Shohin - miniature bonsai

by Victoria Petermann

Personal preference is one of the factors that influences the size of bonsai one grows. A bonsai must be able to convey a sense of aesthetic impact to the viewer, whatever its size. This is especially true for miniature bonsai because they should be more than rooted cuttings in small containers. They need not be small copies of larger trees, but to be appreciated, they must create the illusion of being old and full of character.

The illusion of age is, perhaps, more difficult to produce on a small scale. To be able to express the essence of the tree, without clutter or confusion, the tree must be greatly simplified. All the superfluous detail must be removed and this is not easily achieved.Ume (Japanese Apricot) - ShitoFig. 1 Ume (Japanese Apricot) - Shito

Fig 2. Trident Maple - MameFig 2. Trident Maple - Mame

When classifying shohin, there is a certain amount of confusion arising from the fact that there are no definite rules about how to measure the height of the trees. However, it is generally accepted that the size is the height of the tree, excluding the pot.

Shohin is divided into Shito (fingertip-bonsai) which measure up to 7,5cm (Fig. 1) and Mame (baby-bonsai) which measure between 7,5cm and 15cm (Fig. 2), and the sizes are such that the trees may be carried in the palm of one hand.

Because of the small dimensions of these trees, it is important to choose plants with small leaves or needles and, if the plants bear either fruit or flower, these too must be small.

Among the plants that fulfill these requirements are Maples, Elms, Zelkovas, Azaleas, Figs, Cotoneasters, Pyracanthas, Crab Apples, Junipers, Pines and Olives.

The main advantage to growing shohin lies in the fact that they develop and mature quicker than the bigger trees. They can be trained in all the different bonsai styles and suitable stock is readily found in nurseries.

Miniature trees are potted in small containers, using all colours, shapes, textures and designs. Small pots dry out quicker than larger ones so, the trees must be watered frequently to keep them growing and in good health.

To alleviate this problem of frequent watering, the potted trees are placed upon a tray containing either sand or gravel during the summer months (Fig. 3). This allows the trees to absorb extra moisture and provides a certain level of humidity around the trees as the water evaporates during the day. Good drainage is, therefore, essential to the continued health of the tree.

Crab Apple Shohin on a gravel trayFig 3. Crab Apple Shohin on a gravel tray

A fine grade of soil, most of which is sand, with the very fine silt removed from the mix, is used. This promotes the development of fine twigs on the tree, without the soil mix clogging and causing poor drainage.

Wild Olive Shito - Roots and Foliage untrimmedFig 4a. Wild Olive Shito - Roots and Foliage untrimmed

Wild Olive Shiito - Roots and Foliage trimmedFig.4b Wild Olive Shiito - Roots and Foliage trimmed

Since a large portion of the soilmix is made up of sand, a weak solution of fertiliser should be applied regularly during spring and autumn.

Shohin showing a group of three branches & crownFig.5 Shohin showing a group of three branches & crown

Shohin are repotted yearly, when old, heavy roots are removed to stimulate the production of a fibrous root system. To maintain a balance between the top of the tree and the roots, the foliage should also be trimmed simultaneously (Figs. 4a & 4b).

The best training method for Shohin might be the "clip-and-grow" method, the constant trimming will produce fine, elegant branching and very small leaves.

The number of branches that a miniature bonsai has is not decided by its height, instead by the heaviness of the layers of foliage on the branches. Often they have just one group of three branches and the crown (Fig. 5).

The open spaces between the branches should be well defined, as this conveys a feeling of elegance to the design. If wire is used in the training of the branches, take care to avoid wire-bite marks, because these scars would be obvious in a small tree.

Miniature bonsai may be started by propagating seed, or by taking cuttings from other plants. The disadvantage with both methods is that they are relatively slow in producing an image of a mature tree. By far the quicker way of starting a shohin is by collecting trees from the wild, to cut nursery stock down to size, or to air-layer a section of another plant that has desirable characteristics. Trees started in one of these ways will either have or will get the appearance of age in a short time.

Miniature trees are either displayed on their own or in groups. If they are to be displayed in groups, a stand consisting of staggered shelves is used (Fig. 6). When arranging the trees, think of the stand in terms of a mountain setting. To display the trees, one must be aware of the environmental preferences of each species and of the growing habitats that many styles of bonsai imply in their designs. Consequently, high altitude trees, such as conifers and trees trained in a style such as that produced by rugged terrain, such as windswept trees and cascades, should be displayed on the upper shelves. Those that in nature would grow at lower elevations and a gentler environment, such as deciduous species and straight trunked trees would be placed on the lower shelves.

Every few years, all Shohin benefit from being planted in a larger container for a year, a practice that helps them to regain their vigour.

As one's collection of Shohin grows, the trees that do not shape up to expectations due to design faults (such as an unbalanced root system), can then be used to great effect if they are planted on a rock (Fig. 7).Miniature Bonsai displayed as a group on a standFig.6 Miniature Bonsai displayed as a group on a stand

Apart from the pleasure that miniature bonsai in themselves give the grower, one of their most endearing qualities is the speed at which they acquire a feeling of age. This allows the grower to have patience while waiting for the bigger trees in the collection to reach maturity, as it is possible to imagine what the larger trees will eventually look like while enjoying the Shohin.

Due to their small proportions, it is also possible to have a large variety of species and styles in a small growing area. This provides for a rich variety of colours, flowers, fruits and textures caused by the changes in the seasons, something that would require a large garden should one's collection be composed entirely of large sized bonsai.


  • Lesniewicz, P. - Bonsai, the complete guide to art and technique. Blandford Press, London, 1988.
  • Kobayashi, N. - Bonsai, Miniature potted trees. Toppan Printing Co., Tokyo, 1957.
  • Koreshoff, D - Bonsai, Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy. Boolarong Publications, Australia, 1990.
  • Valavanis, W. (Ed.) - International Bonsai. 1979/Spring, Great Lakes Press, New York.
  • Valavanis, W. (Ed.) - International Bonsai. 1987/#1, Great Lakes Press, New York.

Shohin on a rockShohin on a rock

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On the weathered shelf

A self-cleaned cat in autumn

Curls around itself.

Random Bonsai Tip

By limbering or flexing a branch or trunk you gently break the cambium layer loose and the healing process will then increase the diameter of a branch or trunk which is too thin