History of Bonsai

Bonsai? So you have an interest in the art? It may be because you have visited a show in the UK or elsewhere, you have been given a present; a ‘grow-your-own Bonsai seed kit’ with no doubt a picture on the box of a wonderful Bonsai. Indeed, this author did in fact start the journey into Bonsai in this latter manner.

You may believe that a Bonsai is to be grown from a special stunted or dwarf seed; this is of course not the case, nor is a Bonsai seed kit going to present you with a wonderful Bonsai tree in twenty to twenty-five years unless you are very-very fortunate. It will also of course rely upon a knowledge to some intense degree of just how a plant functions and how precisely you should spent a quarter of a century or more looking after your tree.

I have heard more times than I care to remember …”It’s cruel what you do to the poor tree?” On the contrary; a Bonsai will receive in a lifetime’s care more love, nutrients, water, etc than anything similar growing in the wild; as a native species that is. Again, with Bonsai, cared for correctly it is almost certainly likely to out-live its counterpart in the wild; such is the level of care bestowed upon these ‘poor unfortunate trees’ … NOT!

We will be including care guides and what precisely is required to move forward in Bonsai; for now though just a brief paragraph or two on the history of Bonsai.

Bonsai [pronounced bon-sigh; not bone-sigh as I frequently see mentioned. Say both and see which sounds better!] and of course literally translated, means plantings in a tray, from bon, a tray or low-sided pot and sai, a planting or plantings.’

Bonsai as we know them, first appeared in China over one thousand years ago on a very basic scale, known as pun-sai, where it was the practice of growing single specimen trees in pots. These early specimens displayed meagre foliage and rugged, contorted trunks which often looked like animals, dragons and birds. There are a great number of myths and legends surrounding Chinese bonsai, and the bizarre or animal-like trunks and root formations are still highly prized even today. Chinese bonsai come from the landscape of the imagination, and images of fiery dragons and coiled serpents take far greater predominance over images of trees – so the two forms of this art are quite far apart.

With Japan’s adoption of many cultural trademarks of China – bonsai not surprisingly was also taken-up. Introduced to Japan during the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333) by means of Zen Buddhism – which at this time was rapidly spreading around Asia. The exact time is somewhat contentious or debatable, such is the importance of archived records, although it is possible that it had arrived in AD 1195 as there appears to be a reference to small trees in a Japanese scroll attributed to that period. Once bonsai was introduced into Japan, the art was refined to an extent not yet approached or appreciated in China. Over time, these simple trees were not just confined to the Buddhist monks and their monasteries, but also later, introduced to be representative of the aristocracy – a symbol of status and honour. The principles and philosophy of bonsai were greatly changed over subsequent years. For the Japanese, bonsai represents a union of strong ancient beliefs with the Eastern philosophies of the harmony between man, the soul and nature.

In an ancient Japanese scroll written in Japan around the Kamakura period, it is translated to say : “To appreciate and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love deformity”. Whether this was intended as a positive or negative statement, leaves us to believe that growing dwarfed and twisted trees in containers was an established practice among the upper class of Japan by the Kamakura period. By the fourteenth century bonsai was indeed viewed as a highly sophisticated art form, meaning that it must have been a time-honoured practice many years before.

Bonsai were brought indoors for display at special times by the ‘Japanese elite’ and became an important part of life by display on specially designed shelves. These multifarious plants were no longer permanently reserved for outdoor display, although the practices of training and pruning did not develop until later – the small trees at this time still being taken from the wild. In the 17th and 18th century, the Japanese arts reached their peak and were regarded highly. Bonsai again evolved to a much higher understanding and refinement of nature – although the containers used seemed to be slightly deeper than those commonly in use today. The main factor in maintaining bonsai was now the elimination of all but the most important parts of the plant. The reduction of everything just to the essential elements and ultimate refinement was very symbolic of the Japanese philosophy of this time – shown by the very simple Japanese gardens such as those in the famous temple – Roan-ji.

At around the same time, bonsai also became widely available to the general Japanese public – which greatly increased demand for the small trees collected from the wild; this then firmly established the art form within the customs and traditions of the country.

Over time, bonsai began to take on different styles, each which varied vastly from one another. Bonsai artists slowly but surely looked into introducing other culturally important elements in their bonsai plantings such as rocks, supplementary and accent plants, and even small buildings and people which itself is known as the art of bon-kei. They also looked at reproducing miniature landscapes in nature – known as sai-kei which further investigated the diverse range of artistic possibilities for bonsai.

Finally, in the mid-19th century, after more than 230 years of global isolation, Japan opened itself up to the rest of the world. Word soon spread from travellers who visited Japan of the miniature trees in ceramic containers which mimicked aged mature tall trees in nature. Further exhibitions in London, Vienna and Paris in the latter part of the century – especially the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 opened the world’s eyes up to bonsai.

Due to this phenomenal upsurge in the demand for bonsai, the now widely expanding industry and lack of naturally forming, stunted plants led to the commercial production of bonsai by artists through training young plants to grow to look like bonsai. Several basic styles were adopted, and artists made use of wire, bamboo skewers and growing techniques to do this – allowing the art to evolve even further. The Japanese learnt to capitalize on the interest in this art form very quickly – opening up nurseries dedicated solely to grow, train and ultimately to export bonsai trees. Different plants were now being used to cater for worldwide climates and to produce neater foliage and more suitable growth habits. Bonsai techniques such as raising trees from seed or cuttings and the styling and grafting of unusual different or tender material onto hardy root-stock were further developed.

Bonsai has now evolved to reflect changing tastes and times – with a great variety of countries, cultures and conditions in which it is now practiced.

In Japan today, bonsai are highly regarded as a symbol of their culture and ideals. The New Year is not complete unless the tokonoma – the special niche in every Japanese home used for the display of ornaments and prized possessions – is filled with a blossoming apricot or plum-tree. Bonsai is no longer reserved for the upper-class, but is a joy shared by executive and factory worker alike.

The Japanese tend to focus on using native species for their bonsai – such as, pines, azaleas and maples (regarded as the traditional bonsai plants). In other countries however, people are more open to alternative choices as well as those just mentioned.

The evolution of bonsai over the past two centuries is truly amazing – now a well-known and respected horticultural art form, that has spread throughout the world from Greenland to the U.S. to South Africa to New-Zealand. It is constantly changing and reaching even greater heights, representative of how small the world is really getting.

A tree planted in a small pot is not a bonsai until it has been pruned, shaped, and trained into the desired shape. Bonsai are kept small by careful control of the plant’s growing conditions. Only branches important to the bonsai’s overall design are permitted to remain, and unwanted growth is pruned away. Roots are confined to a pot and are periodically clipped. Bonsai may have a stylized or an exaggerated form … but, as found in nature. The appearance of old age of a plant is much prized and bonsai may live to be hundreds of years old. The living bonsai will change from season to season and from year to year requiring pruning and training throughout its lifetime … and as time goes on, it will become more and more beautiful.

Size of bonsai is not just restricted to ‘small’ and this will be covered in further detail at a later date. In the mean-time, do come along to the Taunton & Somerset bonsai Club where all the mysterious and not so mysterious secrets will over time be revealed.