What is bonsai? It’s just a tree in a pot, literally (bon = tray, sai = planting). Yet, it is so much more than that. It is the unique marriage of aesthetics and horticulture. Bonsai is the practice of growing miniature, yet natural, fully aged looking beautiful trees. This is done through patient techniques passed down over centuries.
The history of bonsai goes back as far as the Tang Dynasty (618-906) where miniature landscapes were created and brought inside. Han Yu (768-824), a Buddhist monk, wrote verse in praise of dwarf potted landscape. Like most things associated with Buddhism, bonsai traveled with it to Japan. Saichō (767-822), founder of Tendai Buddhism, first broached the subject of Buddhahood for non-sentient beings by affirming that “trees and rocks have Buddha-nature.” Circa 970, The Tale of the Hollow Tree includes the passage: “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.” About the year 1000, Chinese monks carried trees in pots as gifts throughout the Far East.
In the 1200’s, Japan’s Chan Buddhism transformed into Zen, whose appreciation of nature, change, subtleties, and profoundly quiet, serene, austere, and unpretentious art forms had a huge influence on the practice of bonsai in Japan. Soon after Zen arrived, the Japanese started to display their trees as a sign of culture and affluence. In the 1400’s, Zen monks developed stone viewing and bonsai as spiritual refinement, inner awareness, and enlightenment. Zen was also widely practiced among the samurai class, and bonsai was among the many arts or “ways” practiced as part of Zen.
In the 1500’s, an alcove, called tokonoma, was generally found in temples in which to display scrolls, pottery, bonsai, rocks, or flower arrangements. This alcove then moved into the architecture of homes and other places. By the 1700’s bonsai was commonplace in Japanese homes of both the middle and upper classes.
Bonsai has grown in popularity and has gone through many different trends since then. In the late 1800’s, Europe’s fascination with “Japonism” brought bonsai to Europe. 1900’s, American soldiers witnessed Japanese values and the practice of bonsai and established the practice upon return to the states. America’s practice of bonsai is closely related to Japanese practices because of the post-war closeness of the nations. However, in recent decades, the influx of Chinese population, culture, and influence has taken root in the US, bringing with it the Chinese practices that developed independent of Japan’s.
Styles of bonsai vary greatly, but traditionally most bonsai fall into a limited number of main styles.
- Formal Upright has straight trunk, perfectly natural tapering, and symmetrically spaced branches.
- Informal Upright has bent or altered growth direction, a natural slant that can be curved or straight with strong root growth to the side.
- Cascade bonsai tend to have tips that grow down below the container base, the trunk has a natural taper that gives the impression of the forces of gravity acting upon it, and branches that appear to be seeking the light.
- Semi-cascade bonsai project over the side of the container, but do not drop below the base. These plantings mimic growth on overhangs with strong horizontal movement; exposed roots balance the trunk.
- Wind Swept bonsai grow completely in one direction as if bent by the force of the wind since sprouting.
- Mame or Mini bonsai are all the same styles previously mentioned, but only 3-6 inches in size.
- Forest, group, or grove plantings can be bunched tightly or spread apart, mimic realistic groves with multi- or split trunks, but with a singular canopy.
- Litterati, inspired by the literary and painting scholars of the Song dynasty (960-1278), are bonsai that embody lofty attitude or an “amateur ideal”, but tend not to follow other rules with a small triangular shaped canopy at the top of a long, narrow, twisted and curved trunk.
- Lastly, landscape or tray plantings, include stones, sand, and sometimes vegetation, arranged to suggest a landscape. Penjing, or Chinese style landscapes beneath the trees can be dramatic and decorative, contain pavilions, terraces, boats, people, birds and animals.
Design elements of bonsai include techniques to create the dramatic illusion of natural growth, size, and age. Trees are developed with 3-dimensional sense of depth, roughly asymmetrical triangular outlines, conditioned small leaves or needles, apexes that bow forward, and exposed roots to reflect the form and age of the tree. Gradual trunk and branch taper and a visible trunk to reveal structure are vital. Branches are focused on the top third to top half of the tree with lower branch thickest, thinning towards the apex and branches exhibit taper from trunk to tip. Groups or multi- trunks groupings have non-symmetrical triangular forms and only branches in the top third point directly forwards.
Pot color should compliment tree leaves, flowers or fruit. Traditionalists believe that glazed pots are only for deciduous trees, ornate pots for flowering and fruiting trees or mini bonsai, and unglazed pots are used for coniferous trees. Placement in the pot is also important. Trees are planted off-centered in rectangle or oval pots, but centered in round or square pots.
There are several complementary arts commonly practiced along with bonsai that create mood or perspective such as suiseki, or landscape viewing stones; kusamono or other small complimentary plants; and accompanying scroll paintings, miniature mudmen, figurines, or buildings. Outside of landscape plantings, it is generally held that the use of complimentary items should contribute to the mood or illusion of a small tree, but not used just as decoration.
As you can see, the practice of bonsai is quite complex, thus the use of the term “practice.” But as with any great endeavor it yields beautiful rewards. It is not a “quick” hobby, but the “practice” yields constant return.