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Shohin and Mame Bonsai
Submitted by Carole Carver

Shohin is the Japanese word meaning things that are tiny. Mame bonsai is a subcategory of Shohin bonsai and is even smaller. Smaller yet are trees that are called mini bonsai. Shohin and Mame are then, bonsai size classifications.  Generally a Shohin bonsai tree is between 5 inches and 8 inches tall not including the pot.  A Mame bonsai tree is between 2 to 6 inches tall.  These estimations seem to vary with the author as I have found several versions. As with regular bonsai, the purpose of developing a Shohin bonsai is to create the picture of a fully grown tree. However, due to fundamental size restrictions of size, there are a limited amount of branches and foliage in a Shohin. At bonsai exhibitions, people who do not understand Shohin tend to ignore the little trees in favor of larger ones. Shohin is gaining in popularity in Japan.

Authors reviewed for this paper indicated that things learned from the mastery of Shohin can improve skills for all bonsai growers. These tiny trees do require more precise care in many ways including watering and shaping. A misplaced branch or too many or too few leaves will be very obvious. One hot day without water could cause irreversible damage. Advantages of small bonsai suit people with limited space or have difficulty managing larger trees and heavier containers. Shohin has developed popularity as it requires less space, costs less, easier to move and takes less time to develop. Perhaps best of all, Shohin bonsai are a delight to behold.

Bonsai in general was broadly introduced to the States following WWII when soldiers brought bonsai to the West. Though the art of bonsai dates back to the Tang Dynasty in China, AD 618 - 906, Shohin dates back only about 100 years and Mame is even more recent. The American Shohin Association was established in 2005.

Differences between Shohin and larger bonsai include the following:

Obviously the size.  
Focus on seasonal beauty such change of leaf in spring and fall, in addition to flowers
and fruit which makes deciduous trees a good choice although conifers and tropicals are also often used.
the age of the tree is not as important as in traditional bonsai.
When displayed, Shohin are arranged in groups with a focus on unifying beauty and
harmony in the display. The arrangement will often include suiseki and accent plants. Displays should express the same season but different species and different pots.  
Pots are described as critical to display the tree, looking for the right size, color, shape and

Where to get Shohin seeds, cuttings or plants from the ground. It is suggested that you purchase your first one for study and practice. It is noted that unless you are under the age of 50, best not to grow from seed. It is advisable to look for plants with naturally small leaves, if possible. Good starter plants are cotoneasters, honeysuckle, Chinese elm as well as a variety of conifers and spruce. Tropicals can include Ficus, pomegranate and portulacaria. Again, deciduous trees are valued because they can express the beauty of spring and fall and because they can produce flowers and fruit.

Growing Techniques
Due to the small size of the container, Shohin dry out more quickly so they must be protected from excessive heat and from wind. A small Shohin can be blown off in a storm.  The pot may have to be wired down or protected in some other way. Shohin can be protected by placement with larger bonsai. Also under plantings expire moisture and can increase humidity.

Re-pot Shohin more frequently than regular sized bonsai such as every year or so for deciduous and every 2 to 3 years for conifers as roots have such a small space in which to grow. When roots appear in the drainage holes, you will know it is time to consider re-potting.

Soil should be of smaller particle size 1/8" to 3/16". Some authors recommend sphagnum peat, not fresh peat moss as soil for Shohin should hold water better that regular bonsai. Can use small lava pieces or fired clay as a drainage layer or both. One author suggested 60% sphagnum and 40% hard particles. For pines and junipers, 20% pine bark, 40% sphagnum and 40% hard particles. For Mame, suggest 70% sphagnum and 30% coarse particles. Akadama is a general purpose soil comprised of clay granules of differing sizes and qualities.

The advantage of this type of soil is that it absorbs water and releases it slowly. If Akadama is used, it needs to be the high fired typed so it breaks down slower and does not become powdery.

When re-potting, remember to allow the tree’s roots to be slightly dry to allow old soil to drop more easily causing less stress to the roots. Then water well afterward.

