The Difference Between Yamadori and Pot-Grown: Part III

What is a yamadori bonsai? What is a pot-grown bonsai? Here are a few simple definitions:

  • Yamadori: Bonsai made from an older collected tree
  • Pot-Grown: Grown as a bonsai its whole life

A yamadori was crafted over a very long time by the elements, by it’s location in nature. These birth marks are what make them so extraordinarily special when we make bonsai from them. A pot-grown tree, on the other hand, has been crafted by hand from its beginning. Old pot grown trees tend to have clear evidence of styling choices that date way back to its beginnings as a young plant, partly obscured by time in a pot.

Why are these distinctions important? Other than being able to tell one from the other, why should we care? It is just a labeling system. Nothing more.

Or is there something more?


If you take a minute, you may notice that these two types of bonsai actually feel different. Or rather, you feel different standing in front of them.

On the one hand, a gnarled pine that was harvested from a mountain far away. On the next bench, a stately maple created by an air layer many years ago. What does the pine make you feel? How about the maple?

A collected pine might make us feel tranquil or stimulated, and the maple majestic or whimsical—but those are specific to the style. Specific to the individual tree. What about how they were made? For that is more important than we tend to recognize.

If you’re quiet and take a minute to wonder, you might notice a similar thread of feeling when you stand in front of all your yamadoris, and a different thread of feeling when you stand in front of all your pot-grown trees. I  think it’s this:

  • That bonsai made from a yamadori connects us to the wild
  • And a pot-grown bonsai connects us to another person

And it’s curious, is it not, that each is still the medium of a tree, but one speaks with the voice of nature, and the other the voice of community. Both beautiful. Both necessary.

(This is part three of a series that, as my father dryly points out, has no reason being a series as there is no link between them whatsoever. You might also like: The Hook To Hang Our Hat On: Part I, and  Sight of the Blind Mind: Part II)

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  1. Danielle Polvorosa says:

    i love this, Michael. totally speaks to me, even without a lick of bonsai experience. thank you Danielle

  2. adamaskwhy says:

    I find when working on a special yamadori that you respect the forces that created the character of that tree. And often it’s the so-called flaws that make them special. On a man made tree you’re always asking yourself “what was this person thinking keeping this….”

  3. bonsai eejit says:

    Reblogged this on Bonsai Eejit.

  4. Dan W. says:

    Michael, having worked with collected trees passed down through generations… would you say that these eventually gain a sense of community also? I’d imagine that they are still very wild and majestic, but many hours of work by loving hands have been put in over the generations as well…

    • crataegus says:

      Good point. Any old bonsai has a history in its branches that are done by people, so there is certainly an influence that comes from community. The significant difference between the two, yamadori and pot-grown, is that even with decades of handling and reworking—-such as I saw on a daily basis in Japan—-the trees that started as older yamadori still feel like they came from the mountains. That is their essential nature, and it’s communicated throughout their lives as bonsai. Never changes. The pot-grown trees, with few exceptions, communicate a cultivated feeling, and what you feel is the work of hands, not hailstorms.

  5. Reblogged this on Backcountry Bonsai and commented:
    Here’s a great post by Michael Hagedorn, discussing diferences between yamadori (“tree from the mountain”) and pot grown trees in bonsai.

  6. Thanks Michael. I re-blogged this at Backcountry Bonsai.

  7. Maggie Limburg says:

    I have never thought about the difference between yamadori and pot-grown before, but I like your explanation. I look on my trees as children, which I hope will some day connect me to someone who will continue to care for them.

  8. Marc says:

    Interesting as always Michael.
    I think that Yamadori do have a different feel but there is something the two share. For me, Yamadori are naturally dwarfed many times due to growing in natural pockets in rock that help limit and slow growth.When a slow development is achieved in a pot over many years, trees taken on a differrent look and feel from their Rapidly Developed cousins.Many growers around the world opt for rapid development and the resulting trees have a courseness that is easy to see. Trees that are slowly developed in pots are much finer and have better character to my eye.

  9. I mean no disrespect to your father, though I would counter that this series has every reason to be a series… There is most certainly a defining thread.

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