Are Bonsai Trees Cruel?

Bonsai trees are a chic and charming accent piece in any home. However, there is a heated debate about whether the maintenance of these tiny trees is cruel.

Are we stopping Bonsai trees from reaching their full growth potential by keeping them in small pots?

Are Bonsai Trees Cruel?

As long as you care for the plant appropriately, it is not cruel to have a Bonsai tree. Even though a Bonsai will only grow a certain amount, its root growth is not stunted in a pot, and the tree does not undergo any pain or suffering in the process as it is not a sentient being.

We know that when you think of cruelty-free – your mind immediately jumps to animal testing. But there’s more to it than that. Read on to learn why owning and caring for these beautiful trees is not cruel. Instead, it promotes a long and healthy life if cared for correctly.

Can You Be Cruel to Plants?

Many individuals might scoff at the word "cruel" when it's applied to plants. Plants are living creatures that grow, reproduce, and breathe – but they are taken for granted and treated as inconsequential or inanimate objects.

We’re not saying that a plant can be treated cruelly to the same degree as humans or animals. However, it does not mean that they should be mistreated as living creatures.

You can certainly be “cruel” to plants because these are living creatures and deserve our respect. Plants of varying species provide humans with a vast range of necessities, from sustenance to medicines to the very oxygen we breathe.

In some ways, it is debilitating to human life to regard plants on a level equivalent to humans and animals when it comes to cruelty-free treatment. If you did, no one would ever cut their grass or eat a vegetable.

However, when a plant is in your immediate care, as is the case with gardens and potted plants like the Bonsai, you owe that living specimen a healthy life for the duration of its existence.

When it comes to eating plants, don’t get us wrong, there is still cruelty involved. But it’s not necessarily about inflicting pain on our fruits and veggies. You can find out more about this here: Is It Cruel to Eat Plants?

Addressing Cruelty Claims of Bonsai Trees

A bonsai tree in a garden

Some individuals argue that even with the appropriate care, it is cruel to have a Bonsai tree for the reasons discussed below. We will address each argument and counter it with why they are not demonstrations of cruelty.

It Is Unnatural to Stunt Their Growth

The biggest issue argued amongst individuals that perceive owning a Bonsai tree as cruel is that these trees should grow outside in nature. By cultivating a Bonsai tree in a pot, the owner is stunting their growth and limiting their potential for a full life.

There are a few facets of this argument to address, predominantly what these people perceive as "potential" for Bonsai trees versus how much they are actually capable of growing.

It is true that if you own a Bonsai tree, you, as the owner, will more or less determine how big the plant will grow. Some popular beginner Bonsai trees, such as the Juniper, can potentially grow up to 15 or 16 feet in nature.

However, over 50 types of Juniper Bonsai trees exist, and not all of them are capable of this growth.

Some Bonsai tree species will never grow to be the size of what people envision a fully grown tree should reach. For instance, the Keshitsubo tree is the smallest bonsai tree you can acquire, and it only grows to be about 1-3 inches tall.

Therefore, it is not cruel to keep this tree in a small pot since it is incapable of growing enough to warrant a large space.

Yes, some Bonsai tree species are stunted during their ownership so that they are confined to the pot. Still, it is unfair to assume every Bonsai tree is being robbed of its full potential when some would never reach the size of, let's say, an Oak tree, regardless of where it is planted.

Additionally, many of these trees have been altered genetically over time and are no longer capable of reaching their once full growth. This has nothing to do with the pot they are in or the care provided by its owner.

The Use of Wires for Bonding Is Cruel

Another popular stance against Bonsai trees involves the use of wires to alter the tree's shape, so it grows in a way that is most appealing to the owner and remains the desired size.

If a Bonsai tree were an animal, this practice would be undoubtedly cruel. However, using wires to bind a Bonsai tree isn't like binding human feet or other cruel practices. For one, it is not painful to the tree.