In most climates place Shohin in partial shade during summer months as soil
dries rapidly. Also hot sun can dry leaves faster that water can move up through the roots. In Florida, plan to water twice daily in summer months. For some very small plants, place in a bed of moist sand to prevent drying. Some authors recommend dunking the pot to the top until no more bubbles come out of pot to allow for even distribution of water. If there are dry spots, the roots will die quickly and the whole tree will suffer. If the tree has a good canopy, just overhead watering may not reach the roots. Misting is good because it cleans the leaves and disturbs possible buildup of insects.

Shohin don’t require as much fertilizing as regular bonsai. Recommend a broad spectrum NPK in spring on top of soil (8 8 8) and then gradually taper off after spring fertilizer. Some suggest a diluted water soluble plant food monthly. In the fall consider a 0 10 10 fertilizer to promote root growth.  There is debate about whether fertilizers should be chemical vs. organic and about ½ strength vs. full strength. The choice seems to be a personal one but I would err on the side of caution and know the needs of the species.

Most used style is the informal upright and semi cascade with the goal of
naturalness, simplicity and balance. Another significant difference between Shohin and larger bonsai is how leaves are used. In large bonsai, the focus is on style and power of the tree, especially the trunk. In Shohin, because trunks are often less powerful and dramatic, the leaves and the seasons are emphasized.

Shohin are usually limited to a canopy of 2 to 5 foliage pads. Mame is likely limited to just one canopy.  Depth is achieved by having more branches and foliage on the back of the tree than the front.  It makes a flat image into a 3 dimensional one.

Often the goal is to create a scalene style whenever possible as it is pleasing to the eye. It illustrates the Wabi Sabi principle that imperfection is natural.  In the words of the late John Naka, a famous Japanese American bonsai master “don’t let your tree look like a bonsai, but let your bonsai look like a tree.”  Nebari is a word used to describe surface roots at the base of a trunk which gives the appearance of age, vigor and stability. To create nebari, plant the tree in a shallow wooden box for 3 years. This forces roots out horizontally and also producers a thicker trunk.  In general, you would expect a straight trunk to have straight branches and a curved trunk to have curved branches.  Wiring should be done on a tree whose soil has dried out a bit, then water well after wiring.  Care should be taken not to disturb new buds in the spring. If wired in the spring, check the wire often as branches also swell in the spring.  Cutting back a trunk in early spring will result in a number of new shoots sprouting from the base of the cut. New shoots can be trained into new leaders and branches. A tree such as this can be developed in 4 or 5 years which can be much faster than traditional bonsai.


Unlike leaves, flowers cannot be scaled down and can be too large for Shohin.
 The Japanese prefer to limit the number of flowers or fruit as the production puts too much stress on the plant. Trees that flower on 2 year old branches must be pruned after flowering, and then allowed to grow freely to allow for the development of new flower buds.


Deciduous and conifer trees need to go through seasonal changes with
periods of dormancy, if possible. Tropicals need to be brought in temperatures of 50 degrees or less.  Pots can be placed on a bed of mulch, then carefully mulch the plants. Smaller plants can also be protected by placement among larger plants. Remember to keep plants moistened. Plants can be placed in a wooden box with mulch or in an unheated garage.


This is the time to collect new plants from the ground: prune evergreens and fertilize to
strengthen the tree for winter. A basic rule for tropicals and sub tropicals is to keep them at temperatures well above freezing. The warmer it is, the more light plants need.

Harmony, beauty and simplicity are the essential elements. 
Colors of the stand, pot and tree should blend harmoniously. Scale of the pot should match the scale of the tree. It is important to see the tree first and the pot secondarily.  Peace of mind is achieved when your focus is totally on the bonsai. This allows the ego to be set aside for a while. By observing and recreating what nature provides for the tree in the wild, you are brought closer to nature.  Simply observing by studying the movement of the trunk, the fine ramification of the branches and detail of roots can create a sense of well being. Daily watering, pruning and needle pinching create a relationship between you and your trees that can put the stress of daily life at a distance for a while.  A bonsai is never finished, it is a continual process. Our ongoing relationship with this living sculpture helps to cultivate peace of mind.