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Bonsai Garden

Bonsai Garden… 

Origin: East Asia in Japan

History: The origins of the Bonsai practice are typically ascribed to Japan. However, Bonsai can actually be traced back to the Chinese art form Penjing. Instead of depicting solitary trees, Penjing usually depicts a whole miniature landscape, complete with rocks, trees, and other miniature items. It is believed that this artform was brought to Japan from China around the sixth century when Buddhist monks and imperial embassies travelled back and forth between the two nations. Penjing containers began to appear in art and writing around this time.

Over the centuries, the practice of miniature landscapes in Japan changed, influenced by Zen Buddhism and other art trends. Eventually, rocks and other miniatures began to disappear from the container planting, eventually leading to the form of Bonsai we recognize today, which usually involves a singular, miniature tree with minimal decorations.

During the 19th century the art form shifted once again. Until then, Bonsai had only been practiced by a few skilled artists. During this time, the practice spread throughout Japanese society, first to scholars and nobility, and then to the general populace, and new innovations, such as wire shaping and specialized cutters, helped improve the process.

Bonsai spread to the Western world in the early 1900s, with interest growing in Europe and the Americas. Bonsai specimens were regularly shipped out to other countries. However, this progress was interrupted by the Second World War. Bombing led to the destruction of many Bonsai specimens, as well as the trees that were used for the artform. Despite this, Bonsai made a remarkable comeback after the end of the war, with enthusiasm for the practice only increasing throughout the century. Bonsai conventions and clubs were started with members from all over the globe. Today, the artform is well-known and practiced throughout the world, with new techniques emerging using many different plant species.

Methods: Plant species used for Bonsai must be woody, perennial trees or shrubs. Examples include Japanese maple, Juniper, and Ficus, and there are many, many other plant species that are used. Ficus is regarded as one of the best species for beginners.

All Bonsai start with source material which will be trained into the desired form. Source material is rarely grown from seed – it is usually obtained from cuttings, which are taken from a source tree. Source material can also be taken from nursery stock or purchased by a commercial bonsai grower. Rarely, trees can be found in the wild that have Bonsai qualities due to low nutrients or some other limiting factor. When taken from the wild and grown as Bonsai, these plants are known as yamadori. Transferring these trees from the wild is a difficult process, so yamadori are very rare and valuable. Beginners may want to start with a tree that has already started to be trained, and then eventually move to untrained cuttings.

Shaping of the tree is typically done through leaf trimming, pruning, wiring, clamping, and grafting. Pruning of roots, branches, and trunk of the trees restricts growth and wiring the trunk and branches changes the shape and direction of the growth. Clamping is also used for trunk and branch shaping. Sometimes material is grafted onto an existing Bonsai to add additional branches or other structures. Defoliation can cause dwarfing of foliage for certain species. These processes, when done over many years, eventually form a miniature tree. Well-cultivated Bonsai often give off the illusion of looking at a normal tree from a distance. Bonsai is an artform that requires skill and patience. It is a constant process of training that spans decades. However, it is also a calming and meditative artform that many people are passionate about. Finding a local Bonsai organization can help you get started, as it will allow you to find skilled Bonsai growers that can provide advice. There are also many helpful online tutorials and resources to explore.

Aesthetics: There is more to Bonsai than just the training process. The way the tree looks – both in its proportions and in relation to its container – is an important aspect of Bonsai. Containers should be carefully picked to complement the shape and direction of the tree. Generally, long rectangular or oval containers are used for slanting or overhanging trees, whereas circular or square containers are used for upright trees. These are not hard rules, but generally give off the most balanced and aesthetically pleasing appearance. Additionally, it is generally discouraged to pursue perfect symmetry with your Bonsai. Asymmetry is encouraged, as this will make the tree look more natural.

Other notes:
1. Although they are sometimes called “dwarf trees,” Bonsai are not actually dwarf plants. True dwarf plants are cultivated over generations to be smaller, and this trait is passed down genetically. Bonsai involves cultivating an individual plant to be very small, which is not genetically inheritable.

2. The name “Bonsai” comes from two Japanese characters. “Bon” translates to “a thin dish or tray,” and “sai” essentially means “planted”. Therefore, “Bonsai” roughly means “tray planting.”