US National Arboretum


Bonsai and Penjing Questions and Answers

I bought a small bonsai and have had it in my living room for several months. It's failing fast _ what should I do to save it?
Put it outdoors, or at least move it to an indoor location with cooler temperatures, higher humidity, and abundant sunlight. Many bonsai, such as those crafted from junipers and maples, cannot live very long in the low light and high temperatures found indoors. At the very least, bonsai should spend the growing season outdoors. Temperate species can be left outdoors all year as long as they are not subjected to repeated freezing and thawing. Tropical plants like schefflera, weeping fig, and Natal plum can be grown as bonsai inside the home, as long as you can provide enough light and humidity and moderate indoor temperatures. In the past, bonsai specimens were almost always temperate plants, but more and more tropical bonsai are being produced so those without an outdoor space for bonsai can enjoy them as well.

What's the difference between bonsai and penjing?
Bonsai and penjing are closely related art forms. Penjing takes its name from the Chinese name for miniature trees or landscape plantings and predates the development of bonsai. Even rock landscapes that lack plant materials are considered penjing. Elements of penjing eventually migrated to Japan and became known as bonsai, which is the Japanese word for miniature trees and forest plantings. Landscape stones that lack plant material are called beanstalk. In the past, penjing took on unusual shapes that were symbolic, and sometimes the styling of early penjing was far from the natural form of the plants used. Over time, bonsai slowly began to adapt a more naturalistic, free flowing style. More recently, some penjing have also come to embrace a style that echoes nature as well. Today, it is very difficult for those outside the bonsai and penjing communities to tell the difference between bonsai and penjing. Both are outstanding examples of Asian art expressed in plants and natural materials, and both forms continue to evolve.

picture of Ikebana flower arrangements

What is ikebana?
Ikebana is the ancient Japanese art of flower arrangement. It is a disciplined art form in which rules of placement guide the flower arranger to strategically place natural materials in an appropriate container; the finished product evokes a deep appreciation for the symbolism of nature and the ikebana artist's creative expression. Many distinct schools of ikebana have evolved over the years.

What is suiseki? picture of a viewing stone - suiseki

Nature and time weather stones into shapes that sometimes suggest miniature landscapes, human forms, animals, or even flowers. These stones are collected by enthusiasts and are known as viewing stones. In China, they are sometimes called scholar stones. In Japan, viewing stones are called suiseki. The value of a given stone is related to its beauty, color, form, and rarity. Sometimes stones are cut to create a flat surface on the bottom, but this decreases the value of the stone. Suiseki are not usually polished or sealed; they are displayed as nature has created them. Suiseki are often displayed in a tray, or suiban, on a thin layer of sand or stone chips, or on a wooden base known as a daiza that has been carved to fit the stone.

How often should I water my bonsai or penjing piece?
We generally water our pieces once a day. In the heat of summer, they are watered more often; in winter, they are watered less frequently. Other factors, such as humidity, cloud cover, temperature, and the time that has elapsed since the last repotting are taken into account for each piece to determine whether or not it needs to be watered.

picture of curator repotting a bonsai

How often should bonsai pieces be repotted?
Repotting may be done as often as every year, but for older specimens, the interval may be as long as five years. Older trees need less frequent repotting; the goal is to maintain their existing proportions, with moderate growth. Bonsai specimens are repotted to refresh a portion of the soil and to renew the vigor of the plant, not to produce a noticeable increase in size.

I'm very interested in the Asian art forms of bonsai, penjing, suiseki, and ikebana. Where can I find more information?
A good place to start is the National Bonsai Foundation (NBF) at Here you will find lots of links with access to bonsai and suiseki information of all kinds. Information on all of these related Asian arts can also be found at The Bonsai Site. If you'd like some tips on finding sources for bonsai, look for help in our Plant Sources Page

For more information about the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum:

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Last Updated   December 23, 2013 9:53 AM
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