studio shot of bonsai jade plant in a clay pot

Let’s discuss naturally occurring Bonsai, or environmentally dwarfed plants. We’ll take the example of this plant growing, tacked onto the side of a mountain. This report isn’t intended as a scientific paper, so I don’t have any need and even less desire, to enter every variant of each sub-topic.


Any plant, given the necessary growing conditions, will endure if not flourish, for the expectant number of years for that particular species, if not longer. However, in front of a plant seed may even germinate, it requires: soil, sunlight, moisture in some shape and nutrients. Also, the pre-emergent seed has to contend with:

        • extremes of temperature and exposure
        • inappropriate final resting place (in a tree, cave, between a rock and a hard place, etc)
        • lack of available moisture
        • improper soil types
        • and being absorbed by any of the myriad other elements in nature, from: birds and creatures large (bears) or little (rodents), insects, bacteria, moulds, fungi generally and several other pathogens.

An experiment has been conducted in the’80s, using 1 1/2 kilos of irradiated (for monitoring purposes) seed (seed size is roughly that of a pin-head) from a species of river casuarina. This species grows on the water’s edge and the majority of the tree hangs over the water. Most the seed has been released at tree height (av. 20ft) into the river, since it is the natural seeding occasion of this plant, with end playing a significant role. From this launch and up to 5 years after, it was discovered that 3 trees had survived. Consider that, 1 1/2 kilos of seed the size of a pin head. That’s a good deal of seed that didn’t make it, in best conditions.

This simple truth of seed predation and opportunity in nature, is why plants are such prolific producers of seed. Sheer chance that anything really survives – it’s only a jungle out there.

Now, provided a seed lands where it’s an opportunity and survives, this is all good and well. But what of our bad thing about the mountain? Multiply the odds of getting knocked off radically. So how can a plant survive in this circumstance?

In harsh environments

Speed of germination and establishment:

Once the perfect conditions are satisfied, they may only be fleeting. If, a plant lands – in the lee of a stone, on workable soil, with some moisture, thereby taking care of almost all of the requirements, this might be the only day in the year that it really rains. Seed germination and establishment has to be rapid, in averse problems.

One adaptation to the germination and establishment procedure, includes the development of taproots. This is the key central origin from which smaller branch roots arise. In harsh environs, this taproot is going to be the first portion of the plant to grow, plumbing as much of the available depth of dirt as possible, as quickly as it can. Does this allow a more secure plant, but as importantly, allows access to reserves of nutrient and moisture not readily available to plants using a lesser root system.

Fluctuations in Temperature

There are those places in the world that experience the complete gamut of seasonal weather in 1 day. Melbourne, Australia, comes easily to mind. On the side of a mountain, based on the aspect about sunlight, a plant might just encounter freezing temperatures during night and scorching through the day.

To be able to survive this, plants have through natural selection, developed numerous protective adaptations to compensate. This can take the form of:

      • a wax-like coating on the leaves which reduces water loss
      • a covering of hair on leaves to reflect, or dissipate heat
      • modified leaves, or needles, reducing the surface area of the foliage and water reduction
      • rhizomatous root systems, yam like roots deeply buried to escape such extremes,
        -smaller leaves to decrease moisture loss
      • and latex-like sap, further reducing evaporation, plant palatability and sometimes, acts as a sort of anti-freeze.

Let’s not be forgetting annuals and herbaceous perennials. In harsh environments, once conditions are right, annuals can grow, flower, set seeds, then die, all in a matter of weeks, and just repeat the process the next year. Herbaceous perennials, will die down to the ground level, maybe using a rhizome, to offset the effects of contraction and expansion due to freezing and thawing.


There are a great many plants which prevent predation, specifically that of grazing, by having unpalatable leaves. This can take the kind of prickles, toxic sap, etc.. Or for that matter, the sheer inaccessibility of this plant.

Overall Habitat

If the plant has found footing in a location that meets all requirements, but is exposed to destabilising winds on a regular basis, the adaptation can take the shape of the method by which in which the plant grows, or shape. These plants will frequently grow very low to the floor, or actually along it, to decrease the wind resistance. The form of the plant creates a better environment for continued growth and following shading of the soil can go a long way in conserving, or reclaiming moisture.

Some species, such as juniper and cypress, will easily lose the bark on the windward side of the back, surviving occasionally with just a thin vein of bark feeding the tree. Hmm, starting to look like a bonsai.


No plant isn’t likely to survive without some kind of nutrient. Once more, in harsh environs, this comes down to opportunity. If a footing is located in the lee of a stone, there’s much greater likelihood of available nutrient, as because of rain and wind action, organic detritus will gather in such places, finally breaking down to form a lean kind of compost. Certainly not enough to grow veggies, but only enough to sustain a plant that already knows what a rock and a hard place is.


As these hardy plants grow, so the real act of living gets a bit easier. Branches are enticing for critters to land , including their manures, the simple fact of the shelter provided will do the same. A larger plant, will hold a good deal more moisture about it is branches and leaves, whether after storms or from morning dews. This moisture, when on waxy leaves or needles, will then be drop in the drip-line, further raising the moisture levels and chance of survival.

Animals may burrow under or on the plant, mixing manures, soils, minerals and organic matter as they do this. All of which might sound just peachy for the plant in question, but the improvement in the physical areas of where it develops, won’t turn it into a Christmas tree. The deciding factor remains the environment. The enhanced habitat will keep it alive, more.


Most of the above, occurs incrementally, on a molecular scale and is therefore painfully slow. That a plant surviving a negative environment, seems really, really, ancient – is likely because it is. Fast growth is tender, full of sap, complete exposed and in no way able to stand the depredations of harsh environments.

This why, in those states plants become naturally occurring Bonsai, or environmentally dwarfed plants. It’s purely a matter of survival.