Bonsai is a fascinating art-form that combines horticultural techniques and Asian aesthetics in a unique way.
The art originates in the Chinese empire and was copied and adapted by the Japanese to what we know now as Bonsai trees.
Literally translated “bon-sai” means “planted in a container”.
From the 6th century onwards, Imperial embassy personnel and Buddhist students from Japan visited and returned from mainland China, bringing back souvenirs including container plantings.
A close relationship between Japan’s Zen Buddhism and the potted trees began to shape bonsai reputation and esthetics.
Around the 14th century Bonsai cultivation reached a high level of expertise.
In Japan after 1800, bonsai began to move from being the esoteric practice of a few specialists to becoming a widely popular art form and hobby.
Following World War II, a number of trends made the Japanese tradition of bonsai increasingly accessible to Western and world audiences. One key trend was the increase in the number, scope, and prominence of bonsai exhibitions.
Yoshimura’s 1957 book The Art of Bonsai, written in English with his student Giovanna M. Halford, went on to be called the “classic Japanese bonsai bible for westerners” with over thirty printings.
The ultimate goal of growing a bonsai is to create a miniaturized but realistic representation of nature in the form of a tree.
Bonsai are not genetically dwarfed plants, in fact, any tree species can be used to grow one.
To keep them as a bonsai in a pot, one has to keep cutting the branches, roots and shape them regularly. Since a bonsai is routinely pruned and trimmed it seems to never grow bigger. If it had it been left untouched for few years, a bonsai would grow wild and spread out of its container.
Some species are popular as bonsai material because they have characteristics, such as small leaves or needles, that make them appropriate for the compact visual scope of bonsai.
The Japanese tradition describes bonsai tree designs using a set of commonly understood, named styles. The most common styles include formal upright, informal upright, slanting, semi-cascade, cascade, raft, literati, and group/forest.
Japanese bonsai exhibitions and catalogs frequently refer to the size of individual bonsai specimens by assigning them to size classes (see table below).
Bonsai trees come in all tree-species, sizes, shapes and… prices. Ranging from a few dollars for a small and young plant to one plant that sold for $1.3 million in Japan!
Bonsai is known for its small size, but the effort to miniaturize trees is sometimes taken to the extreme. The results are tiny little trees. The smallest Bonsai tree with a pending Guinness Record listing – the micro-bonsai is an Acer Momiji.
Bonsai artists usually date their trees by the number of years they have spent in training. Usually that’s defined as the number of years in the bonsai pot. In the US, it’s rare to find bonsai that have spent more than 40 or 50 years in training — although some buttonwoods harvested from the Florida Keys are over 100 years old to start with.
The Ficus retusa Linn, which is found at the Crespi Bonsai Museum in Italy, is believed to be the oldest existing bonsai tree in the world at an estimated 1,000 years old. Luigi Crespi, the founder of the Crespi Bonsai Musuem, spent ten years trying to gain ownership of the bonsai tree and he succeeded in 1986.
The 1,000 year old Juniper bonsai tree is located in the Mansei-en bonsai nursery which is owned by the Kato family. The Juniper tree was collected from the wilds of Japan and tested to be over 1,000 years old.
An 800 year-old Bonsai tree at Shunkaen, by Kunio Kobayashi – A remarkable tree which is well known for its extremely high age; the tree is reported to be over 800 years old, one of the most expensive Bonsai trees! Its owner, master Kobayashi, is one of the most well known Bonsai artists in the world and has won the prestigious Prime Minister award in Japan 4 times. His nursery, ShunkaEn, is located in Tokyo and is open to visitors.
Goshin is a bonsai created by John Y. Naka. It is a forest planting of eleven Foemina junipers, the earliest of which Naka began training into bonsai in 1948. Naka donated it to the National Bonsai Foundation in 1984, to be displayed at the United States National Arboretum; it has been there ever since. The individual trees represent Naka’s grandchildren.
Bag End Bonsai landscape by Chris Guise – The wonderful Lord of the Rings movies were more than enough inspiration for Chris to recreate the Bag End landscape in miniature, with a stunning Bonsai as result.
The First World Bonsai Convention was held in Osaka during the World Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibition in 1980.
The largest display of bonsai trees consists of 2,649 trees and was achieved by His Holiness Sri Sri Sri Ganapathy Sachchidananda Swamiji (India) in Mysuru, Karnataka, India, on 21 December 2016. The trees were displayed at the International Bonsai Convention and Exposition, which was held in Avadhoota Data Peetham.
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