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A Brief History of Bonsai


Thinking of cultivating bonsai? Before you do, you may want to know more about the
brief history of bonsai, specifically the people that created this particular form of art. Even though bonsai refers specifically to the craft of Japanese miniature tree sculpture, other oriental cultures have older and similar traditions. As you learn more about the brief history of bonsai and how bonsai evolved, you will also be presented with an opportunity to know more about Japanese culture and some of the most powerful influences on its development.


Origin of the Word Bonsai

The first documented evidence of an oriental word for container planting emerged approximately 1600 years ago in China. As with the Japanese term, Penzai refers to trees that are grown in containers. Today, many people in China, Korea, and Vietnam still have their own guidelines and methods for creating miniature tree sculptures. And the more you come to know about the aesthetic variations of each form, the more you will recognize that the Japanese form, bonsai, does have a distinct flavor and set of characteristics. In particular, the word “bonsai” implies that the trees are meant to be grown in trays or other shallow containers.


Early Bonsai in Japan

Kokan Shiren may not have made headlines in the West the same way William Hung did but he impacted lives in more ways than Hung’s vocal acrobatics ever did. In the not so brief history of bonsai, Shiren holds the distinction of being the first to document guidelines for how bonsai trees and gardens should look. As may be expected of a Zen monk, Shiren also included all kinds of fascinating observations about the art and symbolism of bonsai. Among other things, his poems and other writings reflect the powerful influence of symbolic magic in oriental culture. For example, he made note of the fact that stones assembled in bonsai planters can represent the highest mountains. Some other symbolic elements of bonsai include:


  • scars on tree trunks and branches to represent lightning strikes;

  • beautiful pads of miniature leaves flowing from limbs that look like driftwood;

  • overall tree shapes that carry deeper symbolic meanings within society.


Bonsai: Here and Now

Today, the symbolism behind every element of bonsai is lost on most bonsai enthusiasts. Most grow bonsai for personal enjoyment rather than for tradition, for fun and not for art or symbolism. In a nutshell, modern bonsai bears little resemblance to the traditional form of bonsai. Even so, that many people continue to grow bonsai is a testament to the fact that the tradition lives — if not to the letter then at least in spirit.


Nowadays, you can purchase bonsai specimens in many different stores and flower shops. In most cases, you may not realize that the trees you are looking at do not adhere strictly to the Japanese form of miniature container gardening. For instance, if you see plants in deep containers instead of trays, you may be looking at specimens that were formed using methods derived from other cultures other than Japanese. If you’re growing bonsai for the sheer joy of it, there’s nothing wrong with this. Bonsai is bonsai; what does it matter how it was cultured?


If, on the other hand, you’re a fledgling purist and are growing bonsai the way the Japanese originally intended, then it pays to grow your own tree. Read the brief history of bonsai, brush up on bonsai basics, and study the elements that go into the making of a tree. It won’t be easy but then again, the best things in life never are.

Check These Out


How to Grow, prune, trim and Care for Bonsai Trees, a great ebook to learn all Bonsai Gardening Secrets

What Every New Owner Should Know About Taking Care Of Bonsai Trees
Discover The 7 Simple Steps To Keeping Your Bonsai Tree Alive & Well…

how to make a bonsai-basics step by step video

To anyone looking to make bonsai with Australian plants, I highly recommend figs. The one featured in this video is still alive despite my neglect. Figs are also interesting to watch as they grow. You can see the leaves as they form. They also shoot aerial roots. They are rainforest trees, but they can grow anywhere and everywhere.