The argument of whether plants can feel pain has been tossed back and forth for quite some time since research on the matter is often twisted to support the affirmative. Ultimately, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that plants feel pain.

The closest any research has been to confirming this stance was a study conducted by scientist Itzhak Khait and a team at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

These individuals placed microphones capable of detecting ultrasonic frequencies near tomato and tobacco plants.

They then purposefully neglected these plants by snipping the stems or refusing to water them. They then recorded high-frequency sounds measuring 20 to 150 kilohertz produced by the plants.

Healthy plants made the occasional sound while tobacco plants emitted an average of 15 sounds within an hour of being cut and tomato plants produced 25 sounds.

All this research demonstrates is that plants may have the potential to communicate stress using ultrasonic frequencies but in no way proves they are capable of feeling pain.

Ultimately, it is not cruel to bind a Bonsai because the plant is incapable of what humans perceive as pain, and there is no strong scientific evidence to prove the contrary.

Another reason is that this technique of wire binding is always temporary. It is used briefly to help shape the tree and even provide additional support, and then the wires are removed.

The wires never cut into the tree or harm the plant; it merely grows around them much like a tree bound to a take in the ground for support in early development.

A Tree Doesn't Belong in a Pot

If you want to argue that Bonsai trees shouldn't be in pots, you need to apply the same logic to all the plants you own. None of them should be in your home. In fact, you should immediately re-plant them outdoors so that they can fend for themselves in the natural world.

It is never natural to have a plant in a pot. However, one can argue it is certainly more beneficial for the plant to have this environment rather than being in nature.

The truth of the matter is that, when cared for properly, most plants will have a longer and healthier life in a pot than outdoors.

Indoor plants are spared from the harsh weather conditions outside, they are not exposed to insects or animals, and they can be easily treated for any plant-related disease. Not to mention that they also don’t have to compete for resources as it is aptly supplied by the owner.

A Bonsai tree that is cared for properly – with a nutrient-rich fertilizer, sufficient amounts of water, and regular maintenance, such as pruning – will thrive and live much longer than it would have in nature, regardless of what size it is kept at.

How to Have a Cruelty-Free Bonsai Tree

A bonsai tree

If there is ever a demonstration of cruelty for a Bonsai tree, it is when they are not taken care of by their owners.

These plants aren't your everyday succulent that can go days without water and require minimal attention. Bonsai trees need an exceptional amount of maintenance and specialized care if they are to thrive.  

Tips to Care for a Bonsai Tree

Here are a few tips on how to properly care for a Bonsai tree in general. But if you plan on buying one for your home, it is essential to conduct thorough research on the type of Bonsai you want and how to care for it appropriately first.

  • Use nutrient-rich Bonsai soil and change it out regularly to support healthy growth and longevity of life.
  • Repot or transplant your Bonsai regularly, so they are not pot-bound or die of starvation.
  • Ensure you are watering your Bonsai according to that specific species' needs. The amount of water will vary – while some can be watered once a week, others may need to be watered every two days.
  • Know whether you have an indoor or outdoor Bonsai so you can place it in the proper environment.
  • Place your Bonsai where it will get ample amounts of sunlight.
  • Keep your Bonsai in humid conditions.

These are just a few basics of Bonsai care, and each will vary depending on the type of Bonsai you have (ex. Elm, Pine, Ficus, Jade) and its species.

Final Thoughts

Owning a Bonsai tree isn't as easy as caring for a typical house plant, but it is by no means cruel unless you willfully neglect the plant.

Bonsai trees can live long and happy lives, lasting up to hundreds or even thousands of years, both in a pot and in nature.

In fact, these plants typically live 25% longer than a Bonsai tree living in nature as long as its owner is providing it with sufficient care and attention.

So, don't feel any guilt or wariness about owning or acquiring a Bonsai tree. As long as you are doing everything right by the plant, the two of you can live a long, cruelty-free life together.

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