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A Brief History Of Bonsai

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Bonsai historically has been a mystical art that many people are familiar with but so few people understand. When talking with people who have heard of Bonsai but not studied the art you can generally get 2 bits of information from them which is oh the little trees from Japan and That’s the thing Mr Miyagi does right?

In this short feature I hope to go a little further back in the history of Bonsai and try to paint a clearer picture of the art and its real origins.

There is no true defined period in history when Bonsai was first practiced or in fact where it truly came from, The knowledge we have of the beginning of Bonsai is traced back to evidence that is Bonsai in its most simple form. A Potted Tree. This evidence can go all the way back 4000 years from the Egyptians

But lets fast forward a little because although we would love to know the real truth of what happened in Egypt and why it did, anything I say would just be an assumption.

It is believed Bonsai was first practiced as a logistical way of transporting certain trees for medicinal purposes as many people who were ill were not close to where the trees naturally grew to be able to benefit from their medicinal extracts. By dwarfing trees and growing them in containers physicians had access to these trees and their medicinal benefits at a moments notice and could also transport the trees with them where ever they may go.

There is no real evidence though that anybody in this time period practiced Bonsai as an aesthetic art rather then just for practical purposes.

This particular evidence comes from India but whether or not we can say this is an origin of Bonsai is something that would be up for discussion as Bonsai has transformed so much overtime that what we now see as Bonsai does not correlate with what happened in India. For example if you had a Fruit tree in a large growing container for the purpose of being able to transport the fruit with you everywhere you needed to go would you classify that as Bonsai even though at its core it is a potted tree?

Our next reference for Bonsai moving forward though history is China which is what is commonly taught as the true start of Bonsai or at least the birth of what we truly know Bonsai as now. As mentioned before Bonsai has evolved so much over time it would take some discussion to put a real time stamp on the true origin.

The first art of nature in miniature was actually practised on a larger scale with the Chinese creating miniature nature scenes in their own backyards by placing rocks on top of each other to create small mountains and creating miniature water falls and other naturalistic nature scenes.

There are many illustrations that originate from China that show Potted Trees as artistic plants as far back as the Tang Dynasty and the interest for potted plants as Landscape settings on became more popular from there, The art of making a landscape with rocks and trees went through many alterations through out the years until we land at what we now know as Penjing which is a more naturalistic approach to what we know as bonsai. Penjing consists of Naturally pruned trees to maintain their shape rather then using Bonsai techniques such as wiring, grafting and deadwood creation. Penjing also consists of a landscape to compliment the trees in the setting.

Due to Penjing and the earlier adoptions of Trees planted in a miniature landscape being an aesthetic art this is actually a solid argument and what is commonly believed to be the origins of Bonsai.

But what about Bonsai as we know it today? Well this can be attributed to the Japanese adopting penjing and putting their own spin on it which is where the name Bonsai originated and also where the most common designs and practices we follow today originated. The Japanese implemented the use of wire to shape trees and carving to create deadwood which creates the dance of living and dead. Still to this day Bonsai continues to evolve as it becomes popular in every corner of the globe and new techniques and styles begin to surface.

Today bonsai is seen as both as an art and a craft by practicing proper horticulture techniques and basic design principles to create a beautiful healthy tree.

For one to create a proper Bonsai they need to know how to keep a tree healthy and grow it properly using horticultural techniques and they also need to have a certain amount of artistic design to be able to create clean flowing lines and designs within the material they are growing.

Until Next Time, Enjoy Your Bonsai Journey

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