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Table of Contents
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 practice 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.
Growing your own bonsai need not start by being expensive. Plants are free if grown from seed or cuttings and the rewards to be had in terms of appreciation of the final result, and the experience gained, is a joy beyond compare.
Creating a bonsai is a fairly simple procedure, if you follow the necessary steps for growing and shaping the selected tree. It is also important to select a tree for the climatic conditions in your region – some trees will thrive in certain regions while others may not survive. After deciding on the desired bonsai material, the next step is to prepare the appropriate size pot. A pot that is too small, or a pot that is too large can hamper the growth of the bonsai. In addition the pot should have an outlet or opening at the bottom to allow water to drain freely. The amount and type of soil is also an important consideration, usually a mixture of organic and inorganic compounds. To allow for proper placement in its container, you may have to cut some of its roots. By reducing the mass of roots in the pot, pruning provides space for young vigorous roots to grow and absorb water and minerals. Remember, it is the trimming of the roots while confining the tree to a shallow container that keeps the tree miniaturized.
After setting the tree in its container, pruning the leaves, trimming new shoots and wiring the branches into an aesthetically pleasing form follows. There are six classic bonsai styles and a growing list of non-classical styles as bonsai art involves new cultures and new species. Aesthetics, however is not an end in itself, but is linked to the physiology and good health of the bonsai.
Once you have proudly completed your work of art, you should become familiar with the basic rules for maintaining your tree in good health so that it can reward you with many years of pleasure. Method and frequency of watering, lighting requirements, trimming and repotting, prevention of diseases and insects, and plant fertilization are just a few of the topics with which you should become familiar. There are numerous books on the subject of bonsai which can provide step-by-step instructions on these subjects . Happy Growing!
Bonsai, as a Japanese art form, is more regulated than it’s Chinese counterpart, the penjing. Bonsai attempts to achieve the ideal tree, while penjing attempts to reproduce nature. This is why perfect styling exists in bonsai if you obey the ‘rules’, while penjing leave you free to your creation. As a result these are the basic styles :
Broom (Hokidachi or Hoki-zukuri)
A very harmonious style, this form has branches that develop at a certain height, forming an upside broom. This styling is mainly achieved through a technique called the “V” cut. The trunk is chopped where you want the branch to start to develop and then a deep V cut is performed on the remaining trunk. This will induce buds to break near the cut. Zelkova serrata are notorious for this styling but maple and other deciduous species can easily be styled that way.
Formal Upright (Chokkan)
A tree styled the “chokkan”