Because bonsai is a practice applied to small trees rather than a type of tree, it’s pretty rare to find an actual “bonsai” growing naturally in the wild.
However, it is possible, and in this article, I’m going to explain the scenarios where you might find them.
You can sometimes find bonsai trees growing naturally in the cracks of rocks, where seeds have managed to land, germinate, and take on stunted growth to resemble bonsai.
Other environmental factors, like drought and heavy winds can also lead to natural “bonsais.”
Thus, most natural bonsais grow on mountains.
But remember that these trees aren’t the same as man-made bonsais.
Keep reading as I explain the circumstances that might lead to a natural bonsai.
I’ll also explore some of the places where you might find them.
Bonsai History: The Idea for Bonsai Came From Nature
The art of bonsai originated in China more than ten centuries ago, where people pruned and molded young trees to keep them small.
Eventually, it influenced early Japanese gardeners to take on the practice as well.
But the idea came from circumstances that created natural bonsais, when trees stayed small due to drought, cold temperatures, and thin soil.
Thus, bonsai arose from naturally growing bonsai-like trees.
Where Do Bonsai Trees Grow Naturally?
Although these natural trees aren’t actual bonsais, since a person would have to prune and shape them for them to be bonsais, they do share the same general qualities.
So, natural bonsais can be quite similar to man-made creations.
Typically, the art of bonsai involves using small pots and containers to keep the plant’s root systems tiny, which stunts the tree’s growth and allows for small, delicate designs.
But, several environmental conditions can lead to trees growing in what appears to be the “bonsai” form in the wild.
And these plants may appear in a variety of locations, as long as the growing conditions make it possible for a sapling to stay stunted in its growth.
However, you are most likley to find trees that resemble bonsais on mountains because of the particular climate in these areas.
Conditions That Lead to Natural Bonsais
The following are some of the circumstances that promote the natural growth of bonsai-like trees:
- Harsh winds
- Cold temperatures
- Lack of nutrition
- Thin soil
- Droughts or lack of rain
- High altitudes
Bonsai-like trees can sometimes come about in nature due to harsh and cold wind patterns.
This phenomenon can happen because extreme conditions might bear down on newly grown offshoots of a sapling and kill them.
When new offshoots die off and fall away, this resembles the man-made process of pruning saplings to create bonsai trees.
Over time, the branches become bent and gnarled, growing low to the ground and never quite gaining enough momentum to grow into a full-sized tree.
And because of high winds, it was common centuries ago for Japanese gardeners to stumble across bonsai growing naturally in places like the windy coastline of Mount Fuji.
Cold temperatures also could stunt the growth of young trees before they reach maturity.
Particularly, when there is an early frost, a sapling can experience a shock to its roots or branches that causes growth to die off.
The coldness can also decrease enzyme activity in the plant, lowering its ability to take in nutrients.
But coldness alone usually isn’t enough to create bonsais in the wild, or else they wouldn’t be so rare.
Thus, the coldness has to be paired with some other condition to create a bonsai.
Snowfall is another environmental factor that can stunt a tree’s growth at a young age.
Specifically, in high altitude environments, if a seed manages to germinate in, say, the crack of a rock or cliffside, it could begin growing where it will snow.
And a sapling growing out of a rock, which is not conducive to maturing the plant, won’t be able to deal with snowfall well.
So, snow can lead to slow growth and the dying back of branches, which again has a similar effect to pruning bonsai trees.
Lack of Nutrition
Consider the example I just gave – a tree begins growing in the crack of a rock.
Chances are that there isn’t much soil or surrounding organic matter for the roots to derive nutrients.
Most trees need a pretty balanced combination of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to support new growth, foliage, and blooms.
Without nutrients, the tree can’t grow and will maintain a dwarf-like state – resembling a man-made bonsai tree.
Thin or loose soil is another factor that might keep certain species of bonsais small.
Without strong soil, a tree could fail to grow a complete root system and stay small for a long time.
This occurrence is common when a seed gets carried by the wind, lands somewhere it wouldn’t normally grow, and germinates by chance.
Similarly, a lack of soil can mean that the tree’s roots don’t have enough space to grow, causing the plant to remain small.
Extreme drought or a general lack of rain take a harsh toll on the root systems of saplings, especially in deciduous environments.
These trees often need a decent amount of moisture to create healthy roots, which support the health of the whole tree.
But if a drought rolls in, the roots may shrivel up and stop taking hold of the soil.
And without water from the roots, the plant can’t uptake nutrients that are necessary for new life.
Over time, if the tree survives at all, it could become dwarfish and resemble a bonsai tree in the wild.
Finally, I mentioned earlier that historically, Asian gardeners stumbled upon “bonsai trees” growing on the slopes of mountain ranges.
Trees often stay small on mountains because high altitudes mean more cold weather, wind, and snow.
All of these conditions can easily stunt the growth of a young tree.
To say that bonsai trees grow naturally in the wild wouldn’t be totally true.
In reality, bonsai is an art form where gardeners prune and train trees to stay at a dwarf size, even though they got the idea from naturally small trees growing in the wild.
So, you can find bonsai-like trees growing naturally in rare circumstances where the tree lacks sufficient nutrients or faces harsh cold, wind, drought, and other environmental factors.
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