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Bonsai Through the Ages

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By D L Ennis

Bonsai. I know you have all heard of Bonsai, but what do you really know about it? Bonsai, in Japanese, is translated as to mean “plant and tray” or “tray planting”. A congruent merger of the pot and tree, a single entity complimented by texture, color and shape, this is Bonsai. More art than horticulture, all twigs and branches are manipulated or removed in favor of the look which forms this masterpiece of grace and beauty.

At one time there were a lot of myths, which followed bonsai; however, in recent years most of them have been dispelled. Facts are that if a bonsai is suitably cared for, -given sufficient sources of nutrients, air, light and water- it could and probably should out live a tree of the same species grown in nature. Another unjustified myth is that bonsai is cruel, that it harms the tree. The practice of bonsai is no more cruel, or harmful, than pruning your shrubs or trees in your own landscape.

Although most any small leafed plant can be used, in Japanese style bonsai, azalea, bamboo, camellia and various pines are some of the most favorable plants. No special hybrids or dwarf trees are required as commonplace plants, which might grow in the wild, are appropriate. You must remember that bonsai are the same plants that are grown outdoors and that they are not indoor plants, with the exception of plants that are suited and trained to grow indoors.

It is know that bonsai was being practiced in China over a thousand years ago and was called, pun-sai. Pun-sai trees had meager foliage and gnarled trunks resembling dragons, animals and birds. Many legends and myths are associated with, Chinese bonsai. The peoples of China with their thirst for imaginary creatures used their conjured, dragons and serpents, as models for their pun-sai as these images were more intriguing than an image of a tree.

Zen Buddhism brought bonsai to Japan during the Kamakura era from, 1187-1333 and was practiced by the Buddhist monks and their monasteries. In time, aristocrats were introduced to bonsai where it became a symbol of honor and prestige. Over the years, the philosophy of Japanese bonsai with its strong ancient beliefs, merged with the eastern philosophies of nature, man and soul, as one. Bonsai was seen as a decidedly refined form of art by the fourteenth century.

At the famous Japanese temple, Roan-ji, is displayed the simple gardens of the 17th and 18th century. Here you will find that Japanese bonsai; -during this time- had reached its pinnacle in refinement. It was during this time that bonsai was to take on the basic form that is known today. By the removal of all but the essential material, bonsai had again advanced, to a much higher awareness of nature. In this same period, bonsai became available to the general public, imbedding this art form in the traditions and culture of Japan.

Gradually the art of bonsai was to take on varying styles and bonsai artist began to introduce rocks and accent plants even small buildings and people. The use of these buildings and people to accent the bonsai is an art form known as, bon-kei. Miniature landscapes where reproduced increasing the many possibilities of artistic intervention within the realm of the art of bonsai. This art form is known as sai-kei.

The world finally learned of bonsai by the mid 1800’s as Japan, opened itself up to the globe after 230 years of complete isolation. Travelers to Japan where in awe of these small mature trees impersonating tall ancient trees seen in nature. Soon there would be exhibitions in places like Vienna, London and in the 1900 Paris World Exhibition where bonsai was seen by the world.

With bonsai now known and available to the world, Japan quickly began to create a worldwide trade of bonsai. There soon became a lack of naturally stunted trees and the production of bonsai through the growing of trees from cuttings and seeds. This nursery grown stock was trained by bonsai artist who brought forth the advent of new methods of training by use of bamboo skewers and wire, leading bonsai to evolve over time to what we know today.

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  • Oscar

    Thanks for your contribution!

  • For additional info on the history of bonsai and related arts, please see this link.

    Robert J. Baran
    Bonsai Historian

  • Thank you for visiting, Ashley!

    D L

  • Thanks from WsBonsai

  • D L, was so good reviewing the art of bonsai; thank you!

  • Thank you!

    D L

  • Jewels

    Informative read on the art of bonsai. The Japanese gardeners created the bonsai oftentimes due to lack of space, and their love of nature. Another interesting horticultural study, the Japanese gardening techniques for their outdoor gardens, usually on a small scale, yet elaborate, always artistic and intricate, but never cluttered. Creation of the water garden within their personal gardening spaces was to bring more aspects of nature into one space. Even developing the colorful strains of the Koi, fish of many colors used in the water ponds, were developed in a similar manner as the bonsai trees, spawned to be colorful, decorative. They also kept mosquito population out of the ponds.

    I have read some species of bonsai to be decades old. In travelling, I have encountered shops that would have trees for sale, claiming to be over a hundred years old, yet under 18″ tall. Knarled, twisted, beautiful.