Everybody has heard of the Bonsai tree but very few people know anything about the history of the miniature shrub or where the tradition came from.
Bonsai is a Japanese term which, in its native language, translates to mean “tray gardening”. This term describes exactly what bonsai is as it is a tree which is grown in a small pot or tub enabling it to be kept indoors. These trees are not always genetically predisposed to be small and so they are kept this way through careful pruning. The ability to care for a bonsai tree, keeping it small and healthy, is an art form in itself. The trees are commonly pruned in to an aesthetically pleasing shape, another reason why they are seen as works of art and not just as plants.
The term bonsai is widely known and understood and yet the art was originally found in China, by the name of penjing. The Japanese art of bonsai stemmed from this and so is actually more modern than the Chinese. However, the Japanese version is the one which is more widely known.
Discoveries have been made in Egyptian tombs of sketches showing miniature trees in pots. These are thought to have been kept for decorative purposes and the pictures date back to 4000 years ago! After this time there is evidence to suggest that trees were transported in the caravans of Asia as they travelled around as they were used for their medicinal properties should someone have fallen ill.
The art of bonsai as we know it stems from the Chinese art of penjing, which is a 2000 year old tradition. It was brought to Japan somewhere between the 7th – 9th centuries by the Imperial Embassies to Tang China. Initially it was enjoyed only by the nobility and was not a hobby which was enjoyed by the masses. However, over time it began to filter down through the social hierarchy and became something which much of the population enjoyed.
The practise of pruning and shaping miniature trees is still in place in both China and Japan. However, the Chinese tend to keep them for outdoor displays and so, although still smaller than normal trees, they are somewhat larger than the Japanese versions, who create the pieces of art to be displayed primarily in the home.
For anyone considering turning their hand to this hobby, it is well worth reading up on the subject beforehand as the trees require careful nurturing. It is not just the leaves which require trimming, the roots need to be tended to also and the amount of water they require is practically an art form in itself. Information on this is widely available on the Internet, meaning that anyone serious about trying this should be able to do so successfully.