The bonsai tree, synonymous with Japanese culture, originated 2,000 years ago in China during the Han Dynasty. Bonsai literally means “potted plant” and is the fine art of growing miniature trees in containers using pruning, watering techniques and repotting.
Bonsai, originally called “pun-sai” by the Chinese, was introduced to the Japanese by the Zen Buddhists during the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333). Once the bonsai tree was introduced to Japan, the art was refined and spread from monasteries to aristocracy. For the Japanese, the bonsai tree represents a fusion of ancient beliefs with the philosophies of the harmony among nature, man and soul. The bonsai trees were brought indoors during special occasions and were displayed upon specially designed shelves. The bonsai craft reached its height during the 17th and 18th centuries in Japan.
During the mid-19th century, Japan began to open itself up to the rest of the world, and also its bonsai gardens and bonsai trees. International demand for the bonsai tree spiked after the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. Artists used wire, skewers and other materials to mass market bonsai plants in Japanese nurseries for exportation.
Bonsai master John Naka created a famous bonsai tree named Goshin in the 1960s.
The oldest known living bonsai trees are at Happo-en in Tokyo, where the bonsai are believed to be between 400 and 800 years old.
The bonsai tree is not genetically a small tree. It can be created from any such tree or shrub. The artist wraps wire around the branches and trunks to hold them in place until they are converted into wood, a process that takes six to nine months. The process is called “lignification.”
Artists and cultivators use techniques called “jin” and “shari” to simulate age and maturity in a bonsai. Jin means when the bark from an entire branch is removed to create the impression of a snag of deadwood. Shari means stripping bark from areas of the trunk to simulate natural scarring.
There are several types of bonsai tree styles:
. Chokkan, a formal upright style
. Shakan, slant-style
. Kengai, cascade-style
. Han Kengai, semi-cascade-style
. Netsuranari, raft-style
. Literati style
. Sekijoju, root-over-rock style
. Yose Ue, group or forest style
. Hokidachi, broom style
. Ishizuke, growing-in-a-rock
. Ikadabuki, multi-trunk style
There are different sizes as well:
. Dai/Daiza Bonju (large, over 40 inches)
. Dai/Daiza Omono (large, up to 48 inches)
. Chu/Chuhin (medium to large, 16-24 inches)
. Kifu Katade-mochi (medium, 16 inches)
. Shohin Myabi (small, 6-10 inches)
. Shohin Komono (small, up to roughly 7 inches)
. Shohin Gafu (small, 5-8 inches)
. Mame Shito (tiny, 1-3 inches)
. Mame Keshi-tsubu (tiny, up to 1 inch)
To mark the bicentennial of the United States in 1976, the people of Japan gave a gift of bonsai. The nonprofit National Bonsai Foundation, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was founded thereafter in 1982.