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What Do Bonsai Trees Symbolize and Represent?

Bonsai trees traditionally symbolize harmony, balance, and patience. 

Taoists in ancient China first cultivated bonsai as miniature representations of nature’s harmony.  

Meanwhile, for Zen Buddhists, they are objects of meditation. 

Bonsai trees represent peace and balance, which has made them quite popular throughout the world. 

However, bonsai isn’t actually a tree species, as many assume. 

Instead, bonsai is a technique of pruning the branches and binding the roots to miniaturize any number of traditionally large trees.

Therefore, people can miniaturize many species into bonsai trees. 

And depending on the tree, the bonsai can symbolize different things.

The rest of this article will tell you all you need to know about bonsai trees, their history, cultivation, and the meaning and symbolism behind popular bonsai species. 

Origin of Bonsai 

Most people associate bonsai trees with Japanese culture. 

But, historical records show that bonsai trees were being cultivated by China’s elite as early as 700 CE and were a status symbol among China’s wealthiest. 

It wasn’t until nearly 500 years later that bonsai trees came to Japan.  

Yet, the word “bonsai” is Japanese and literally means “tree in a pot.” 

However, the word stems from the Chinese word “pun-sai” or “penjing,” which translates to “landscape” and “nature.” 

This origin confirms the bonsai tree’s symbolism of the peace and harmony that nature brings. 

Who First Created the Bonsai Tree?

Many historians believe that the first people to develop the techniques for cultivating bonsai trees were the Taoists, believers in an ancient Chinese philosophy that espouses harmony and balance of all things in the universe. 

The Taoists got the idea for bonsai from the trees that grew wild high up in the mountains, where the harsh, poor, rocky soil and thin air stunted the trees’ growth, 

And this climate created dwarf versions of trees that would otherwise grow large in more ideal conditions. 

Explorers hiking the harsh mountain terrain in ancient China discovered these small trees, and from there, the bonsai was born. 

Why Was Bonsai First Created?

To recreate the dwarf version of trees they discovered in the mountains, the Chinese developed pruning techniques and root binding to stunt the trees’ natural growth and give them gnarled, twisted trunks. 

The reason for the shaped trunks is unclear, though. 

Some historians believe that the Taoists aimed to shape the trees’ trunks to resemble creatures from Chinese folklore, such as the wise and powerful Chinese dragon. 

Yet others liken the twisted shapes to yoga positions, though this is unlikely, as yoga originated in India instead of China. 

Meaning of Bonsai Shape 

Interestingly, bonsai does not follow the traditional idea of balance that many of us know in the West. 

In Europe and many other areas of the world, people have traditionally seen symmetry as the ultimate form of balance. 

However, in East Asia, artists use deliberate imperfection to create a type of asymmetrical balance. 

Thus, bonsai trees are not symmetrical even though they represent balance. 

Furthermore, most bonsai trees are triangle-shaped, which Taoists have used to symbolize strength and stability. 

Overall, these characteristics give bonsai their meaning. 

Yet, bonsai artists also use other shapes and styles to create different effects in their living creations. 

The Symbolism of Individual Bonsai Species 

In addition to the general symbolism of the bonsai tree (harmony, peace, balance, and patience), different bonsai species have different meanings. 

1) Azalea Bonsai

With its large, soft pink blooms, the azalea bonsai symbolizes femininity, feminine beauty, vulnerability, and gentleness. 

It is also associated with abundance, passion, and love and is an appropriate gift for a special woman in your life, such as a mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, or wife. 

2) Ficus Bonsai

The Ficus bonsai, also called the “cheerful tree” because of its association with happiness, new beginnings, and unity, is a green, leafy tree with a large trunk. 

Many even believe that the Ficus can enhance positivity when grown inside the home. 

Ficus is also a sign of abundance, which is an interpretation that comes from Middle Eastern tradition. 

3) Jade Bonsai

The jade bonsai is significant to feng shui, believed to bring luck and prosperity to those who grow it inside their home. 

The reason that jade bonsai is often a symbol of wealth is that the plant’s leaves have often reminded people of jade coins. 

Because of this, people commonly gift jade bonsais to business owners, who place the tree near a cash register, desk, or a southeast region of the store to invite success and prosperity. 

And since it’s a symbol of wealth, the jade bonsai is also known as the lucky money tree, the money plant, and the friendship tree. 

4) Juniper Bonsai

Long associated with protection and cleansing, the juniper bonsai traditionally wards off evil spirits and promotes healing. 

Additionally, this British native can represent power and can supposedly help people overcome difficult challenges in life. 

Also, growers have long used the pale whitish-blue berries in healing rituals. 

5) Cherry Blossom Bonsai

The cherry blossom tree, or sakura, is significant in Japanese culture and is even the national flower of Japan. 

It symbolizes the beauty and brevity of life. 

Furthermore, because cherry blossoms only bloom for about two weeks every year, tradition associates them with mortality, mindfulness, renewal, rebirth, and new beginnings. 

The cherry blossom bonsai, though, can also represent female power and sexuality, as it sometimes does in China. 

6) Chinese Elm Bonsai

Also known as the tree of harmony, the Chinese elm represents inner strength, intuition, and wisdom. 

Often seen as a magical tree with protective powers, people have historically planted the Chinese elm in homes and religious buildings as a good omen.

7) Maple Bonsai

Japanese art commonly uses maple trees, with their vibrant red and gold leaves, to symbolize peace, balance, and serenity. 

Maple trees also suggest elegance and grace. 

8) Cedar Bonsai

With their unusually long lifespan, cedar trees are naturally symbolic of immortality and strength. 

They have cultural significance as well, being used as incense and in prayer and healing rituals. 

Plus, cedar leaves and bark are effective as medicine, and many consider them purifying. 

9) Oak Bonsai

Throughout the centuries, many cultures have associated oak trees with strength, knowledge, and immortality, symbolizing the power of the gods. 

Oak also has cultural significance as a source of spiritual wisdom and everlasting life. 

Also, oak bonsai has come to symbolize generosity and protection since the Native Americans commonly saw oak as embodying these ideas. 

10) Boxwood Bonsai 

The boxwood tree actually is not native to East Asia. 

However, the boxwood is a popular symbol in the Christian faith, and, throughout history, people have used boxwood as a shelter. 

Though, when people began to use boxwood for bonsai, the meaning of the plant changed. 

The boxwood bonsai has come to represent immortality because it has leaves all year round and lives for a long time. 


Bonsai is an old tradition that goes back to life in Medieval China. 

At that time, people were copying the small and oddly-shaped trees they found growing high up in the mountains. 

Then, as time went on, they began to associate the bonsai tree with important ideas, like harmony, balance, and patience.

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