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Bonsai- Information & Basics

What is Bonsai?

Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh, not banzai) is not as mysterious in the US as it once was, thanks to the success of the Karate Kid movies and wider visibility and cultural awareness. The term 'bonsai' literally translated from Japanese means tray planting or tree in pot. Many trees can be used as bonsai stock, but simply planting them in a shallow container does not make them bonsai. Bonsai refers specifically to the training and artistic vision applied to the tree; ultimately this will give the illusion of an aged miniature tree in nature. There are a vast variety of species used for bonsai, some of the most popular are Evergreens (Junipers) Pines (Black, White) and a variety of tropical species. Bonsai is definitely an art and requires practice and a good aesthetic eye, but is a fun and rewarding activity which can truly be enjoyed by anyone!!!

How do I take care of my Bonsai tree?

First, the tree must be identified. You can usually do this by simply comparing it with pictures you see of the most popular species (Juniper, Tropical) and then find care instructions for your particular tree (since care varies widely by species). For general care info and tips, check out our care guide.

Bonsai Tree

This is a Japanese Juniper

How are Bonsai kept miniature?
Contrary to some reports, bonsai are not miniaturized by neglect. Quite the opposite! Trees are dwarfed by a combination of techniques. The main methods of dwarfing are planting in a small ceramic pot, foliage pruning, root pruning, and direct exposure to sunlight.

What are the different styles of Bonsai?
The main styles of bonsai are formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade, windswept, and forest. There are many more styles and variations of styles in the art of bonsai, these are the most popular forms.

Bonsai- History
Courtesy of Dan Hubik (

Bonsai first appeared in China over a thousand years ago on a very basic scale, known as pun-sai, where it was the practice of growing single specimen trees in pots. These early specimens displayed sparse foliage and rugged, gnarled trunks which often looked like animals, dragons and birds. There are a great number of myths and legends surrounding Chinese bonsai, and the grotesque or animal-like trunks and root formations are still highly prized today. Chinese bonsai come from the landscape of the imagination and images of fiery dragons and coiled serpents take far greater precedence over images of trees- so the two forms of this art are quite far apart.

Bonsai Tree in Nature

With Japan's adoption of many cultural trademarks of China bonsai was introduced to Japan during the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333) by means of Zen Buddhism, which at this time was rapidly spreading around Asia. The exact time is debatable, although it is possible that it had arrived in AD 1195 as there appears to be a reference to it in a Japanese scroll attributed to that period. Once bonsai was introduced into Japan, the art was refined to an extent not yet approached in China. Over time, the simple trees were not just confined to the Buddhist monks and their monasteries, but also later were introduced to be representative of the aristocracy, a symbol of prestige and honor. The ideals and philosophy of bonsai were greatly changed over the years. For the Japanese, bonsai represents a fusion of strong ancient beliefs with the Eastern philosophies of the harmony between man, the soul and nature.

In an ancient Japanese scroll written in Japan around the Kamakura period, it is translated to say: "To appreciate and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love deformity". Whether this was intended as a positive or negative statement, it leaves us to believe that growing dwarfed and twisted trees in containers was an accepted practice among the upper class of Japan by the Kamakura period. By the fourteenth century bonsai was indeed viewed as a highly refined art form, meaning that it must have been an established practice many years before that time.

Bonsai were brought indoors for display at special times by the 'Japanese elite' and became an important part of Japanese life by being displayed on specially designed shelves. These complex plants were no longer permanently reserved for outdoor display, although the practices of training and pruning did not develop until later. The small trees at this time were still being taken from the wild. In the 17th and 18th century, the Japanese arts reached their peak and were regarded very highly. Bonsai again evolved to a much higher understanding and refinement of nature although the containers used seemed to be slightly deeper than those used today. The main factor in maintaining bonsai was now the removal of all but the most important parts of the plant. The reduction of everything just to the essential elements and ultimate refinement was very symbolic of the Japanese philosophy of this time shown by the very simple Japanese gardens such as those in the famous temple Roan-ji. At around this time, bonsai also became commonplace to the general Japanese public which greatly increased demand for the small trees collected from the wild and firmly established the art form within the culture and traditions of the country.

Over time, bonsai began to take on different styles, each which varied immensely from one another. Bonsai artists gradually looked into introducing other culturally important elements in their bonsai plantings such as rocks, supplementary and accent plants, and even small buildings and people which itself is known as the art of bon-kei. They also looked at reproducing miniature landscapes in nature known as sai-kei which further investigated the diverse range of artistic possibilities for bonsai.

Finally, in the mid-19th century, after more than 230 years of global isolation, Japan opened itself up to the rest of the world. Word soon spread from travelers who visited Japan of the miniature trees in ceramic containers which mimicked aged, mature, tall trees in nature. Further exhibitions in London, Vienna and Paris in the latter part of the century, especially the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 opened the world's eyes up to bonsai.


Bonsai Tree

Due to this phenomenal upsurge in the demand for bonsai, the now widely expanding industry and lack of naturally-forming, stunted plants led to the commercial production of bonsai by artists through training young plants to grow to look like bonsai. Several basic styles were adopted, and artists made use of wire, bamboo skewers and growing techniques to do this - allowing the art to evolve even further. The Japanese learned to capitalize on the interest in this art form very quickly, opening up nurseries dedicated solely to grow, train and then export bonsai trees. Different plants were now being used to cater for worldwide climates and to produce neater foliage and more suitable growth habits. Bonsai techniques such as raising trees from seed or cuttings and the styling and grafting of unusual, different or tender material onto hardy root stock were further developed.

Bonsai has now evolved to reflect changing tastes and times with a great variety of countries, cultures and conditions in which it is now practiced. In Japan today, bonsai are highly regarded as a symbol of their culture and ideals. The New Year is not complete unless the tokonoma - the special niche in every Japanese home used for the display of ornaments and prized possessions - is filled with a blossoming apricot or plum tree. Bonsai is no longer reserved for the upper-class, but is a joy shared by executive and factory worker alike.

The Japanese tend to focus on using native species for their bonsai - namely pines, azaleas and maples (regarded as the traditional bonsai plants). In other countries however, people are more open to opinion. The evolution of bonsai over the past two centuries is truly amazing, now a well known and respected horticultural art form that has spread throughout the world from Greenland to the U.S. to South Africa to Australia. It is constantly changing and reaching even greater heights, representative of how small the world is really getting,

WIKIPIDIA: What is Bonsai? (LINK)
Bonsai (盆栽, 'tray planting') is the Japanese art form using trees grown in containers, a small-scale reproduction of a tree in nature. Similar practices exist in other cultures, including the Chinese history of penjing from which the art originated, and the living landscapes of Vietnamese hòn non bo.

Full Bonsai Hitory (Wikipedia LINK):

Bonsai has reached a worldwide audience. There are over twelve hundred books on bonsai trees and the related arts in at least twenty-six languages available in over ninety countries and territories. A few dozen magazines in over thirteen languages are in print. Several score of club newsletters are available on-line, and there are at least that many discussion forums and blogs. Plant material from every location is being trained into bonsai trees and displayed at local, regional, national, and international conventions and exhibitions for enthusiasts and the general public.

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