The art of Bonsai 盆栽
The bonsai is not a species but a practice. Almost all species can be bonsai.
Credit: Norio Nakayama
A print showing women with blossoming bonsai trees
Size, appearance, shape, number of trunk, there are many criteria to qualify a beautiful bonsai.
Bonsai are not necessarily dwarf trees.
Small is beautiful
Introduced from China, this 1500 year old practice is now considered inseparable from the Japanese aesthetic. A variety of shapes and sizes are used to recreate a scene from nature with each bonsai. This horticultural practice takes a lot of knowledge, dedication and practice. Discover the art of Bonsai.
What is bonsai?
By definition, a bonsai is a potted tree. It originated in Egypt, but it was the Chinese who added aesthetics to it during the Han Dynasty (206-220). The idea of bonsai recreates a miniature natural landscape in a pot, recreating scenes that you can see in nature.
Bonsai and Zen
Adopted by Buddhist monks, the practice was introduced to Japan during the Heian period (794 - 1185), a time of development of religion in the country. The Zen spirit and Taoist purify and refine the practice in the spirit of simple beauty. This link between spirituality and aesthetics give wabi-sabi, an idea that combines harmony and the beauty of imperfection.
- Find out more: Zen, a school on Japanese Buddhism
History of bonsai
The art of bonsai had long been reserved for nobility and clergy, yet this practice became more popular in the fourteenth century. There were stories and objects in Noh theater that referred to these growing potted trees. During the Meiji period, bonsai were recognized as works of art and became bonsai that we know today. Despite its popularity, this practice was truly considered an art in 1934.
How to cultivate and care for bonsai?
Maintaining a bonsai is like following the path of Zen. It requires a lot of effort. Leaves should need to be watered regularly, branches cut smoothly, the right substrate chosen, and bonsai should be repotted every 2-3 years to reduce the roots. Traditionally Japanese bonsai were always grown outdoors, but modern bonsai are grown both indoor and outdoor. Contrary to popular belief, almost all trees can be bonsai. Some, such as ficus, privet or tea trees are easy to care for indoors. Others thrive best outdoors, like maple, azalea or oak.
- Read more: Best places to see bonsai in Tokyo
What shapes are bonsai?
In nature, the shape of a tree is affected by the weather and the conditions that the tree is growing. The main criterion for beauty and classification of bonsai is its shape. There are over twenty different styles for bonsai that reflect the forms that you can see in nature. The shape varies according to; position, tilt of the trunk and the branches, the presence of a stone or other trees.
Find out more about various bonsai styles
Other than by shape, a bonsai can also be characterized by its size.
- Mame and Shohin: trees can be held in one's hand and are 23 cm high, the most difficult type and require the most attention.
- Shushin, Kotate-mochi and Komono: these need two hands to hold, and are 16cm to 60cm in height, the most popular among fans.
- Omono: these bonsai need two people to hold them, and can measure between 60cm and 1.40m. This type of bonsai were once a symbol of power and wealth.
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