Tag Archives: Defoliation

Bonsai Tree Growth Stages

Most bonsai trees progress through stages of development, each with a different objective. In general the progression is thicken trunk -> achieve branch & root structure -> achieve branch, foliage & root ramification -> reduce leaf size -> evolve as branches grow/fall off. The faster we can move through the first few development stages, the faster we will have beautiful, well-proportioned bonsai – harnessing the tree’s natural growth is a way to speed this up. We also want to avoid doing things which slow down a tree’s growth during these phases, as this will mean it takes longer to get the tree we want. Read about how trees grow before starting at #1 below. Also consider what do old trees look like?

1. Trunk

Some bonsai enthusiasts collect mature trees for bonsai specifically so they can start with a thick trunk, following a collection process which minimises damage to the tree. The alternative is growing your tree’s trunk. Once a tree has its roots and foliage reduced in size in a bonsai pot, it won’t generate the energy needed to make significant sapwood additions and its girth will only increase by small increments every year. So you really need to be happy with the trunk size first before you stick it in a tiny pot. But – how big should a bonsai tree’s trunk be?

2A. Branch Structure & Overall Shape

Arranging the branches is what gives you the canopy and overall foliage shape that you’re after and the first step in this process is growing (or developing) the branches you want in the positions they are needed. Growing a branch starts with a new bud, which, unless it’s a flower bud, becomes an extending shoot and eventually a new branch. So firstly you need to work out where new buds will grow on your tree and then deal with the extending shoots as needed to get the required internode length.

You may need to remove some buds and shoots if they don’t help achieve the shape you are looking for – this should be done as soon as possible to avoid wasting the tree’s finite energy reserves. You have a trade-off to make here because leaving more foliage on the tree will provide more energy overall which contributes to its health and ability to recover from interference. However, growing areas of the tree which won’t be part of the future design is a waste of energy. You don’t want to remove so much of the tree’s foliage that it struggles to stay alive or develop the areas that you do want to grow out.

When you are creating your branch structure, often you will need to reposition branches – this is done with a wide range of different tools and techniques. A more advanced technique for adding new branch structure is grafting.

Sometimes the trunk itself or larger branches need a rework, to make them more interesting or to make them look more like old trees – for example adding deadwood or hollowing out the trunk. Usually this is achieved through carving.

2B. Creating a Strong Root System

The trunk thickening and branch structure phases both work best when the tree has lots of energy and so letting it grow in the ground or in a decent sized pot during these phases will get you there quickest. This also allows the roots to keep growing, but you want to understand about the role of roots, and root structure & architecture even if you still have your bonsai in a training pot. Particularly in this case, knowing about how to foster the the rhizosphere will help your tree stay vigorous. To maximise the roots’ exposure to nutrients and water you want to encourage Ramification of Roots (lateral root development).

Eventually it’s time to move the tree into a bonsai pot. This requires cutting back the roots, but as long as the roots are balanced with the foliage in terms of biomass, the tree should be OK. Root growth is usually prioritised outside of times of stem/foliage growth, and above 6-9 degrees C. So repotting might be best conducted at times that meet this criteria. Your growing substrate/medium is an important consideration.

3. Ramifying Branches & Foliage

Ramification is when branches subdivide and branch, giving the impression of age and a full canopy – and a well-ramified tree is a bonsai enthusiast’s goal. There are some techniques for increasing the ramification of branches and foliage. But not as many as there are for root ramification.

This stage also involves ongoing branch selection and reshaping (see 2A above). Another consideration is whether to keep or remove flower buds.

4. Reducing Leaf Size

An end stage in the journey to bonsai perfection is leaf size reduction. In nature, leaf sizes reduce relative to the biomass of the tree as it ages but since bonsai are small this effect doesn’t translate since the biomass never gets large enough. The tried and tested method for reducing deciduous tree leaf size is actually to practice one of the various methods of defoliation. A couple of others are covered here in reducing leaf size.

When to conduct these various activities depends on when the tree can best recover from them – which is a function of the Tree Phenology (or Seasonal Cycles).

5. Evolving Branches

Trees are not static organisms – they obviously continue to grow which is what we harness in the above steps. Part of this is that eventually branches may become too large for the design, or they may fall off (Peter Warren notes that Mulberry are known for this). As bonsai artists we want to have this in mind so that branches are being developed which can take their place in the future. This is an ongoing version of step 2A.


