History of Bonsai Trees

| May 20, 2015

Aesthetically pleasing and skillfully maintained, bonsai trees are a wonder to behold. These little “tray trees” have centuries upon centuries of history and tradition. Originating as an elite luxury item it ancient Japan and China, these trees have grown to become a worldwide phenomena. Amateur hobbyists and professional horticulturalists alike take delight in the nuances of raising living works of art.

Bonsai Tree

Bonsai Tree

Bonsai Traditions

Bonsai trees have a long and proud history. Evidence suggests that the bonsai tradition was an outgrowth of the Chinese tradition of penjing. Penjing means “tray scenery” in Chinese and bonsai means “tray planting” in Japanese; their similarities go beyond this linguistic connection. Ancient records indicate that in the 600s high-ranking Japanese officials would import penjing plants from China as showpieces in their courts. Buddhist monks then in turn began to emulate this style to produce their own treescapes. Over time, the two arts diverged into separate entities. The art of penjing differs from the art of bonsai in that penjing allows for more rugged tree shapes and entails more of a landscape look.

Owning bonsai trees has traditionally been only an option for the elite. It takes a lot of experience and time to properly start and care for a bonsai, especially considering they have no practical value. Many of the stories about bonsai reflect this. For example, the play The Potted Trees from the 1300s tells of a samurai, someone usually of a high social class, who has lost everything he owns except for one bonsai. An official dressed as a monk calls on him and he burns this tree to provide warmth for him. The official, for the samurai’s generosity, lavishly rewards the samurai. A formerly wealthy owner would have to be extremely desperate to throw away years of work; killing the tree to provide warmth honored the samurai’s guest. In feudal Japan, bonsai trees were firmly ingrained as an elite cultural element.

Bonsai Invades The West

Bonsai trees did not show up regularly in the West until around the 1940s. Elite trade shows and exhibits helped put them into the cultural consciousness. These exhibits helped move the knowledge of bonsai trees from a small esoteric circle to the West as a whole. Soon there after, in the 1960s, Japan began exporting bonsai trees in mass quantities. It was also in that decade that the first group of Westerns received special training in caring for a bonsai at a Japanese nursery. Now, bonsai trees are in vogue with hundreds of articles and books published yearly. It has now well moved passed the borders of Japan.

Wabi-sabi is an important concept to understand in order to properly appreciate the aesthetic value of bonsai trees. In a general sense, it means appreciating the beauty in imperfection and incompleteness. It comes from the Buddhist ideas of impermanence, suffering, and emptiness. A westerner may be able to access this way of thought through the idea of rustic charm. By not being perfect, the piece of art reflects the human condition more accurately. The idea is not to create a symbol of unattainable perfection, like what is associated with the art of the western Renaissance, but to show the transient beauty of life as it lives. Bonsai trees are the embodiment of this concept. Perfection is not the goal of pruning a bonsai, the goal is to grow with the tree.

Types Of Bonsai

There are several types of bonsai styles including, formal upright, informal upright, slanting, and cascade. Each of these styles has its own unique properties and challenges. Formal upright style involves the tree nearly being perfectly perpendicular to the pot. It takes a lot of guiding to convince the tree to grow perfectly straight. Informal upright entails the tree growing fairly perpendicular to the pot, but the tree is allowed more liberty in finding its own path. Slanting style is when the tree is slanted at around a 60 degree angle to the pot. Normally with this style, the top of the tree is pruned asymmetrically, with more on the slanted side, to emphasize the slant. A final common style is cascade; this is where the tree plunges down below the pot. Often, this style tries to mimic a waterfall. A master can form many varieties of plants into bonsai trees, but some trees are more suited to certain styles.

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