roots and root rot.

Ramification - The repeated division of branches into secondary branches.

Seasonal - Bonsai Species that only look their best for a short period of the year, for instance trees grown for their flowers or fruit.

Shari - Deadwood on the trunk of a bonsai (as opposed to Jin which is a deadwood branch or protrusion).

Soil - In the context of bonsai, soil does not refer to the soil found in the ground but specialist bonsai soils used for growing bonsai

Suiban - A shallow tray with no drainage holes and commonly filled with either gravel or water and can house rock plantings.

Species - Subdivision of Genus.

Sphagnum moss - Generic/general name given to long-fibred moss, used as a soil component for bonsai and layering. Sphagnum Moss Peat is rotted and broken down Sphagnum Moss and does not have the same positive properties for bonsai or layering.

Style - The style of a tree has previously been used to describe the main direction the trunk of a tree takes, this should be correctly referred to as the Form. The style of the tree describes the way a bonsai has been shaped to create an image of its fully grown counterpart; this can be in a contemporary or a classical style, an impressionistic or an expressionistic style.

Tree - Commonly bonsai growers will refer to their bonsai as trees rather than as bonsai.

Uro - A carved (or natural) deadwood hollow, often seen on (but not limited to) deciduous trees.

Underwatering - Where a tree is allowed to dry out or is not watered thoroughly when required.

Variety - The sub-division of Species.

Xylem - Area below cambium in the trunk.

Yamadori - Trees collected from the wild for the use as bonsai. This word was originally used to describe wild trees collected from mountainous regions.

(Note: above includes some common Japanese bonsai terms, which will be detailed in a separate page.)

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