The mysterious and often high-maintenance bonsai tree is beloved for its miniature size.
Yet, to the uninitiated, a bonsai tree is just a beautiful plant.
But long-time practitioners of the art and craft of bonsai know that it is so much more than a tiny tree.
The earliest bonsai forms originated in China more than 1,300 years ago, but bonsai is actually a Japanese word meaning “tray planting.”
Later on, the craft spread to the Western world through contact with East Asia.
Thus, these days, bonsai trees don’t necessarily come from one place but have become an art form that almost any eager grower can learn.
So how did a tradition born in the Tang dynasty become the bonsai tree that we know today?
Let’s explore where bonsai trees come from by learning about their origins and how they spread throughout the world.
Where Did Bonsai Trees Originate?
Bonsai trees came from the Chinese art of Penjing, also called Penzai, which developed around the sixth century.
Penzai, pronounced by the Japanese in a similar way to ‘bonsai,’ is the art of shaping trees into artistic, miniature versions of themselves.
Over the course of a couple of hundred years, Buddhist students from Japan went on diplomatic missions to China and often brought back these miniature works of landscape art as souvenirs.
The first documented evidence of what the Japanese called “bonsai” was in a book called The Tale of the Hollow Tree from the year 970, according to the Nippon Bonsai Association.
Though the author didn’t actually use the word bonsai, they discussed how humans could modify nature, making things even more beautiful.
Over the next several centuries, the art of preparing and keeping these miniature landscapes would become a sacred tradition passed down orally.
What Did Bonsai Mean to the Chinese?
Originally, bonsai trees were so significant that only the wealthy owned them.
And the reason they were so extraordinary at the time was that almost all bonsais came from the wild.
You see, small trees that we would today consider bonsais can grow in the wild under particular circumstances.
Normally, people found these trees on mountains because the rocky soil and high altitude limited the height that the trees could grow to be.
Thus, in ancient China, bonsais were rare because someone had to discover one, so only certain people had them.
At the same time, the Chinese believed that miniature representations of nature were magically potent.
So, because of their popularity amongst the wealthy and their perceived powers, the ancient Chinese came to adore bonsais.
How Did Bonsai Get to Japan?
During the Kamakura period (1185-1333 AD), Japan adopted much of China’s culture, including the art of bonsai.
However, Japan is much smaller than China, making it much more difficult to find naturally growing bonsais.
Therefore, the Japanese were more likely to make their own bonsais in pots rather than going out and looking for wild miniature trees.
So, because the Japanese often grew their own bonsais, they began to perfect the craft of bonsai so that they could make the trees look however they wanted.
And because of this, many of the tools and styles for bonsai we use today came from Japan, not China.
The Japanese were also the ones who introduced the idea of Zen Buddhism to bonsai.
How Is Bonsai Related to Zen?
Today, many people see bonsai and the concept of Zen as going hand in hand.
And there is quite a bit of truth to that idea.
The Japanese who did bonsai thought there was a meditative aspect to the trees, so many Japanese people used their bonsais to reflect on the harmony of nature.
Zen beliefs also helped shape the way that people practiced bonsai.
For instance, according to the Zen Buddhists, a bonsai should be slightly off-center.
They prefer trees a bit lopsided because Zen Buddhists believe the middle point is where heaven and earth meet, so they don’t want to block this point from sight.
Zen Buddhists also hold beauty in high regard.
Thus, a bonsai tree should invoke a sense of beauty in its carer.
How Did Bonsai Become a World Wide Art?
It was in the 17th century that the Western world first found out about bonsais when a Spaniard wrote about the tiny trees he had seen in the Phillippines.
Then, as Europeans began to learn more about Asian cultures, many Westerners became fascinated with the little trees.
In fact, by 1876, bonsais appeared in the Philadelphia Exposition.
Two years later, Europeans marveled over them at the Paris Exposition.
Eventually, the first English language book about bonsai came about in 1940.
And after the publication of more books, such as a 1957 text by Yuji Yoshimura, bonsais began to appear in European and North American homes.
From there, the practice spread to every continent on earth.
Can You Make Bonsai Out of Any Tree?
You can make bonsai out of almost any tree, which is one of the reasons the practice has spread around the world.
Bonsai trees, in their simplest form, are just trees that someone has purposely dwarfed by way of stunting their root systems in a shallow pot.
Bonsais are also meticulously pruned to make them appear like a miniature version of the original species of tree.
However, over the years, bonsai experts have identified certain species of trees that do better as bonsais than others.
And many of these are the species that continue to be the most popular throughout the world.
What Are the Most Popular Bonsai Species?
Some of the most popular indoor-growing bonsai include:
- Chinese elm
- Hawaiian umbrella
- Ficus species
- Fukien tea
- Snow rose
Most indoor bonsai are subtropical or tropical species of trees that thrive in a temperature-stable environment with plenty of light.
The most popular outdoor bonsai trees include:
- Juniper variants
- Cypress trees
- Colorado blue spruce
- Canadian hemlock
- Japanese maple
Many outdoor bonsai trees are evergreen species or deciduous trees that change color with the seasons.
Outdoor bonsai trees behave just as standard outdoor trees do, going dormant in the winter months with a growing season between April and September.
The term bonsai, as we know it in the English language, is a Japanese word coined to describe the art of planting and dwarfing trees in small trays.
And though the idea of miniature landscapes originated in China and developed in Japan, you can now find bonsais worldwide.
Thus, bonsai trees can be from just about any place on the planet, as growers can make almost any tree into a bonsai.
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