There are quite a few research papers about tree defoliation because this can be caused by insects, creating a problem for the forestry industry. Defoliation is used on deciduous trees in bonsai to completely regrow a deciduous tree’s leaves, resulting in ramification and smaller leaves. This isn’t a practice for conifers, or at least, not for most of them, as many conifers simply can’t regenerate very easily and the effect will be weakening of the tree and not ramification. Although I must note here that my 2022 summer watering disaster caused a small larch forest of mine to defoliate and it looked fantastic after the foliage regrew!

Complete defoliation is a pretty drastic practice from the tree’s perspective and a double whammy – as not only does the tree have to use its stored energy reserves to regrow its leaves, it doesn’t have any energy coming in until those leaves are regrown. Defoliation significantly reduces the total stored carbon in a tree, and there is a point at which mortality occurs – one study found that once stored carbohydrates were less than 1.5% of the usual level, this will kill the tree.ref

As described in this article about the effect of grazing animals, “Plants adjust to conditions of chronic defoliation and the associated reduction in whole-plant photosynthetic rates by altering resource allocation patterns and reducing relative growth rates.”ref Although the article is focused on grasses, which are a different branch of the Plantae family to trees, it says that “root elongation essentially ceases within 24 hours after removal of approximately 50% or more of the shoot system…[and there is]…a rapid reduction in nutrient absorption”. So basically by defoliating 50% or more the roots will stop growing and nutrient absorption will reduce. Interestingly, several studies reported that photosynthetic capability of the remaining leaves on defoliated plants actually increases – perhaps a result of the resource allocation pattern change mentioned above.

The effect of defoliation is to force a deciduous tree to use the stored energy it has built up in the growing season straight away, instead of leaving it for the next season. Because of this, the tree doesn’t have the energy reserves to grow a full set of leaves at the same size it would normally, so it compensates by growing smaller leaves. Since this technique uses up stored energy, there isn’t much left for other types of growth, so it’s not a technique you would use if you were trying to thicken a trunk or grow branches.

This studyref found that a 50% defoliation of prunus saplings reduced their growth rates for the following 5 years and brought forward bud burst for a similar period, while this oneref found that larch recovered well from defoliation, but pinus did not. This oneref said that partial and complete spring defoliation reduced first-year diameter, height, and volume growth of 4-year-old loblolly and slash pines.

This article says that “scientists found that growth was reduced in both half and entirely defoliated trees in the short and long-term…both half and entirely defoliated trees had less leaf area than control plants. Defoliated trees also allocated more carbon for storage than control trees with no defoliation.”ref This suggests that defoliation in some way teaches your tree to divert resources to storage instead of foliage, not just once but into the future. Which means you really don’t want to do this while you are still establishing the branch structure and ramification because these will slow.

Interesting, Harry Harrington reports that some species don’t respond to complete defoliation by growing smaller leaves, instead they grow a small number of large leavesref. So overall a complete defoliation may be an unnecessarily unpredictable and heavy-handed way to achieve leaf reduction. One could hypothesise that defoliation of a tree which follows a fixed growth pattern (read more in Extending Shoots) might result in a greater leaf reduction effect, because buds and nascent leaves are not sitting there waiting to burst, they need to be completely regrown. But one could also hypothesise that this type of tree might struggle to regrow any leaves at all, depending on the weather conditions.

There are less drastic options than removing the entire foliage of a tree all at once – you can remove half of it for example, or do it in stages, so that new leaves can grow before the remove the next batch. It seems like you should be able to achieve a similar effect with constant low-level leaf pruning throughout the growing season, combined with bud pinching at the start of the season. A more gradual approach would allow photosynthesis and energy generation to continue, without stopping root extension and nutrient uptake, while still regrowing leaves and increasing ramification. It may be however that the shock of something more drastic is what’s needed to reduce leaf size significantly because the resources to regrow are shared more widely. An experiment for someone?

The timing of defoliation is really important. The tree needs to have had enough time with its new leaves to generate good energy stores for the next season and enough time to regrow and harden its leaves against frost. Somewhere in the middle of the growing season allows for both of these to happenref.