This juniper bonsai in a stone pot is only about a foot tall. Periodic pruning maintains the shape and size, but the trunk grows thicker. Photo by Ralph Anderson.

Don't you just hate it when your Mom unwraps her Christmas presents and finds out you and your brother gave her the same thing? Well, here's a unique gift Grumpy guarantees no one else in the family will think of. A miniature tree or shrub that's a true work of art. It's called a bonsai.

What the Heck Is Bonsai?

emJade tree bonsai/em.em Photo: Bonsai Outlet/em

Bonsai is a horticultural art form developed in Japan in which trees, shrubs, and other plants exist in exact proportion to mature plants, but are maybe only a hundredth of the size.

How do these plants get like that? Do they come from tiny moons circling tiny planets? No. Do they come from the Valley of the Tiny People? No. Do they come from the same company that produces those microscopic packets of peanuts they give you on airplanes? No.

Bonsai are normal, everyday plants that are miniaturized by careful training that involves pruning, restricting the size of the root system, and temporary wiring of the trunk and branches to get them to grow in the direction you want. Bonsai grow slowly, so it's not unusual to see one that's been growing in the same pot for 100 years. These, of course, are quite valuable, which is why Japanese consider it rude to pour hot coffee on one.

Choosing Bonsai Plants

emSatsuki azalea bonsai. Photo: Bonsai Outlet/em

Some traits make certain plants better candidates for bonsai than others. They include slow growth (so you don't have to prune every 6 minutes), needles or small leaves (because foot-long leaves makes a foot-tall plant look like Dumbo), and pretty flowers, foliage, bark, or berries. It's important to note that even though bonsai may be the size of houseplants, only those native to frost-free climates (like ficus or jade plant) can live in the house year-round. Plants adapted to cold winters (like maple, juniper, pine, and azalea) must spend the winter outdoors.

Give Bonsai Already Started We live in a cyber, couch-potato world. Who the heck wants to give someone a bonsai they've created themselves or even bought at a store when you can just order it online without breaking a sweat? Now you can! Check out Bonsai Outlet. You'll find all sorts of really cool bonsai that have already gone through basic training and look beautiful. Given the common shipping practices of dropping packages from 20,000 feet and then running them through a chipper, I was afraid that the juniper bonsai I ordered (at top) would be pulverized to cellular level. But when I opened the box, the packaging was so good, not a needle was out-of-place.

When you go to the website, Grumpy suggests you choose from the list of bonsai for beginners. Each bonsai comes with care instructions. Now there will be no chance of anyone duplicating YOUR gift. As Mom opens the box, you'll hear those five little words every child longs to hear: "Whoa, Dude! That's major awesome!"