About the Importance of Seeds in Bonsai
My journey into bonsai as started by seed, much like the life of a tree. At first, I had the idea, that “Bonsai seeds” were seeds especially for bonsai and that a Bonsai tree would grow from it. I was wrong, but not by much. The seeds were indeed going to germinate a tree, but not necessarily a bonsai. Bonsai would be obtained through growing techniques.
In fact, there is no such thing as bonsai seeds, but only tree seeds. At most, you can buy seeds of species of tree preferred by bonsai enthusiast for their growth characteristics, such as, small leaves, suitability to growing technique, fast growth, etc, but no “bonsai seeds”.
The first thing you hear about seeds in the bonsai world is that it takes too much time to get something that resembles a bonsai out of a seed. I must admit, that you can obtain a more instant gratification from other methods, such as styling an already grown tree bought from your local nursery, buy an already trained tree, or use a propagation method such as cuttings or air layer. I don’t diminish any of these methods, as they offer valuable lessons at a different stage of your bonsai adventure, but this is not the object of this text. I will rather entertain you on the advantage of seeds and their uses in bonsai.
Plants are classified by a scientist in many categories and between them, there is a hierarchy. For example, the first category for a tree is Kingdom and the name of the kingdom is “Plant”. Then the “Plant” kingdom is divided in subkingdom. The subkingdom, which is “Vascular plants” for tree’s, is then divided in multiple categories. The Vascular plant’s category offer a different option, but the one who interests us is the “Spermatophyta” which is the “Seed plants” group. Now every kind of tree is classified till we reach the 9th order of the hierarchy which is the “Genus” of the plants. Genus refers to the name of the tree. For instance, a maple is Acer, and birch is Betula. Then the 10th order is the “species”. So for a Japanese maple, it would be Palmatum, hence Acer Palmatum if we combine the 9th and 10th order. But it doesn’t stop there, there is also an 11th order, which is referred to as the cultivar. The cultivar is a tree of the 10th order, but with specific characteristics and only this tree as those genetics characteristics. So if we continue our example, Acer Palmatum ‘Deshojo’ , would be a Japanese maple of the Deshojo cultivar. When you buy a tree define with these three last order of the classification, you are more likely buying a tree grown from a cutting or an air layer. The reason for this is simple, seeds can’t reproduce the exact same characteristics each time because the pollen fertilizing the parent plant is unknown. The seeds only reproduce the approximate characteristics of the 10th order, the “species” one, but even with this, you have variations.
But this doesn’t discard seeds as a mean of propagating, it brings a positive side to it. Every time you germinate a seed, you are discovering a new cultivar with specific characteristics. How fun can that be? You could discover the next best cultivar with the right push to your cause. That’s why I like to sow seeds every fall. I use a 72 cells tray and sow a seed per cell. You can even mix and match, for example, you can sow three species with 24 seeds each in a 72 cells plateau. You do as many as you like. This technique does not take a lot of spaces if you do it on a reasonable scale. But there is no limit to how much seeds and how much species you sow in fall. As you discard nonwanted subject and repot the desired one, you reduce the space needed.
The next spring, you get full of surprise. I like to practice a “discrimination growing technique”. At the beginning, you get many seedlings, but not as much as you sowed. Sometimes seeds take two seasons to germinate, so they will only germinate the next spring. You can discriminate the seedlings that have grown by plucking the ones you dont like, and keeping the ones you like, but I suggest you also wait. Some characteristics you can look for at this stage are the size and colors of the leaves. After a month or two, you’ll see that some are a fast grower, while others are trailing behind. It is the time of choice, you can keep the fast grower, but you must consider other factor’s. Does the fastest growing one have long internodes and big leaves, which would not make it good bonsai material. Does the slowest one as some dwarf characteristics such as short internodes and small leaves? You choose which one you want to keep and which one you want to discard. The ideal one is a fast-growing seedling with unique leaves colors and short internodes. If you discover a good plant you want to grow, you can reproduce it later by cuttings.
Have I mentioned that growing from seeds is cheap? Yes, this is another plus side of growing from seeds. It is also fun to have control on the growing process right from the start. You care for a tree from the beginning to the end, if ever there is one. The special technique can have you shaping the ‘nebari’, the visible roots of the tree, in the first weeks of the growing process. For such technique, you can have a look at the Bonsai Today issue #71, which propose a technique for growing bonsai from seeds.
As said in the beginning, a saying in the bonsai world is that it takes too much time growing a bonsai from seed. But, I must deny once again. What is 7 to 10 years? It has been demonstrated that 7 to 10 years will yield you a good looking bonsai. Sure, if you plant a few seeds and don’t do any other bonsai activities, you will find 7 to 10 years long. But, if you grow bonsai from seeds, while you do your other activities such as air layer, cuttings, styling, your local club session, classes and demonstrations, the 10 years goes fast. What I’m saying, is don’t discard growing from seeds, you can grow from seeds in parallel to your other activities and obtain that satisfaction of bonsai completion later.