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How Auxins Make Better Bonsai Trees

Growing plants is the easiest thing in the world. You plant a seed or a cutting, give it water and sunlight, and nature takes care of the rest. You don’t need to know anything about the plant itself for it to grow and to enjoy gardening, but a little bit of technical knowledge can make the process a lot more fun and infinitely more rewarding.

So, what actually makes our bonsai trees grow? Plants grow through a very complex combination of a number of biological processes, but a key factor is a group of hormones called auxins.

Auxins are present throughout the plant, in varying concentrations. They are produced by the growing tip of a plant. They make plant cells grow in length, and inhibit the growth of lateral (side) buds. So, the apex or top tip of the plant produces auxins as the plant grows. The auxins then move back down the plant via the green cells of the cambium layer, which is just below the bark. They make the apex of the plant grow upwards. But sunlight eradicates auxins, causing a concentration of auxins on the shady side of the stem. This causes the plant cells on the shady side to grow longer than those on the sunny side, causing the stem to lean toward the sun. This is called phototropism.

So how does all of this benefit us bonsai growers? One of the main goals when developing bonsai tree is to produce ‘small’ trees with very compact cells. This, in turn, produces branches with short internodes. A node is a point on a branch where new shoots or leaves can develop, and it is normally indicated by a ring circling the branch. The space between each node is called an internode. Shorter internodes mean more nodes on a branch, which simply means many more leaves and side branches, a desirable bonsai trait.

If we remove the tip of a plant, there will be no auxin production in that area, and the stem will stop growing upward. Also, side shoots will now be able to form, each with their own auxin-producing terminal bud. The side branches will now become flooded with auxins, making them grow outwards and eventually upwards because there will be more auxins on the underside of the side branches.

The sun plays a critical role in the manipulation of auxins. Remember, sunlight eradicates auxins and that is what we want. When a tree grows permanently in the shade it receives no direct sunlight to eradicate the auxins. It will continue to grow upward as a single, long, thin, weak stem with elongated cells until it finally reaches sunlight. The sunlight then eradicates the auxins in the tip and the tree is able to develop side branches, but only at the very top, which is in sunlight. This is not a good growth pattern for bonsai because all bonsai rely on a good, strong base.

The more sun your trees receive, within reason, the better. The sun eradicates the auxins all around the tree, developing compact cells and causing side shoots to form. These new side shoots create more auxins, encouraging the shoots to grow in length. If we then remove the tip of the new side shoot, we stop its growth in length by stopping the auxin production, and we once again enable new side shoots to develop.

As the fine network of side branches develops, the tree produces many more leaves than it actually needs. This encourages the tree to make the leaves smaller because smaller leaves lose less water. Repeated nipping of the terminal buds will develop a healthy plant with many shoots and leaves, which translates into a tree that gives the bonsai grower many more stylistic choices. Nice!

Manipulating auxin production through nipping of the buds is one of the most basic techniques in growing and styling bonsai tree. That is the science behind what ordinary people call pruning.

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