Living Art of Bonsai with Herbs

by WriterArtist

Bonsai makes beautiful art with miniature forms of live tree. It takes time to master the Art of Bonsai. Specializing in bonsai structures and styles require lifetime dedication.

Bonsai made its first debut in China a couple of centuries back in primitive form which later was adopted and nurtured by Japan during Kamakura period. The early illustrations of bonsai in pots embodied dragons, birds and fauna of the place. Early forms were no doubt contorted, skimpy and crooked compared to the modern sophisticated and refined Bonsai structures.

Thousand years ago, the Hindu Vaidya used this method to conserve herbs found in deep forest that were of great medicinal value. It was called ‘Vamana Vriksha Kala’. Those physicians grew herbs in the pots and used it for healing. Though the plants could not grow to their original size, they thrived in the small regulated atmosphere where they were taken care of.

© copyright WriterArtist 2021, All rights reserved
Image Courtesy Pixabay, Author naobim

Art of Bonsai

Early Forms of Bonsai


Making bonsai with herbs is not uncommon. The Art of Bonsai is nothing but mimicking a tree in small form. Though it is immensely popular in Japan, our ancestors were quite an expert and knew how to grow a miniature tree from a small plant. Herbal Bonsai may not be popular in modern art, but it is picking up slowly.

To make Bonsai, the artist needs woody plants. To train it in an aesthetic manner, fast growing herbs can be used. Flowering herbs will make beautiful herbal bonsai garden too.

Herbal Bonsai

Practicing the Art With Fast-Growing Herbs by Richard Bender
Herbal Bonsai

Herbal Bonsai

Bonsai Style for Herbs

The roots of a plant need pruning, and the style dictates how would the Herb Bonsai manifest itself. It all depends upon your choices. For example - Would you like a slanted trunk or a straight one? As it matures, the botanist/gardener can visualize and grow it in cascading, semi-cascading or twisted trunk style.

Either you can start from a seed or from a sapling, you must grow the herb plant before you plan to style it for bonsai. Later, you can repot in a bigger pot till it has developed 2 to 4 inches deep roots. Herbal bonsai can take several years to mature in desire shape. The canopy of the bonsai whether it is symmetric or not, the effects can be made aesthetic by the artist.

Selection of Herbs for Bonsai

 There are 2 types of herbs you might want to consider making bonsai of.

Soft Perennial Herbs


These are tender herbs that you can train to bonsai. Rosemary, Lemon verbena and Sweet Bay Laurel are tender herbs and can live up to 50 years provided they are tended for in temperatures that are not subfreezing but tropical like. These herbs are not only beautiful, they are aromatic and edible.

Lemon verbena is a herb that can grow into a hardy shrub. Longer living species of this herb can reach 10 feet resembling a small tree. This is a deciduous herb and is a good choice for making herbal bonsai. Trimming and pruning will give it the necessary gorgeous looks. The Bonsai Master needs to protect this herb from spider mites and white flies.

Sweet Bay Laurel is another evergreen herb that can reach 40 feet high in warm temperatures. The advantage of Bay Laurel is that it grows slowly therefore it can be developed in beautiful Bonsai with aesthetic appeal. This aromatic herb is on an average difficult to propagate through cuttings, seeds take longer to develop in saplings. However, a persistence gardener can do wonders with this herb.

Hardy Perennials Herbs

Woody Herbs



Hardy perennials are woody herbs that have longer life compared to seasonal herbs. These species are evergreen herbs and will produce larger life size Bonsai. They will live longer and grow up to 2 feet tall or more, provided you give them a fair chance to survive dormant periods. These herbs have strong scents and are popular in both culinary and medicinal usages. Oregano, Sage, Rue and Hyssop come under such classification.


Oregano is a vigorous herb and requires pruning as more and more branches and leaves shoot with time. Young oregano shoots come to life from the trunk and exposed roots which ensures a continuous supply to the kitchen can make a vivid bonsai. Mind you, it requires more work for a Bonsai. It can be grown as a spectacular Bonsai with its main and branching trunks.

Sage is a woody herb and is awesome candidate for Herbal Bonsai due to its variegated foliage of white, purple, pink and yellow shades. It propagated through cuttings and seeds and are relatively easy to grow. They need less water compared to Oregano but more time to mature as 2 feet tall Bonsai.

Whatever herb you choose, adhere to the principles and styles of Bonsai. The ground rules are same for herbs, shrubs and trees. Either way, they look magnificent - in Herbal Bonsai Pots or Herbal Bonsai Garden outdoors.

This picture dated from Ming Period shows a bonsai probably in the living room of Ming Ladies probably Royalty

Ming-Bonsai-Penjing Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ming-Bonsai-Penjing Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Richard M. Barnhart: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, New Haven 2002, PD-US

Herbs for Bonsai on YouTube

Bonsai as Hobby

Growing Bonsai



My observation with Bonsai is that they are a bit expensive for me. My deduction is therefore that the hobby must be expensive too.

While searching for bonsai in a garden nursery, my observations are they are either too big or too small for me. I have a small garden that cannot house big Bonsais. 

Many bonsais in the nursery were trained for at least 5 years before they took the classic form. Each bonsai was as unique as the artist. It was as if the Bonsai was living and embracing the ideas of the Bonsai master.

I did purchase a dwarf bonsai which eventually died during my travel, left to tend with a maid in my absence.

Bonsai can be a lifetime experience.  Bonsai master might have made hundreds of bonsai trees and yet still learning. A level of expertise is required to ascertain which trees, herbs and shrubs make excellent Bonsai.

Bonsai Exhibitions in Japan

Mei Nagahama : exhibition of bonsais
Mei Nagahama : exhibition of bonsais
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sources Consulted


  1. Babylon: The Origin of Bonsai? by Will Heath

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Updated: 05/07/2021, WriterArtist
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Do you think a herb can be trained to become Bonsai?

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DerdriuMarriner on 12/07/2022

Yes, herbs can be trained to become bonsai!

The ombu tree (Phytolacca dioica) of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay looks tree-like in its branches and trunk even as it possesses no true wood but a soft, spongy secondary swelling that cooperates with being cut by a knife and lends itself beautifully to bonsai training and ornamental gardens.

Perhaps the most famous example of ombu trees is Christopher Columbus's ombu tree that he brought from the Indies -- to which descendants of those native to what are now the 13 countries of modern South America had spread by the 15th century -- still survives in La Cartuja, Seville, Spain.

blackspanielgallery on 05/08/2021

I have heard of trees, but not herbs, being grown as bonsai plants. I suppose shrubs could also be used, if woody enough.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/07/2021

WriterArtist, Thank you for pictures, practicalities and products.
In particular, I find interesting the reference to Vamana Vriksha Kala. An internet search revealed an article in The Hindu Jan. 30, 2018, about D. Ravindran and his bonsai garden in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu. The latter says that scriptures reference Vamana Vriksha Kala in ways that indicate that ancient Indians were savvy practitioners of the Indian equivalent of penjing. I wonder if that fascinating Tarim River Basin crossroads between India and China was a route by which one of those two ancient countries invented dwarfing plants and shared it with the other or perhaps worked on it together.

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